OMAHA, Neb. – Vanderbilt was no nervous newcomer to the College World Series.
Connor Harrell hit the first CWS home run in the new TD Ameritrade Park to break a sixth-inning tie and three relievers held North Carolina scoreless on three hits the last five innings in the Commodores' 7-3 victory Saturday.
After first baseman Aaron Westlake made a diving stop of Chaz Frank's hard grounder and touched the bag for the final out, there were just the normal handshakes and backslaps behind the pitcher's mound.
The Commodores (53-10) will save the dogpile for, they hope, the championship game in about 10 days.
"That was a big victory for us," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. "You never know how you're going to react the first time."
Vanderbilt played as it has for most of the season — including its knack for scoring big runs with two outs — and North Carolina (50-15) got a so-so start from Patrick Johnson and left 16 runners on base.
"That's pretty much the tale of the game for us, offensively," North Carolina coach Mike Fox said.
Conrad Gregor tied it with two outs in the sixth with his double off the top of the wall, and Harrell followed with his two-run homer. Two-out singles by Tony Kemp and Anthony Gomez produced two insurance runs in the eighth.
"Coach Corbin told us to prepare like any other game, like another SEC home opener," Kemp said. "Everyone was making jokes, we prepared the same and we were lucky to get the 'W' today. It was a good job by the team."
Vanderbilt, the No. 6 national seed, advanced to a Bracket 1 game Monday night against Florida. No. 3-seeded North Carolina plays Texas on Monday afternoon.
The 24,500-seat TD Ameritrade Park opened to much fanfare, but the crowd of 22,745 was well short of a sellout on a warm, humid afternoon. The $131 million ballpark replaces Rosenblatt Stadium, which had hosted the CWS from 1950-2010.
Former President George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch after his father, former President George H.W. Bush, delivered a video message declaring a new era for college baseball at the $131 million stadium. The elder Bush played for Yale in the first CWS in 1947 in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Corey Williams (2-0) worked 2 2-3 innings of scoreless relief for Vanderbilt starter Sonny Gray. Johnson (13-2), who had allowed three earned runs in his previous 45 innings, was tagged for four earned — five total — in six innings.
"I definitely didn't have my best stuff," Johnson said. "They're such a good hitting team. You can't leave balls over the middle of the plate. I did that a couple times today, and they made me pay. But I wasn't as sharp as I've been."
Williams came on in the fifth to strike out Frank after Gray, the Oakland Athletics' first-round draft pick, walked the bases loaded.
"The fifth inning was the decider," Corbin said. "They had 20 guys reach base today. The fact they scored three runs, we're fortunate. Corey's strikeout with the bases loaded was big."
Frank said he and his teammates simply were unable to deliver timely hits.
"I think they buckled down, especially when they had runners on base, when they had two outs, and I think their crowd got them into it," Frank said.
Gray lasted 4 2-3 innings, the shortest of his 18 starts since going 4 1-3 in the season opener. He allowed three runs on eight hits, walked a season-high five and hit Colin Moran with a pitch that forced in a run in the fourth.
Vandy tied it at 3 in the sixth when Gregor drove a ball off the yellow line atop the wall in left center, and then Harrell hit Johnson's 3-1 slider for his eighth homer of the season and a two-run lead.
"We knew Johnson has a pretty good arm," Harrell said. "He was living off the outside part of the plate and was throwing breaking balls. He left it up per se, and I got it in that jetstream."
Harrell said he didn't find a lot of significance in hitting the first CWS home run at the new stadium.
"I guess it's a pretty good trivia fact," he said.