OMAHA, Neb. — So here it was, the first inning and the first College World Series at-bat of Austin Martin’s life, so imagine the tension. You’d understand if he tripped over his bat on the way to the box.
“It’s every kid’s dream,” the Vanderbilt third baseman would say later.
“The first AB in Omaha, everybody’s nervous. They’d be lying if they told you they weren’t.”
“So I had a little bit of butterflies coming up, but I tried to relax as much as possible. I knew I was going to get attacked with a fastball the first pitch, and I just tried to put my best swing on it. I just tried to keep it simple.”
Perhaps you’ve heard what happened next. When last seen, that fastball from Louisville’s Reid Detmers was disappearing into the left field bleachers of TD Ameritrade Park. One childhood dream, one pitch, one homer. Welcome to Omaha.
But wait. Martin would hit another in the seventh, this one a two-run shot, so his damage would be the difference in Vandy’s 3-1 win over the Cardinals. That makes four home runs in his last seven at-bats — he led off the super regional finale with a long ball, too — and that’s not even to mention he’s hitting .411 for the season. This June, the sophomore has turned into a college Cody Bellinger.
And while all that’s impressive, it’s still hard to imagine how a guy barely out of his teens could walk to the plate amid the clamor of the College World Series and have the poise to hammer the first Omaha pitch he’s ever seen 400 feet. But wait till you hear what his father does. More on that later.
“It was crazy,” Martin would say about that leadoff homer. “I was in clouds at that moment. But as soon as I crossed first base, I knew we still had a lot of ballgame left.”
JJ Bleday, next in the batting order, was watching from the on-deck circle. “It makes you happy, it makes you smile. When he does that and ambushes it, it gives us leverage over a team right away and it gives us that much more confidence.”
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First baseman Julian Infante was in the dugout: “He’s known for doing things like that. He set the tone right away, just showed that we’re here.”
So was coach Tim Corbin: “To start off in this environment, it’s not easy. I told them when they got through that game, that might be the most difficult game they play, regardless of what happens after this. But it’s real. There’s an adrenaline rush, and to settle in — Austin in that moment right there, his ability just to center on the baseball, not understanding the rhythm of the pitch and the speed, and Detmers has that good spin rate to his fastball — that’s a clutch moment. Those are different people that do those things. That’s not common.”
Watching from the other dugout was Louisville coach Dan McDonnell, and after seeing Martin round the bases twice Sunday could only say, “I’m sure they have more than one best player, but obviously you could say their best player beat us today.”
In the seventh, alerted by teammate Harrison Ray that Louisville reliever Bryan Hoeing was throwing inside a lot, Martin backed off the plate a tad. That way, he had a better look at the spin of Hoeing’s slider, he said, and . . . kaboom. Both sides were impressed.
Detmers: “As you can tell, he can basically hit anything anywhere he wants it.”
Corbin: “He’s just a very good focuser, if there’s such a thing. He focuses so well from pitch to pitch. Everyone, their goal is to play that way, but he does it.”
But then, how stressful can hitting a baseball be, even before 23,000 people? It’s not like you’re an air traffic controller, sitting in front of a radar screen trying to make sure passenger jets don’t collide. By the way, guess what Austin’s father Christopher has done for a living? Austin grew up thinking he’d like to try that, too, but given the way he hits a baseball – in Omaha and everywhere else this season — it might be a while before he needs a regular day job.
“It started when I was 10 or 11. He took me to his job one day and I got to see how everything works. That was something I wanted to do.”
So that answers where the aplomb came from that he carried to the plate with his bat Sunday afternoon.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “I get it from my dad, because he’s an extremely confident person, especially with his job, a high-pressure job. It never seems to bother him. Everybody says it’s a super-stressful job, but I guess it comes easy to him.”
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Christopher Martin was in Omaha on Father’s Day, watching his son hit Louisville pitches out of the park. “I guess it’s a good way to give back,” Austin said.
Good way to keep the Vanderbilt surge going, too.
The Commodores have now won 31 of their last 34 games. They’re 9-1 against other teams in this field. They are 1-0 in the College World Series, and since 1950, when the field expanded to eight, nearly 83 percent of the champions started that way. Their pitchers just shut down a Louisville team that was averaging 10 runs its past five NCAA tournament games. The Cardinals had not trailed in 45 innings, and Martin took care of that with one swing. There are reasons to consider Vandy the team to beat.
“There’s a lot of talent on this field,” Martin cautioned. But the Commodores’ confidence is understandably hard to crack at the moment. “I feel like our confidence hasn’t changed since the beginning of the season. We feel like we’re going to win every ballgame, even though sometimes that’s not how it plays out. These guys love to compete and I think that’s what’s driving us right here.”
Especially the air traffic controller’s kid.