Vanderbilt Baseball: Twelfth Week Behind, Week Ahead
It was somewhat of a boring week for the Commodores. There was no midweek game, finals were finished and the team had the lazy bus ride up to Lexington to face off against the Wildcats of Kentucky. While the games weren’t without some drama, the lack of big crowds up North kept the games somewhat mild.
The Immediate Progression: Saturday Domination
One thing that truly separates great teams is the ability to pound opponents with top flight starters Friday through Sunday. The game where the rubber meets the road is Saturday.
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Friday gets you off on a good or bad start, so you need your Ace to be an Ace. Saturday is either the put away game or the savior game. If you’re up 1-0, the Saturday guy is out there to shut the door on the series win. If you’re down, that Saturday guy has to pick you back up. Sunday is all gravy if you’ve got an outstanding third starter. He gets to go for the sweep, stave off the sweep or win the rubber game.
Vanderbilt knows they have as good a Friday guy as any in the nation in Sonny Gray and that Taylor Hill was going to be as good a Sunday guy as most any team in the nation had. What we didn’t know coming into this season was whether or not Grayson Garvin would be among the top Saturday guys in the nation. Last summer he excelled, winning the Cape League Pitcher of the Year Award fresh off a stupendous pair of performances in the NCAA tournament, but could he be that good during the long grind of SEC conference play.
The answer is, quite simply, that he has. Garvin is 10-1 with a 2.15 earned run average in 12 starts and 79.2 innings. He’s permitted just a .209 batting average against and surrendered only 12 walks against 69 strikeouts. In SEC play, he’s been even better at 8-0 (in eight starts) with a 1.49 ERA and .199 batting average against.
Vanderbilt has not lost a Saturday game all year (Garvin’s one loss of the season was against Stanford on a Sunday) and one wonders if they will. Grayson has been spectacularly consistent and, along with South Carolina’s Michael Roth, has the inside track on SEC Pitcher of the Year honors.
The Week Behind
I’m going to cop out a bit on covering the games this past weekend, as I didn’t actually get a chance to view but the last few innings on Sunday. So I’ll put in some quick thoughts and just link to the Vanderbilt recaps.
Friday: Kentucky 2, Vanderbilt 0
I can’t say I wasn’t worried about this. Last week I noted that Friday was going to be the game to worry about. You knew Sonny Gray would bring it with effort and talent, but Alex Meyer is one of the few pitchers in America that can go toe-to-toe with Gray on pure stuff. He did that from the opening pitch, striking out the side in the first. In the end, he permitted just five hits (three from Tony Kemp) and one walk against five strikeouts in a 111-pitch, complete game performance.
Gray was only slightly more pockmarked, permitting four hits and no walks in an eight-inning complete game performance that saw him strike out nine on just 86 pitches. But Gray surrendered a solo home run in the second and permitted a second run to score on a wild pitch in the seventh, sealing Vanderbilt’s loss and Gray’s third on the year.
Saturday: Vanderbilt 10, Kentucky 3
Once again, Garvin simply dominated. In his eight innings, he allowed just six hits and one earned run, while striking out two and walking none. He moved to 10-1 on the year, which victory was heartily enhanced by being granted a six-run cushion before he even hit the mound.
Vanderbilt hopped all over Corey Littrell in the first, with the big blow being Conrad Gregor’s first career grand slam. Littrell actually would calm down and pitch relatively well over the next three innings, but the damage was done. The Commodore offense scored ten runs on 15 hits and three walks, with Tony Kemp going 4-5 with a pair of runs and RBI. Gregor went 3-4 with the grand slam and two runs scored. Jason Esposito also had a pair of hits, extending his batting streak to 26 games.
Sunday: Vanderbilt 6, Kentucky 3
Vanderbilt hopped up early again on Sunday with a majestic two-run blast by Aaron Westlake in the first inning, but the Commodore bats went cold through the seventh, thereafter. Despite having five hits and six walks through the eighth inning, the Dores wouldn’t put any more runs up as Kentucky staked their pitchers to a 3-2 lead, courtesy of a two-run home run from Michael Williams in the fourth, potentially spoiling a nice start from Taylor Hill (6 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 6 K).
But Vanderbilt would strike back. They first tied the game on some heady running by Tony Kemp as a relay throw got away, allowing Kemp to score from second on a deep fly ball. In the ninth, with two out, Vanderbilt exploded with consecutive singles by Anthony Gomez, Westlake, Esposito, Mike Yastremski and
Gregor Curt Casali. Esposito’s single plated the go-ahead run and extended his batting streak to 27 games. With a three spot on the board and a comfortable lead, the Commodore pen closed it out. It did get interesting as closer Navery Moore allowed the tying run to come to the plate, but Corey Williams was called in and closed the door on the Cats. Moore got the win and moved to 4-1 on the season, while Williams earned his second save.
Apologies, Corrections and Indignation
I’m writing this on Mother’s Day and, as my mom says I’m perfect, I have nothing to apologize for this week.
As for a correction, I wanted to note that this isn’t the best place to catch and find out information on Vanderbilt baseball. That honor belongs to the home of a great journalist who I’m proud to call a friend (and who I will be calling on when I come down to Nashville for the regional), Chris Lee’s VandySports.com. While Mike Rapp normally gets the glory on here for allowing me to use his stunning photos from the Hawk, Chris is the founder of and lead baseball writer for VandySports and he really knows how to cover this team. His weekly baseball notebooks (with Mike sometimes pinch hitting) are always spot on and his recent interview of Tyler Beede is a must read for Vanderbilt fans. Check the reading list below for that one.
As for indignation, I want to note that this season has seen two great absences. For an entire season, we’ve not seen Frank the Dancing Dog. Yes, a man in a suit wiggled the wiener earlier in the year (and did not get arrested for it, thank you very much), but it wasn’t Brandon Barca and, hence, was not Frank. I’m still hopeful that we’ll see Brandon (who switched from VUCommodores.com to a job with Vanderbilt’s Peabody College) during the Florida series or the Regionals.
The second thing missing this year has been Eric Jones’ YouTube pieces. While we were able to enjoy Eric’s in-game coverage prior to Joe Fisher’s rejoining of the team at the end of Basketball season, Eric has always thrived in the environment of the off-day and pre-game setting, getting some of the Commodores’ personality on film. He peeked up out of the ticket office this week for what is hopefully the first in a multi-segmented series of Dorealect. It harkens back to the days of Travis the Intern silliness, while maintaining a bit more of a serious perspective.
In any respect, EJ’s videos have always been fun. I mean, have the fans ever seen Yastrzemski as proud of himself as when he got to tell Drew Fann to save it?
For more weekly honors, check out AnchorOfGold‘s Rookie of the Year-themed awards.
Best Offensive Player
This week’s honors could have gone to Jason Esposito for some big plays and extending his hitting streak to 27 games, but Tony Kemp really ran away with it in the end. Playing with a dislocated finger on Sunday, he scored the key game-tying run to cap a 2-5 day and a 9-14 that saw him score three runs and knock in two. He had a double on Sunday and added a stolen base on Sunday. Kemp is now hitting .337 on the season.
Kentucky third baseman Thomas McCarthy earns opposing honors after picking up a hit each day, including the second inning home run off of Sonny Gray that would prove to be the game winner on Friday.
Sonny Gray of the Week
No surprise here. Grayson Garvin earns the nod for carving up the opposition once again. He didn’t rack up the strikeout numbers, and he really probably wasn’t as good as Gray was on Friday, but his effort was stellar and he moves into prime position for SEC pitcher of the year status, leading the league in total and SEC wins.
For the opposition, it also isn’t a mystery. Alex Meyer was, apparently, brilliant. Between he and Gray, the batters didn’t stand a chance on Friday in a game that lasted less than two hours.
Rankings and Metrics
Baseball America: 3rd (Virginia, Oregon State) (LW: 4th)
ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll: 2nd (Virginia) (LW: 2nd)
NCBWA: 1st (LW: 1st)
Collegiate Baseball: 2nd (Virginia) (LW: 3rd)
Perfect Game: 3rd (Virginia, South Carolina) (LW: 3rd)
Warren Nolan Metrics
Simulated RPI: 4th
Nolan Power Index: 2nd
Strength of Schedule: 42nd
Boyd’s World Metrics
Simulated RPI: 5th
Iterative Strength Rating: 2nd
Strength of Schedule: 55th
Rankings per the Coaches Poll.
|#3 South Carolina||37-10||18-6||1.0|
The Week Ahead
Midweek games make a potentially final cameo appearance this week in advance of the big regular season home finales in the Florida series. It’s been several weeks since the Commodores have played a midweek game, thanks to the severe rain that cancelled a trip to Western Kentucky. As has been explained by Joe Fisher, fitting in a follow-up game hasn’t been easy. Scheduling a potential road game at Georgia Tech or a home game versus Murray State has each been tried and failed. So today’s game may be the last tune up for the Dores heading into the home stretch and the post-season.
The Cardinals are not what they’ve been in recent years. At just 25-23 (15-11 Big East), Louisville has disappointed in a big way, despite a stellar 4-0 record against the RPI top 50. Playing just the 89th best schedule in the low-octane Big East, they have a Warren Nolan RPI and NPI of 108 and 135, respectively. Their Boyd’s ISR is no better at 120 against the 119th best schedule. The lack of success can be attributed to mediocrity on both sides of the ball. They average 4.4 runs per game and allow 3.9 for a respectable, but not highly efficient +0.5 scoring margin. That isn’t going to cut it in a major conference and not for a team that spent the early part of the year ranked in most polls.
The Cardinals offense was decimated by the 2010 Major League Draft with ten players drafted and nine signing professional contracts. The two top bats are Juniors in outfielder Ryan Wright (.328, 9 HR, 39 RBI) and shortstop Stewart Ijames (.271, 10, 39), familiar faces for Vanderbilt fans who’s seen Louisville in the last two NCAA Regionals. Beyond those two, there’s not a whole lot more going for the UL offense. In fact, no other player has an OPS in excess of .720. As a team, they hit .250 with a .334 on base percentage and .357 slugging percentage.
On the mound, they have fared better with solid performances from all starting pitchers (all of whom have an ERA under 4.00) and a stellar bullpen led by preseason All-American Tony Zych (0-2, 3.00 ERA, 11 saves in 21 innings). It seems same to assume weekend starters Derek Self and Justin Amlung won’t make appearances, and it’s doubtful that Sunday pitchers Matt Koch (4-5, 3.75, 10 starts, 60.1 innings) and Andy Flett (1-0, 3.06, 1 start, 17.2 innings) would be brought back after admittedly short appearances in the finale of a three game sweep loss to Seton Hall. That makes midweek starter Mike Nastold (3-6, 3.98, 40.2 innings, 27 BBs, .285 BAA) the likely candidate. Vanderbilt would likely also see Chad Green (1-2, 1.26, 35.2 innings), Jeff Thompson (1-1, 3.41, 31.2) and Travis Tingle (2-0, 3.20, 25.1) out of the pen, as Nastold has averaged under four innings per start.
As a staff, the Cardinals have a fine 2.87 ERA and respectable .245 batting average against. What doesn’t show up in that are 50 unearned runs in 48 games, the result of a poor .965 fielding percentage. Catchers JJ Ethel (12-32) and Kyle Gibson (2-11) have been just OK in throwing out batters, so Vanderbilt may look to run. I would expect to see a true staff day and not a full start from TJ Pecoraro (6-0, 1.57, 28.2). A roster note to keep an eye on is whether or not Tony Kemp starts in left. He dislocated a finger scoring the tying run on Sunday against Kentucky and has suffered from swelling and soreness, though it does not sound too bad.
After the Tuesday jaunt we get into the big series that every college baseball fan in the South had circled from Day 1. The Florida Gators come to town in a matchup of what many might argue are the deepest and most talented teams in the country. When you look at the statistics, it’s not hard to see why.
|vs RPI Top 50||16-5||20-11|
|vs RPI Top 100||20-5||30-12|
|WN RPI / SOS||4 / 43||1 / 3|
|Boyd ISR / SOS||2 / 55||4-6|
|Opp St Bases||33-46||19-30|
While Florida clearly has played the more difficult schedule — particularly with the out-of-conference four game series with Florida State that accounted for four of their losses — the numbers slightly favor the Commodores pretty much throughout. But those favorable ratings are so slight as to even out as a draw.
It will come down to match ups and, on Friday, it is two top notch pitchers against lineups that don’t match up terribly well against what the other tries to do. Florida likes to rake with 142 extra base hits on the year, but will face a pitcher in Sonny Gray that has permitted just 7 in 83.1 innings this year. Meanwhile, Florida trots out right-hander Hudson Randall (8-2, 2.05 ERA, 79 IP, .223 BAA), the premiere control pitcher in all of America. He has walked only four batters all year, a stat not likely to be enjoyed by a Vanderbilt lineup averaging four walks per game.
Saturday doesn’t get easier for either team as Vanderbilt ace 1B Grayson Garvin will take his perfect run of eight straight SEC wins against pre-season All-American and two-way star Brian Johnson (7-2, 2.53, 67.2, .225). Like Randall, Johnson features solid control, exemplified by a 59:13 strikeout to walk ratio. He also is a southpaw, which Vanderbilt has struggled slightly against this year (which is all relative when you have only six losses on the year).
Sunday should also be interesting with the experienced senior Taylor Hill taking on freshman phenom Karsten Whitson (6-0, 2.26, 63.2, .228). Whitson has started from day one on one of the deepest staffs in America, which is a testament to his talent. It was a miracle he escaped the 2010 Major League draft and it should be exciting to see him take on Hill.
The bullpens are just about as evenly matched as you could expect, though Florida has no clear closer. Their best draft prospect on the year is lefty reliever Nick Maronde (0-0, 2.10, 25.2, .196), though Greg Larson (1-1, 1.84, 29.1, .239), Steven Rodriguez (2-1, 1.54, 23.1, .230), Tommy Toledo (2-3, 3.24, 25, .250), Tony DeSciafani (4-2, 4.08, 28.2, .227) and two way star Austin Maddox (2-0, 0.95, 19, .171) all provide big support.
On the offensive front, the Gators mirror the Commodores with an unrelenting lineup. It’s headed by two big power bats in likely All-American at catcher Mike Zunino (.384, 10 HR, 46 RBI) and right fielder Preston Tucker (.332, 10, 44). Filling in the gaps are senior second baseman Josh Adams (.359, 4, 33), left fielder Daniel Pigott (.331, 2, 30), designated hitter Brian Johnson (.315, 3, 19) and Nolan Fontana (.302, 2, 31). Fontana may have a just pretty good .956 fielding percentage this year, but he is the best fielding shortstop East of the Mississippi. You’ll note that I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the bat of first baseman Austin Maddox (.286, 2, 26), who is a sleeping giant waiting to arise, to which Corey Williams’ knee can attest.
Quite simply, these are, in my opinion, the two best teams in America. If I’m playing on paper and in a neutral location, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t give the Gators serious consideration for a 2-1 series win; however, this is in Nashville and with Vanderbilt streaking a whole lot more than the Gators. I’ll take Vanderbilt 2-1 this weekend, with three thrilling match ups. Pack the Hawk this weekend because this is what college baseball is all about.
VandySports.com – Interview with Tyler Beede
Baseball America – Top 25 Tracker Page (updates when posted by BA)
VandySports.com – Baseball Page (multiple stories and previews, including great Mike Rapp photo sets)
College Baseball Daily – Vanderbilt Tag (including Drew Fann’s weekly blog)
Let me know what you think, as I always appreciate feedback (even if just to note a typo). You can comment below, share this article on Twitter or Facebook. And remember to follow me on Twitter (my baseball tweeting account or this website’s feed).
And a special thanks to Mike Rapp at VandySports.com. He is the best photographer of Vanderbilt sports and an even better person. Without him, this site wouldn’t have most of its sports art.