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Buford's Heddinger saves Tech's baseball season

Buford grad Josh Heddinger tossed a two-hit, complete-game shutout Sunday night as Georgia Tech's baseball team avoided elimination with an NCAA Regional victory over Vanderbilt. (Photo: Ramblinwreck.com)

Buford grad Josh Heddinger tossed a two-hit, complete-game shutout Sunday night as Georgia Tech's baseball team avoided elimination with an NCAA Regional victory over Vanderbilt. (Photo: Ramblinwreck.com)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Sophomore Josh Heddinger pitched the game of his career, going the distance for a two-hit shutout of nation’s No. 2 overall seed Vanderbilt, 5-0, Sunday night in front of a capacity crowd at Hawkins Field in the Nashville Regional.

Tech’s win sets up a winner-take-all game Monday at 7 p.m. with a spot in the Super Regional on the line.

The Yellow Jackets (37-26) staved off elimination twice Sunday, after rallying with four runs in the ninth inning to beat Illinois, 6-3, earlier in the day, and then handing Vandy (53-10) its first home shutout since last season in the nightcap. With the Commodores ranked No. 1 in the Baseball America Top 25, Tech improved to 3-1 this season against top-ranked clubs (2-1 versus North Carolina).

Heddinger, a Buford grad, was in command of the hot-hitting Commodores, who scored 19 runs in wins over ETSU and Illinois and were averaging nearly seven runs per game this season. He did not allow a hit after the third inning and retired 12 of the final 13 he faced over the final five innings.

The right-hander struck out three and worked himself around six walks to improve to 3-0 this season. He threw 127 pitches in his longest career outing, surpassing a 6.2-inning effort versus Georgia Southern last year.

"It was a great day for us,” said head coach Danny Hall. “I can't say enough good things about Josh (Heddinger). I thought the key for him was in the first inning they had a guy at third and two guys coming up, (Mike) Yastrzemski and (Connor) Harrell, and he got out of that jam. I think it gave us some momentum, and I think it gave Josh a lot of confidence. It was a team effort. We made some great plays defensively. He kept making pitches, and I think everybody in our lineup got a hit. We beat two really good opponents today.”

It is the Jackets’ first solo two-hitter since Cory Vance at N.C. State on March 31, 2000 — a 13-1 victory — and it’s the first complete-game shutout in NCAA postseason play since Mark Pope went the distance versus Mercer, 10-0, in the 2010 Atlanta Regional.

Mitch Earnest launched a two-run home run over the Green Monster and off the scoreboard in left during a three-run sixth inning, and Mott Hyde finished the night 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles and a run. Kyle Wren had two hits, was on base three times and scored.

Tech played error-free defense behind Heddinger, and got four key assists from freshman third baseman Matt Gonzalez, making his first career start at third after an injury to senior Sam Dove in Sunday’s first game. Tech also played the Vanderbilt game without junior RF Daniel Palka, the ACC’s home run leader, who was injured earlier Sunday versus Illinois and hitting 7-for-14 in the Nashville Regional.

Vanderbilt’s Tony Kemp, the SEC Player of the Year, led off the game by legging out and infield single and swiping second. He reached third with one out. Heddinger got Mike Yastrzemski looking, walked Connor Harrell and got a fly ball from Conrad Gregor to end the threat.

Tech went right to work it its half of the first, and Wren shot a lead-off single up the middle, moved to second on Thomas Smith’s sac bunt and scored when Zane Evans ripped an RBI single into center.

Working with the lead, Heddinger retired eight of the next nine batters, before escaping trouble following back-to-back two-out walks in the fourth.

"I just kept throwing strikes; that's all I tried to do,” said Heddinger. “I didn't think about how long it was, how tired I was, what the score was. I just tried to keep throwing strikes and keep us in the game. I know they're a very aggressive offense and they feed off just one thing at a time. So my job was to get out there and have no runs or one run. If I could keep that and extend it and attack the strike zone, I knew we had a really good chance.”

Brandon Thomas got the bottom of the fourth started by beating out an infield chopper in front of the plate. He moved to third on the first of two doubles from Hyde and scored to make it 2-0 thanks to Daniel Spingola’s RBI grounder to second.

In the sixth, Tech struck for three more runs on fourth hits and distanced itself from Vanderbilt. A.J. Murray got things started with a single up the middle, but was gunned down at the plate on a perfect relay throw from shortstop Vince Conde after Hyde ripped his second double down the left-field line. Spingola grounded out in the next at bat to move Hyde to third and he cruised home when Gonzalez laced an RBI single into left. In the next at bat, Earnest hammered his third homer this season off a 1-1 offering from Vandy starter Walker Buehler for a 5-0 lead.

With the lead expanded, Heddinger continued a string of 10 straight retired that was snapped with a lead-off walk to Gregor in the ninth. But the sophomore set the next three Commodores down in order to end it.

Buehler was handed the loss (4-3), after allowing five runs on 10 hits with one walk and six strikeouts in six innings. Adam Ravenelle tossed the final two scoreless for Vandy.