OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Michigan could sense the momentum slipping away.
Jimmy Kerr got it back.
Kerr homered for the third time in the College World Series, this time after Vanderbilt pulled within one in the sixth inning, and the Wolverines beat the Commodores 7-4 in Game 1 of the best-of-three finals Monday night.
“We needed that blast right there,” coach Erik Bakich said.
The Wolverines (50-20), who barely got into the NCAA Tournament after a poor finish to the regular season, are seeking the school’s first baseball championship since 1962. Ohio State is the last Big Ten school to take home the title, winning it all in 1966.
“They know what they’re playing for,” Bakich said. “They know the stakes. They know the stage. They’re not acting like the stage and lights are too big. They’re doing a good job of staying in the moment and having as much fun as they can.”
Tommy Henry (12-5) was unflappable for a second straight start. Coming off a three-hit shutout of Florida State on June 17, he struck out eight while pitching 8 1/3 innings of seven-hit ball. Jeff Criswell got the last two outs.
Kerr’s two-run shot into the right-field bleachers in the seventh was followed by hugs all around for his family members. Among them were grandfather John Kerr, a member of the ’62 Wolverines, and dad Derek Kerr, who played on the 1984 team, the last one to make it to the CWS before this year.
Jimmy Kerr, a senior who went to Michigan as a walk-on, has played a huge role in his team’s improbable postseason run. He has hit seven of his 15 homers over 11 NCAA Tournament games and is batting .389 (7 for 18) in the CWS.
“Other than that (home run) at-bat today, I had four pretty rough at-bats, so it wasn’t my best day at the plate,” said Kerr, who went 1 for 5. “But when we got Tommy on the mound, you don’t really worry about only being up one run. Our team has so much trust in this pitching staff and how they’ve performed in the postseason that we don’t have a lot of pressure on ourselves because we know all we need is a few-run lead and they’re going to take care of the rest.”
Game 2 is Tuesday night, and Vanderbilt will send Kumar Rocker to the mound. The freshman threw a no-hitter in the super regionals and turned in a solid performance in his CWS start against Mississippi State on Wednesday.
“He was a freshman in September,” Vandy coach Tim Corbin said. “He’s pitched a lot of baseball games. I think age is really not going to be the factor right now. I think the biggest part of him is he’s been on the mound before and he’s got confidence in himself. But he’s going to have to pitch well against this team. They’re very good.”
Bakich said he’s undecided on a starter but Criswell, who threw nine pitches Monday, is a possibility.
Vanderbilt (57-12) spotted Michigan a 4-0 lead. But it was 4-3 after JJ Bleday, the No. 4 overall draft pick by the Miami Marlins this month, hit his nation-leading 27th homer on Henry’s first pitch of the sixth.
When the 64-team national tournament started, Caesar’s Palace sports book had Michigan listed at 200-to-1 odds to win the championship.
The Wolverines, sent to Corvallis, Oregon, as a No. 3 regional seed, staved off elimination in the first two rounds of the tournament. In the super regionals at UCLA they knocked out the No. 1 national seed. They won three straight in CWS bracket play, taking out No. 8 national seed Texas Tech, and now have their sights set on beating the No. 2 in Vandy.
“Michigan did a good job playing offense at the end of the game,” Corbin said. “They were the aggressor. That’s a good ball team right now. They’re playing very confident.”
With new basketball coach Juwan Howard among the Michigan fans on hand, the Wolverines came out in 1962 throwback uniforms and were serenaded by “Let’s Go Blue” chants throughout the game.
The Wolverines got off to a fast start against Drake Fellows (13-2). Big Ten player of the year Jordan Brewer doubled into the right-field corner for Michigan’s first run and came home on Blake Nelson’s base hit. Ako Thomas doubled in a run in the second, and Jesse Franklin’s groundout brought in another.
Fellows left with two on and two outs in the sixth, and left-hander Zach King worked out of the trouble before giving up Kerr’s homer the next inning. Joe Donovan’s homer leading off the eighth against Patrick Raby put the Wolverines up 7-3.
Vanderbilt, playing for its first title since 2014, is 9-2 this season in games following a loss.
“They’ve been in a hole before,” Corbin said. “Not many times, but whether it’s during the course of the season or during the course of games, they’ve been able to navigate their way out of these situations.”