Vanderbilt Baseball – Fourth Week Behind, Week Ahead
Well, we’re another week in and have another perfect streak. Vanderbilt is now riding a nine game winning streak as we prepare to head into Southeastern Conference play. Although there were some low-lights during the week, the team really bounced back and showed gumption in pulling out two tough games over the weekend. While they don’t quite have the “team of destiny” feel that the 2007 squad featured, they sure do appear to be a juggernaut. Let’s jump right in by taking a look, however, at where the rest of the SEC stands through four weeks.
The Immediate Progression – SEC Opponents
The SEC currently stands first among all conferences in Warren Nolan’s RPI replicator. While single team RPIs are not yet useful in any regard due to small sample sizes, the conferences have started to shake out and have meaningful data sets. Overall, the SEC has won 146 games and lost only 43, for a conference high .7725 winning percentage, with Vanderbilt (16-1) and LSU (15-1) leading the way. So far, the out-of-conference play has mirrored my preseason predictions, with Tennessee and Mississippi State overachieving and Kentucky disappointing. Let’s look at the current standing, with my preseason predictions in parens.
Click on through to read on.
Vanderbilt 16-1 (predicted 1st)
Florida 14-2 (2nd)
Tennessee 13-2 (5th)
South Carolina 11-2 (3rd)
Kentucky 9-7 (4th)
Georgia 8-8 (6th)
LSU 15-1 (2nd)
Arkansas 13-2 (1st)
Ole Miss 13-4 (3rd)
Mississippi State 12-4 (6th)
Auburn 11-5 (4th)
Alabama 11-5 (5th)
While the numbers will really start to shake out when schedules are normalized due to conference play, we’re seeing that the conference is, once again, very strong and balanced. There are three elite teams in the East (Florida, Vanderbilt and South Carolina) and two teams in the West that are trying to reach that status (LSU and Arkansas).
Florida. The consensus number one team in the nation has been nothing short of stellar on both sides of the scorecard, scoring 6.6 runs per game while allowing just 2.8 runs per game behind a truly elite starting staff. At the plate, they’ve been paced by Daniel Pigott (.463, 9 2B, 14 RBI) and Preston Tucker (.394, 4 HR, 17 RBI), while the starting rotation of Hudson Randall (2-0, 1.08 ERA), Brian Johnson (4-0, 1.12) and true freshman Karsten Whitson (3-0, 2.21) has been nothing short of stellar. As a team, they are batting .317 and have a 2.31 ERA. Florida has played a few decent teams on the weekend (South Florida, Boston College and a talented, but struggling Miami). Their two losses came in midweek matchups with Florida State and Georgia Southern. Vanderbilt hosts the Gators in a clash of the titans in our last home games, starting May 14th.
Tennessee. Tennessee is here largely because they’ve played what probably is the worst schedule of any team in the SEC. Calculated on a per-game basis, the combined W-L record of their opponents is 47-149 (45-136 if you remove the Tennessee games). Playing weak opponents has allowed the Vols to rack up easy wins and an 8.1 runs per game offense, against 3.5 runs yielded. When your premiere out-of-conference opponents are Bradley and Indiana, that can happen. Their two losses were to Wisconsin Milwaukee on a Sunday and Indiana on a Saturday. At the plate, they are paced by Khayyan Norfolk (.462, 16 RBI) and Matt Duffy (.412, 3 HR, 24 RBI), while Steven Gruver (3-0, 1.27 ERA) leads the way on the hill. Vanderbilt hosts the Vols the weekend of April 29th.
South Carolina. Back to the real contenders, South Carolina has had a great start to the year against a solid non-conference slate that featured weekend series with Clemson and Cal State Bakersfield. In those two series, the Gamecocks earned their two losses (on a Saturday and Sunday, respectively). They’ve averaged 6.6 runs per game against 3.5 yielded behind a .290 team average and 2.64 ERA. They are ranked in the fourth / fifth range and should expect to stay there next week. Leading the way are Christian Walker (.447, 4 HR, 16 RBI) and All American Jackie Bradley Jr. (.396, 4 HR, 14 RBI) at the plate, and Michael Roth (4-0, 0.99 ERA) and Tyler Webb (2-1, 1.93) on the hill. Vanderbilt travels to Carolina the weekend of April 15th.
Kentucky. While Kentucky certainly wasn’t expected to compete for an East title this year, they’ve had a disappointing start to the season, beginning with being swept in the College of Charleston classic by CoC, Marshall and Miami-Ohio. They’ve followed that with losses to University of Illinois Chicago, Rice, Houston and Little Middle. They are an underwhelming 1-2 against teams with winning records, but maintained a positive runs per game margin of 5.8 : 4.3 by beating up on their weaker opponents. They are paced by Chad Wright (.351, 14 RBI) at the plate and major draft prospect Alex Meyer (2-2, 2.60 ERA) and Jordan Cooper (1-0, 3.13) on the hill. As a team, they have a .295 batting average and 3.51 ERA assisted by solid defense (.978 fielding percentage). Vanderbilt travels to Lexington the weekend of May 6th.
Georgia. The best line I’ve heard to describe Dave Perno’s team is one on twitter which said this year’s Georgia team was the worst SEC baseball squad since last year’s Georgia team. They are the only team in the SEC with a negative scoring margin at 4.6 : 5.1, but have rebounded from a 3-8 start, and that tweet, to twirl off 5 wins in a row, including wins over Alabama (in a “non-conference” tilt), UCLA (against Gerritt Cole) and a struggling Southern Cal team. They also have a win against Florida State (on a Saturday), proving their ability to play up. They are paced by Levi Hyams (.359, 9 RBI) and former Commodore Curt Powell (.327, 8 runs) at bat and Michael Palazonne (2-1, 3.13 ERA) on the mound. Closer Tyler Maloof (2.45 ERA) has notched a save in 6 of their 8 wins. As a team, they hit only .266 and have an ERA of 4.31. Vanderbilt closes the regular season in Athens the weekend of May 19th.
LSU. The Tigers have been going gangbusters against an okay out-of-conference schedule that features sweeps against Wake Forest and #12 (Coaches) Cal State Fullerton. Their sole loss of the year was last Sunday to the Princeton Tigers. LSU has been winning big, averaging 9.4 runs against just 3.5 allowed. At the plate, they’ve been paced by JaCoby Jones (.415, 3 HR, 15 RBI), Raph Rhymes (.385, 17 RBI) and Mikie Mahtook (.321, 6 HR, 19 RBI), for a team batting average of .318. On the hill, Kurt McCune (3-0, 1.11 ERA), Ben Alsup (3-1, 2.01), Tyler Jones (3-0, 2.84) and Kevin Gausman (2-0, 3.28) have been an impressive foursome of starters. The team has a sterling 2.94 ERA and .195 batting average against. The Tigers travel to Nashville the weekend of April 22nd.
Arkansas. I picked Arkansas to win the West and stand by that prediction. The Razorbacks have an impressive scoring margin of 8.1 : 3.5 in runs per game, though they have done that against an underwhelming schedule with only one opponent with a winning record (McNeese State). Their two losses on the year were to McNeese and the third in a four game set with San Diego State. Arkansas’ offense has been buoyed by Dominic Ficociell (.431, 9 2B, 20 RBI) and Kyle Robinson (.403, 3 HR, 21 RBI), leading to a team batting average of .303. On the hill, DJ Baxendale (4-0, 0.00 ERA, 2 starts), Cade Lynch (2-0, 1.35) and Brandon Moore (2-0, 3.27) lead the way for a 3.34 team ERA. Vanderbilt heads to Fayetteville the weekend of March 25th.
Ole Miss. Ole Miss has played a pretty solid slate, with their four losses coming against respectable squads from Houston (1), Tulane (2) and Western Kentucky (1). They really don’t have any resume-hanging wins, with their best coming against Tulane in the Friday game of a lost series. Much like Vanderbilt, they’ve played some close match ups, at 5.3 runs per game against 3.3 allowed. At the plate, they’ve been paced by Matt Tracy (.348, 2 HR, 10 RBI) and Matt Snyder (.322, 11 RBI), with every starter batting above .264 for a team average of .288. Like most Mike Bianco teams, they pay their way on the hill with a 2.86 ERA. Their weekend rotation of Matt Crouse (4-0, 1.67 ERA), David Goforth (0-2, 2.42) and Austin Wright (2-1, 2.66) has been the victim of tough luck. Vanderbilt and Ole Miss are rotated off the schedule this year and cannot play prior to Hoover or the NCAA tournament.
Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have not played a terribly stellar slate, with only two opponents with winning records (Lamar and Georgia State), but they took two games from each of those opponents. Against teams with losing records, the Bulldogs lost one to Belmont and a pair to Iowa. They’ve had a couple of big offensive outputs, surging their run averages to 7.0 for to just 2.9 against. The 2.81 team ERA has been aided by stellar performances by weekend starters Devin Jones (2-2, 1.37 ERA) and Chris Stratton (3-0, 1.65), with closer Caleb Reed picking up 3 saves in 6 appearances without a run allowed. Their third weekend spot is up between Evan Mitchell (3-1, 4.50) and Kendall Graveman (1-0, 2.25). On the offensive side, Jarrod Parks (.396, 16 RBI), Cody Freeman (.378) and Jonathan Ogden (.352, 3 HR, 15 RBI) leading the way. As noted below, the Bulldogs are in town this weekend.
Auburn. The Tigers have played a solid schedule including a loss to Virginia, a 2-1 series loss to Arizona State and a win against College of Charleston. They have also dropped games to Radford and Bethune-Cookman. Some lopsided and high scoring affairs have distorted their run averages to a 6.6 : 5.1 ratio. While BBCOR has kept the Auburn power numbers down from last year, they still can hit with a .320 team average, led by Wes Gilmer (.400, 11 RBI), Casey McElroy (.382, 2 HR, 14 RBI) and Dan Gamache (.339, 17 RBI). The pitching has been a bit less solid, despite a nice performance from closer Ethan Wallen (0-1, 1.84 ERA, 4 saves). The team ERA stands at 4.26, led by weekend starters Derek Varnadore (3-0, 2.79) and Cory Luckie (1-1, 3.63). The Commodores travel to Auburn on April fools day.
Alabama. A four game losing streak started at the Jaguar classic has split Alabama’s season so far and dropped them to an 11-5 record. None of those losses (to Southeastern Louisiana, South Alabama, Central Florida and Southern Mississippi) were resume-bad losses, but joined with the loss to Georgia, Alabama is not looking like a favorite and they have only one win against a team with a winning record (Troy). With wins against weak competition, Alabama has a 6.6 : 4.2 runs per game ratio. At the plate, they’re hitting a respectable .290, led by Jared Reaves (.439, 21 RBI) and Brock Bennett (.408, 10 runs). On the hill, they have a respectable 3.33 team ERA, sabotaged by 15 unearned runs allowed. Their weekend rotation of Tucker Hawley (3-1, 2.16 ERA), Nathan Kilcrease (2-0, 2.22) and Adam Morgan (2-1, 3.74) have all pitched well, but the bullpen is still a work in progress. The Crimson Tide comes to the Hawk for the weekend of April 8th.
The Week Behind
Vandy got through its only five-game week of the year during the students’ spring break with a sterling performance from three pitchers and a breakout week for two hitters who broke through slumps to end the week on a roll. I’m going to go a little quicker on the recaps due to the length of the above roundup.
Tuesday: Vanderbilt 12, Wofford 1
The Commodores earned their first true ass-whooping of the season in dismantling an 11-5 Wofford squad by eleven runs. Sparked by a second solid start from freshman TJ Pecoraro (5 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 8 K) and solid relief work by lefties Corey Williams, Steven Rice and Sam Selman, the Dores cruised to a quick 7-0 lead after 4 innings.
At the plate, the Dores were led by Aaron Westlake (2-3, 2 BB, 3 runs, 2 RBI) and Anthony Gomez (2-5, 2 runs, 2 RBI). Riley Reynolds (1-1, BB) also scored two runs in his second straight start at 2nd.
In fact, the biggest story of the game was perhaps the establishment of the infield lineup I projected at the start of the year. After playing 10 games with Jason Esposito at short and Gomez and second, Tim Corbin has run out a starting lineup of Westlake at first, Reynolds at second, Gomez at short and Esposito at third. Pecoraro moved to 2-0 with the win.
Wednesday: Vanderbilt 9, Kennesaw State 5
Suspect defense early helped Kennesaw state rebound from a 4-1 deficit to take a 5-4 lead in the 6th inning, but the Dores showed their resilience, which was a preamble to team toughness seen over the weekend. Vanderbilt rebounded for 3 quick runs immediately after falling behind. Kevin Ziomek flashed good stuff in 3.2 innings, with 6 strikeouts, but he threw a lot of pitches and surrendered 5 hits, leading to an early exit with the Commodores leading 4-2. Unfortunately, Will Clinard did not have his best stuff, giving up 6 hits and 3 earned runs in 1.2 innings. Mark Lamm and Navery Moore shut the door on KSU, throwing a combined 3.2 innings with only 1 hit, 2 walks and 5 strikeouts, allowing the Dores to hold onto their new-found lead.
Leading the way for the offense was Reynolds (3-4, run), Westlake (2-5, run), Esposito (2-3, 3 runs, RBI) and Conrad Gregor (2-4, run, 2 RBI). Gomez also came through with yet another big hit, plating the go ahead runs with a 2 RBI single with the bases loaded and two outs in the 6th inning.
Another story in the game was Spencer Navin’s first start behind the plate. Casali replaced Navin as a pinch hitter in the 4th, but Navin did remind one of a Shea Robin type of player behind the plate. He sure looks like he will be an elite defender. Lamm moved to 4-0 with the win, which was, I believe, on his 23rd birthday.
Friday: Vanderbilt 5, University of Illinois-Chicago 1
Another Sonny Gray start led to another dominant performance. Gray was absolutely devastating against the UIC Flames, yielding only 2 hits and three walks in 7 innings. Only twice did UIC advance runners to second, and each time was with two outs. But Sonny threw a decent number of pitches (98) while striking out 9, preventing him from going for the complete game. Corey Williams closed it out, giving up UIC’s only run on 2 hits in the 9th inning.
On the offensive side, the Dore bats were quiet for most of the night against Matt Salemi, a nice pitcher who Vanderbilt saw in relief the last two years. For the first five innings, Salemi kept the Dores as silent as Gray did the Flame bats. But in the sixth, after a Gomez pop out, Westlake and Esposito singled and Gregor walked. This brought up Curt Casali, who had begun to really sting the ball midweek. Casali launched a ball foul down the left field line with one strike; undeterred, three pitches later he straightened one out with a towering shot over the left-field monster and a 4-0 lead. Vanderbilt later Vanderbunted their way to an insurance run in the bottom of the 8th.
Casali led the way with the grand slam, a walk and two runs. Reynolds also chipped in with two hits, on a night that was short of offensive highlights. Gray moved to 4-0 and lowered his ERA to 1.71.
Saturday: Vanderbilt 9, University of Illinois-Chicago 8
Saturday’s match up was a pretty decent one with Grayson Garvin facing off against Matt Heaslip, who had dominated Missouri a week ago. Vanderbilt struggled with Heaslip early and Garvin labored through a tough third and fifth innings. Partially due to some location problems, UIC put up a 3 spot on Garvin in the 3rd; in the 5th, the Commodores defense imploded as UIC snared 4 runs thanks to 2 Commodore errors and another which was generously not called an error. As the Dores struggled, Westlake called the team to the mound and settled things down. From thereon out, it was almost all-Commodores. Garvin (6 IP, 6 H, 7 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 6 K) came back nicely, pitching a strong 6th before departing and being followed by strong relief performances from Will Clinard (2 IP, 3 hits, 4 K) and Navery Moore (1.2 IP, 1 H).
The offense bounced back nicely in the bottom frame of the 5th, which had been their worst defensive inning of the year. Casali, Reynolds, Connor Harrell and Joe Loftus led off with singles before Mike Yastrzemski hit a sac fly and Gomez doubled home a 3rd run of the inning. The Commodores would add additional runs on a wild pitch and a second single in the inning from Casali, bringing the score to 7-6 and chasing Heaslip. Vanderbilt evened the score in the 8th on a Tony Kemp sacrifice squeeze and, after UIC scored one in the top of the ninth, again on a 2 strike, 2 out double from pinch hitter Sam Lind off the top of the wall in right. In the 10th, with Kemp standing on first, Yastrzemski spanked a ball into the corner setting Kemp flying around the bases and the Commodores walking off with a double and their eighth consecutive win.
The game marked a nearly fully healthy Loftus’ first start in the outfield and Kemp’s first day starting on the bench. Both played key roles in the win, which was picked up by Navery Moore, who moved to 1-0 on the year.
Sunday: Vanderbilt 2, University of Illinois-Chicago 1
Unlike Saturday, Sunday was a pitcher’s duel with Taylor Hill going toe-to-toe with Joey Begel. Just a day after his 22nd birthday, Hill shook off some early wildness with a crafty array of darts on the corners. He stymied the Flames over 8 innings, allowing just 5 hits and 2 walks against 6 strikeouts. UIC did scratch a run off him in the 5th inning, with a hit batsman, bunt single and hit-and-run single to left leaving the Dores down 1-0 with two on and no out. Ever the veteran, Hill induced a flyout, popout and flyout to escape the inning with no further damage.
With Hill holding the opposition at bay, Vanderbilt could get nothing off of Begel. Despite getting a handful of runners on via 9 singles, a double and 2 walks, it was not until the 8th that the Commodores drew blood on Begel and tied the game. Gomez led off the inning with a single and, after a groundout and wild pitch, was driven home by an Espotiso sacrifice fly to center. Vanderbilt continued to threaten with a Gregor walk and Casali double, but lefty reliever Eric Wyman (who pitched all three games) induced an inning ending flyout from Harrell. In the 9th, it was GoGo time again after Moore pitched an easy top half of the frame. After the first three batters reached via a hit by pitch, walk and bunt single, Gomez continued to be Captain Clutch, grounding a single sharply up the middle for a second consecutive walk-off win.
While the Dores had trouble plating runs, the 10 hits continued a march toward offensive efficiency, with the team now batting .302. Moore picked up a second consecutive win to move to 2-0 with his 0.00 ERA.
Apologies, Corrections and Indignation
My apology for the week involves my doubting of the Vanderbunt strategy. While Coach Corbin still bunts more than my tastes prefer, he was far more selective this week in how it was executed. The right guys (Harrell, Reynolds, Kemp, Yastrzemski and Johns) have been bunting and the heavy hammers (Esposito, Westlake, Gregor and Casali) have not – notably with Westlake in the 8th inning on Sunday. While the fruits of the bunting have been mixed, both in results and execution, I acknowledge that context is very much a part of Coach Corbin’s strategy. Furthermore, Reynolds, Kemp and Johns in particular have been very aggressive with their sacrifices, leading to several bunt singles. Additionally, in coordinating the grounds keeping crew, Assistant Coach Larry Day has done a splendid job ensuring that the third and first base lines are well tuned for an aggressive bunting game.
My correction goes back a couple of weeks. While Kemp clearly is going to remain a force on the squad, particularly due to his stellar plate discipline, I think it’s reasonably safe to assume that Joe Loftus will not be spending his junior year on the bench in support of Kemp, Yastrzemski and Harrell. He’ll be very much in the mix in the outfield. I’d expect Yastrzemski to be an everyday starter in center field or right field, with Loftus, Kemp, Harrell and, perhaps, Lupo rotating through the other positions. Quite simply, the sample size with which I anointed the Man of Steal our lead off hitter was just too small.
As for indignation, well, it’s hard to have a lot of indignation when you’re 16-1. So this will be directed toward the Vanderbilt online site. While the team has done a great job with the All-Access video feed, VUCommodores.com and CBS sports continue to struggle in keeping GameTracker Live Stats up and running and accurate. Particularly now that we are forced to pay for All-Access viewing, we should expect more top notch performance, rather than the sub-par delivery of GameTracker we’ve received.
For more Vandy Weekly honors, check out AnchorOfGold’s weekly Commodore awards.
Best Offensive Player:
For as good a week as Riley Reynolds had at the plate (picking up 7 hits) and despite the multitude of clutch hits from Anthony Gomez, this honor was always going to Curt Casali. The big backstop had himself a week, going 8 of 16 with 5 runs, 5 RBI and 4 walks. But over the weekend he was nearly unstoppable, reaching base in 10 of his final 11 plate appearances and single-handedly sparking the Vanderbilt offense, accounting for all five runs on Friday. Casali’s average is up to .295 on the season after hovering around the Mendoza line prior to this week.
On the other side, Kennesaw State catcher Ronnie Freeman earns honors for extending a 42 game hitting streak by going 2-2 with 2 walks against the Dores pitching staff.
Pitchers of the Week:
If he continues to pitch like he has, we’re going to rename this the Sonny Gray Award and hand it out to the second best Vanderbilt performer on the hill. On Friday, Sonny was simply stunning, extending a great start to the year. Sonny’s walk of a batter in the 4th inning ended a streak of 15.1 innings in which he allowed no walks, just 4 hits and struck out 24 batters. For the year, he now has a 1.71 ERA, a minescule .135 batting average against and has struck out 36 batters in just 26.1 innings.
UIC’s Sunday starter Joey Begel earns the opposing pitcher of the week. Begel kept the Commodores off balance with a mid-to-high 80s fastball and a biting, well-spotted curve. He threw 94 pitches in going 7.2 innings, allowing just 2 walks and 8 hits against 5 strikeouts.
The Week Ahead
The Dores started the week ranked 2nd or 3rd in each of the five major polls (Baseball America, ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, Collegiate Baseball, NCBWA Poll and Perfect Game). Though each of Florida and Oklahoma lost a game during the week (Florida to Georgia Southern and Oklahoma to Arkansas-Little Rock), Vanderbilt does not figure to move up much despite the 5-0 week. Florida should hold on to first place in all polls, though Vanderbilt might steal some first place votes in the Coaches and NCBWA polls – at least enough to come close to leaping Oklahoma for 2nd in the Coaches Poll.
UPDATE: Vanderbilt was ranked 1st by the NCBWA, marking its first ascension to the top spot since the last regular season poll of the 2007 season. They were ranked 2nd by Baseball America, the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and Perfect Game and were ranked 3rd by Collegiate Baseball.
Vanderbilt’s level of competition ramps up this week with a visit from Purdue on Tuesday. Purdue is 11-3, highlighted by wins over Connecticut in their opener and Louisville in a midweek matchup. Their games have been high scoring with an 8.6 : 6.1 ratio of average runs scored and allowed. The Boilermakers are paced by Angelo Cianfrocco (.425, 14 runs), Kevin Plawecki (.368, 9 RBI), Barrett Serrato (.364, 17 RBI) and Cameron Perkins (.33, 2 HR, 18 RBI) at the plate and have an impressive .338 team batting average. Joe Haase figures to get his second straight high profile midweek start. Last week, he fell just shy of a complete game against Louisville, allowing 4 runs (2 earned) in 8.2 innings pitched with 8 hits and no walks allowed against 3 strikeouts. For the year, he’s 2-0 with a 3.52 ERA and is a pitch-to-contact and control guy. Purdue’s bullpen is not terribly solid and they feature a 4.61 ERA as a team.
Vanderbilt figures to counter Haase with the 2011 debut of Jack Armstrong. Armstrong is expected to be fully healthy this week, but should be on a pitch count in his first outing. Should Armstrong get scratched, expect to see Pecoraro take the hill, with Kevin Ziomek moving to relief duty for the rest of the regular season. Of course, that’s all speculation on my part, based on what I would do if I were in Coaches Tim Corbin’s and Derek Johnson’s places.
For the weekend, Mississippi State comes to Nashville. I’ve previewed them above, so I will just note that I expect the pitching match ups to be as follows:
Friday: RHP Sonny Gray (4-0, 1.71) vs. RHP Devin Jones (2-2, 1.37)
Saturday: LHP Grayson Garvin (2-1, 3.55) vs. RHP Chris Stratton (3-0, 1.65)
Sunday: RHP Taylor Hill (1-0, 3.13) vs. RHP Evan Mitchell (3-1, 4.50)
Cape Cod League - Tim Corbin Wins First NACSB Most Valuable Program Award
Baseball America - Top 25 Tracker Page (updates when posted by BA)
VandySports.com - Baseball Page (multiple stories and previews)
College Baseball Daily – Vanderbilt Tag (including Drew Fann’s weekly blog)
Let me know what you think or where you stand on the bunting issues. You can comment below, share this article on Twitter or Facebook. And remember to follow me on Twitter (my personal or this website’s feeds).