By CHIP CIRILLO
Philip Clarke felt bad about his previous at-bat, but it went away quickly.
The former Christ Presbyterian Academy star delivered the winning hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, giving Vanderbilt the Southeastern Conference Tournament title with an 11-10 win over Ole Miss on Sunday in Hoover, Ala.
Clarke’s single to center field capped a rally from an eight-run deficit for the Commodores, who also won the SEC regular-season title.
“It was very nice because I struck out in the bottom of the seventh,” Clarke said. “I could have given us the lead. I was really happy to get another opportunity.”
Clarke saw Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco ask newly installed reliever Ryan Olenek if he was ready to go.
Commodores hitting coach Mike Baxter told Clarke they didn’t have much information on him in scouting reports.
“Just look for something in the zone,” Baxter told the Vanderbilt catcher.
“So that’s what I did,” Clarke said. “I got a fastball down the middle first pitch, so I jumped on it.”
Clarke hopes to come through again for the Commodores this weekend when Vanderbilt hosts the NCAA Nashville Regional.
Top-seeded Vanderbilt (49-10) faces No. 4 Ohio State (35-25) at 6 p.m. Friday (ESPN2).
No. 2 Indiana State (41-16) plays No. 3 McNeese (35-24) in the first game at noon (ESPN3).
CPA coach Larry Nesbitt got about 20 text messages when Clarke’s hit ignited a celebration for the Commodores. Clarke threw his helmet in the air before teammates mobbed him on the field.
“I guess some people think that just because you coached somebody in high school you taught them how to hit and that’s definitely not the case,” Nesbitt said. “He’s always been able to hit.”
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound sophomore is hitting .313 with 63 RBI and six homers this season. He was named all-SEC first team.
“Philip’s just grown a whole lot during the course of the year from a catching standpoint and from a leader standpoint behind the plate,” Commodores coach Tim Corbin said. “And certainly, his offensive piece has been a big part of our offense.”
Vanderbilt and Wright State are tied for fifth in the NCAA in scoring at 8.5 runs per game.
“The hit the other day was something we all felt he was certainly very capable of because he didn’t get that hit in the at-bat before and like a lot of good hitters they seem to rise to the level that you need them to when it counts,” Corbin said. “And not that it didn’t count in the seventh, but when the game was tied and the game was in the balance he came through for us. That’s not a surprise with Philip.”
Clarke’s clutch hit gave second-ranked Vanderbilt its first SEC Tournament title since 2007.
The Commodores rallied from an early 9-1 deficit to win for the 22nd time in 23 games.
“(Philip) is awesome,” Vandy designated hitter/catcher Ty Duvall said. “He’s extremely consistent in his routine and his approach at the plate, and he’s a guy we all have trust in when he goes up to the plate. We love watching him hit.”
Clarke is one of 14 semifinalists for the Buster Posey National Collegiate Catcher of the Year Award. He has thrown out nine runners.
During his high school days he led CPA to four state tournament appearances, including a state title his sophomore year and runner-up finishes his last two seasons.
“He had a huge home run in the (2016) sectional game against Sycamore late in the game,” Nesbitt said. “Both times we played at MTSU (in the state finals) he hit a home run, one of which was against Spencer Strider.”
Strider was a freshman All-American a Clemson last season, but he suffered a season-ending elbow injury in January.
“In 2015 when he was a sophomore, he broke his leg in the sectional game against Lipscomb and played the entire state tournament with a broken leg,” Nesbitt said. “Nobody even knew it. He didn’t go to the doctor until the state tournament was over.”
He helped CPA (32-10) win the Class AA title with a 2-1 victory over Knoxville Catholic in the final that year.
“I think it means he’s tough, but also just a competitor,” Nesbitt said. “Not being able to run and squat down every single pitch and being able to play the catching position in a squat position with a broken leg is pretty tough.”
Clarke, a left-handed hitter, broke his leg after fouling a pitch off it. He finished the sectional game and played four state tournament games with the injury.
“He’s a rare talent that’s humble and thankful,” Nesbitt said of the 2017 Class AA Mr. Baseball. “More than anything, I’m just proud of the man that he is.”
Clarke has made gigantic improvement since his younger days.
“He came out of nowhere,” Nesbitt said. “I was just talking to his 14 (and under) coach today and he said that he was the last one that he picked up on his team. Undersized a little bit, he had a good swing, he was athletic, but he just had a lot to figure out.”
Clarke made a significant jump from his eighth-grade year to his freshman season.
“He got on everybody’s radar after his freshman year,” Nesbitt said.
Moving from outfield to catcher early in his CPA career on the recommendation of a summer-camp coach was a turning point for Clarke.
One of his roommates is right fielder JJ Bleday, the SEC Player of the Year who leads the nation in homers with 26. Clarke’s family lives in Franklin.
“A really interesting thing about him is the number of championships that he’s won,” Nesbitt said. “His high school team won one, his summer league teams won a couple championships. Now he’s SEC champion, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they become NCAA champion.”
Photos courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics.