The Vanderbilt baseball team travels to Louisville to take on a familiar foe on Tuesday. The two programs have met sporadically since their first matchup in 1971, when the Commodores put down the Cardinals, 3-0. The rivalry has continued in the same closely-contested fashion, with plenty of dramatics along the way, but Vanderbilt leads the overall series 19-4.
Although the geographic proximity of the two teams led to the initial rivalry, the quality of baseball during recent games has been what has kept things interesting. The Commodores traveled to Louisville in back-to-back years for their NCAA Regional in 2009 and 2010, meeting their hosts in the championship game of the double-elimination tournament both times. In 2009, Vanderbilt won three straight games after an opening-round loss to force a winner-take-all game on the final day of the regional, but Louisville pulled out a 5-3 victory to advance to the Super Regionals.
In 2010, the Commodores rebounded from a 7-1 loss to Louisville in the winner’s bracket, only to once again meet the Cardinals in the Regional final. This time, Vanderbilt prevailed with back-to-back wins, punching its Super Regional ticket with a 3-2 win in 10 innings that was capped off by a squeeze bunt that scored Curt Casali from third base.
The teams’ recent regular season meetings have been equally meaningful. Just days after the 2010 Nashville flood, Louisville visited Hawkins Field for the first game since the rain stopped, where fans received free admission. After five and a half hours and nearly 17 innings of baseball, the game was knotted 10-10. Then, Jason Esposito came to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the 17th and crushed a walk-off home run onto the roof of Memorial Gym.
In the 2011 regular season, the Commodores met the Cardinals in Louisville and handed the home team a 5-1 loss. Curt Casali and Connor Harrell each hit two-run home runs in the second inning to help lift Vanderbilt to an early 5-0 lead.
Vanderbilt had rebounded from its slow start when Louisville came to Nashville in 2012 for the first official Battle of the Barrel. The two programs decided to name the rivalry in honor of Kentucky’s history as a bourbon-making state and Tennessee’s history as a whiskey-making state. The score was tied at 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth when Conrad Gregor scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch, and Jared Miller shut the door in the ninth to get Vanderbilt back to .500 on the season.
Although the Cardinals have not received quite as much national attention as Vanderbilt this year, they have the tools to get the better of their hosts in this week’s matchup. The bullpen has been very strong for Louisville and has come through in close games. Their Vanderbilt counterparts have certainly had their share of success but have also faltered at times, specifically in the Commodores’ 10-9 loss to Tennessee Tech on April 16.
So far this season, Louisville has found success against SEC opponents. In early March, the Cardinals swept Alabama in a three-game series. Two of the games went into extra innings, with Louisville needing 14 innings to secure a 4-3 victory in the series-opener. On April 16, Louisville beat No. 6 Kentucky 5-4 in 10 innings in front of a record-breaking home crowd. It’s up to Vanderbilt, as one of the elite teams in the SEC, to reverse the tide and bring home the barrel in the process.