Vanderbilt knows how to win in big spots in Omaha

OMAHA, Neb. -- Ten minutes after he launched the first walk-off home run in six years at the College World Series, Vanderbilt freshman Jeren Kendall walked up the tunnel that connects the first-base dugout to the concourse outside the locker room at TD Ameritrade Park, flanked by CWS veterans Dansby Swanson and Rhett Wiseman.

"Nice," Wiseman screamed into the face of Kendall, as if he didn't know. "That was nice!"

Nice, indeed.

The cardiac Commodores, who won the national title a year ago here on John Norwood's eighth-inning blast, nearly topped the drama of that moment on Monday when Kendall rocketed a one-out, one-strike slider into the right-field bullpen, scoring Bryan Reynolds to complete a three-run ninth inning for a 4-3 win over Cal State Fullerton.

The victory came under unusual circumstances, some 20 hours after the game began Sunday. The Titans led 3-0 when a thunderstorm hit in the bottom of the sixth inning. After a delay of 79 minutes, the game was suspended, ending the performance of Fullerton ace Thomas Eshelman, who allowed four hits and struck out eight on Sunday.

A short night of sleep followed. Vanderbilt returned to the stadium for batting practice Monday morning but left after rain delayed the game another three hours. In new uniforms and playing with the persistent confidence of a defending champ, Vandy got a run-scoring double from first baseman Zander Wiel on the first pitch after the restart.

Fullerton closer Tyler Peitzmeier silenced Vanderbilt in the seventh and eighth innings, but Kendall made the most of his first chance to star at the CWS.

Coach Tim Corbin described it as a "tale of two different games."

A year ago this week, Kendall and fellow Vanderbilt signee Brendan Spagnuolo watched the Commodores beat Virginia between games for the Midland Redskins, their Ohio-based summer team.

"It was kind of unreal to watch the guys we had seen on our official visit doing this stuff," Kendall said. "I never thought I'd be out there with the guys from last year."

That the freshman came through on Monday speaks to the unflappable spirit of the Commodores, who swept a super regional on the road at higher-seeded Illinois to secure the CWS return. Until an opponent proves otherwise, they are a team of destiny in Omaha.

"Obviously, we're always believing," Vanderbilt hitting coach Travis Jewett said after the victory. "We've got a good leader in Coach Corbin, who teaches this culture that we're just playing pitch to pitch."

The Vandy coaches felt good about Kendall at the plate in the ninth after Wiel doubled to open the inning and scored on Reynolds' double with one out. Despite the lefty-lefty matchup, the Commodores never considered using a pinch hitter for Kendall, who struck out against Peitzmeier in the seventh inning.

"I understand the numbers, but at the same time, this kid's learning on the run," Corbin said. "I mean, he's a freshman. He's seeing good pitchers. And if you looked at his numbers from the midway point to now, they're a whole lot better. So he just reacted well."

Jewett said he knew the ball was gone right as Kendall hit it.

"It definitely felt good off the bat," Kendall said.

His eighth home run of the year was the fourth at this CWS in four games, surpassing the series-long homer total in each of the past two years at this event. It also marked the first walk-off homer ever at TD Ameritrade Park.

The last player to produce such heroics at the CWS was Texas' Connor Rowe, who beat Arizona State in 2009.

"I dream a lot," said Kendall, a Holmen, Wisconsin, native who has started 51 games in the outfield this season. "So I dream about a lot of big moments."

He said he had not dreamed specifically about a walk-off homer in Omaha, but now that it's happened, he will think about it plenty.

His big moment adds to the fast-growing Vanderbilt baseball lore.

"This is a big stage," Wiel said, "and I feel like the team who relaxes first has the best chance of winning, because obviously, it's going to be a different environment. With our experience last year, we've been able to ease the minds of our younger guys.

"I don't think anyone's emotions are too high or too low. I think we're just even keel."

The Commodores move into a meeting with TCU on Tuesday night at 8 ET on ESPN. The Horned Frogs, seeded No. 7 in the tournament, beat No. 2 LSU 10-3 Sunday and own a victory this season over Vanderbilt, 4-2 in March at Dodger Stadium.

In Omaha, though, don't ever view these Commodores as an underdog.