Vanderbilt Baseball: Thirteenth Week Behind, Week Ahead
If the prior week against Kentucky was a bit boring, this week was anything but. The weekend series against Florida had a very charged atmosphere and featured, arguably, the two most talented teams in the nation. While Vanderbilt was afforded every opportunity to sweep, late inning heroics by and the superior bullpen of Florida led to a Gator series win.
The Immediate Progression: Bad Losses
It’s somewhat funny to raise the subject of bad losses with this Vanderbilt squad. Any time you can count the losses on your hands even after a Fourth of July fireworks accident, well, you’ve got a consistent and maybe great team.
Click through to keep reading.
From an RPI perspective, there’s only one loss that stands out on the year. That is the 2-0 loss to Kentucky two Fridays ago. At 114, the Wildcats RPI makes that a technically bad loss, but the performance was all about Alex Meyer, who would have beaten any team in the nation that night. For the purposes of this website, I don’t call that a bad loss.
Nor do I consider a similar two run loss on the other side of the spectrum. A top five team in the rankings and number six in the RPI, South Carolina is a worthy opponent. Five weeks ago their great lefty Michael Roth bested Sonny Gray in a 3-1 game that, again, cannot be called a bad loss. And three weeks before that, DJ Baxendale beat Gray in a 2-1 match by shutting down the Commodore bats. Those are three losses to three great pitchers who just had better afternoons than our ace – who really had three of his finer starts in those three losses.
The loss to Stanford on Sunday, February 27 was a bit harder to quantify. Grayson Garvin pitched just okay, but the offense made Jordan Pries of Stanford look like an ace over seven innings. Pries is just 2-5 since that game, which we’ll call a lukewarm loss. So where do the four icy cold, bad losses come from?
They come from breakdowns and people not doing their jobs. Sadly, in the case of the past weekend, those failures were largely pointed at the bullpen, though a lack of timely hitting also earns my ire. Both the Friday and Sunday losses this weekend cannot be qualified as anything other than bad losses by the Dores. It is entirely irrelevant that they came against the top team in the RPI or a top five team overall. Vanderbilt twice blew the save in game one and failed four times to drive a runner in from third with just one out on a Sunday game that went twelve innings.
Streak back to the Sunday series loss to South Carolina and you’re greeted with a familiar sight. Carolina poured it on with a four run seventh inning care of a bullpen meltdown in which Vanderbilt threw five pitchers in an inning (an event that also occurred this past Sunday). It was another blown save and another bad loss in my book.
Similarly, the 9-8 loss to Mississippi State on March 20 featured a bullpen meltdown of epic proportions. Corey Williams, Will Clinard and Navery Moore ceded a four run lead and allowed five men to cross the plate in the eighth inning. None of them did their job that day.
It’s easy to stand back as a fan and judge an athlete’s performance. I know that is one of the reasons high level athletes band together and have cohesiveness both within and without team lines. Sometimes it might seem like the criticism of the fan base can be a bit extreme, be rest assured to the Commodores, when you’ve got four blown games against 42 wins, I’m not complaining. Baseball is a high-variance sport and Vanderbilt (along with the Virginia Cavaliers, this year) have been outstanding at playing consistently dominating baseball.
The Week Behind
Tuesday: Vanderbilt 5, Louisville 1
As discussed last week, Louisville is not what they’ve been in past years. Depleted by the 2010 Major League Draft, the Cardinal lineup featured only two big names among position players, shortstop Ryan Wright and right fielder Stewart Ijames. The Commodore pitching staff shut those two down on a staff day, pretty much sealing that game. Ziomek (3 IP, 2 H, 0 R, BB, K) got the start and earned the win. TJ Pecoraro (3 IP, 3 H, 0 R, BB), Corey Williams (IP, 0 H, 0 R, BB, K), Mark Lamm (IP, H, ER) and Moore (IP, 0 H, 0 R) followed in order.
Louisville’s only run came on a solo home run by pinch hitter Jeff Gardner off of Lamm in the eighth inning. Vanderbilt also utilized the long ball with matching two-run home runs by Curt Casali and Connor Harrell in the second inning. That four run lead would stand for the game, though the Commodores added an unearned run in the fourth inning. Anthony Gomez (2-5), Aaron Westlake (2-5), Mike Yastrzemski (2-3, R) and Harrell (2-4, R, 2 RBI) all had multi-hit days to pace the 10 hit Commodore attack. Ziomek moved to 2-0 on the year with the win.
Friday: Florida 6, Vanderbilt 5
In a game that was pegged as one of the premiere pitchers duels on the conference calendar, only one starter brought their good stuff. Gray was dominating through his six innings, allowing just two hits and two walks, against four strikeouts in his six innings of work. Despite this, the Gators plated two runs (one earned) against him with solo frames in the second and fifth. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt made Hudson Randall really work. In just five innings, the Commodore offense laced eight hits against no walks. Having walked only four batters all year, Randall twice walked Westlake on four pitches. More importantly, he yielded a run in the first and three in the third. Heading to the bottom of the sixth inning, Vanderbilt led by two runs, but the heavy rains came and the tarp was pulled. Under SEC rules, a game halted by rain on anything other than the last day of the weekend series will be suspended and resumed. This would not bode well for the Commodores.
With Randall and Gray both out due to the overnight suspension, it became a battle of the two deepest bullpens in America. It was Florida’s that would impress. The combination of Panteliodis, Larson, Rodriguez, DeSclafini and Maddox limited Vanderbilt to two hits, a walk and one run in four innings. Meanwhile, Florida evened things with a two run home run off of Pecoraro in the sixth inning. Williams and Will Clinard impressed in a perfect one and a third innings and Vanderbilt led 5-4 heading to the top of the ninth inning. But things fell apart for closer Navery Moore, who allowed three hits and two walks. Florida plated two runs in the inning and it could have been worse as Florida had a major base running error that cost them a sacrifice fly. But Vanderbilt couldn’t take advantage of the error as Austin Maddox picked up the save.
Moore received the blown save and the loss, his second of the year. The offense was paced by Conrad Gregor (3-4, RBI), Jason Esposito (2-5, run, two RBI) and Harrell (2-4, RBI).
Saturday: Vanderbilt 14, Florida 1
While Florida got the better of the Vandy pen in game one, the Dores got the better of everything in the series’ second game. Pre-season all-American Brian Johnson shut down the Commodores in the first two innings and Florida took a 1-0 lead in the top of the third inning on a Bryson Smith home run to right. From thereon out, it was all Vanderbilt. The Commodores scored two in the third, six in the fifth, two in the sixth, and four in the seventh. This big blow was a Westlake grand slam in the fifth. Johnson had walked Gomez to load the bases prior to Westlake’s majestic blast, which cleared the bleachers beyond right center field.
The Commodores offense was on high gear all evening, pounding out 18 hits. The big bats on the day were those of Harrell (3-4, two runs), Esposito (3-5, two runs), Westlake (2-5, run, five RBI), Gomez (2-4, three run, RBI, walk), Gregor (2-3, two runs, two RBI, walk) and Bryan Johns (2-3, two runs, RBI). But for as good as the Vanderbilt offense was, Grayson Garvin was even better. The big lefty played stopper 1A again, going seven innings and striking out six while allowing six hits and two walks. The home run by Smith would be the only damage done by the Gators on the day. Ziomkek threw the last two innings, striking out two and walking one.
Garvin picked up the win, moving to 11-1 on the year and 9-0 in SEC play. Meanwhile, Johnson dropped to 7-3 after allowing eight earned runs on nine hits and a walk in four and a third innings. The game restored a one-game Vandy lead over both Florida and South Carolina in the SEC East.
Sunday: Florida 6, Vanderbilt 3
Sunday was looking to be Fun Day for the Commodores as Taylor Hill cruised through the Gator offense through six innings, allowing just three hits and one run to that point. Vanderbilt had taken a 3-1 lead behind a RBI doubles from Casali and Harrell in the second inning and a lead off home run by Casali in the fourth. Casali’s blast was in his final regular season home game as a Commodore, as was the case with Hill and others. Unfortunately, that would be just about it for the Vanderbilt offense. They knocked Gator starter Karsten Whitson out of the game in the fifth inning after a leadoff double by Tony Kemp, but the Florida bullpen was brilliant. The five Gator relievers went a combined 7.2 innings, while allowing just three hits and two walks while striking out ten batters. They also got clutch out after clutch out, thwarting huge Vanderbilt scoring opportunities in the second, fifth, tenth and eleventh innings.
In the seventh inning, after yielding only a Maddox home run five frames earlier, Hill got touched up by Mike Zunino. The Florida catcher and likely SEC player of the year crushed a hung slider well beyond the left-center field wall for a solo home run. Hill would remain to get the next batter before being relieved by Will Clinard. Clinard shut down the Gators for an inning, but Corey Williams entered in the eight and had a disastrous outing. With one out, he permitted Nolan Fontana to flare an 0-2 offering to center for a single, hit Smith with a 1-2 pitch and saw his first pitch to Preston Tucker laced to right for a bases-loading single. Mark Lamm relieved Williams and induced a sacrifice fly before walking Johnson and striking out Maddox to end the inning with no further damage.
With the game knotted at 3-3, the teams went to extra innings. Vanderbilt squandered huge scoring opportunities in the tenth and eleventh inning, but Florida would do no such thing in the twelfth. In his fifth inning of work, Jack Armstrong (3.2 innings, 0 hit, four walks, three strikeouts) was cruising along with the help of a sharp slider and solid fastball. But after a Fontana walk and Smith sacrifice bunt, he was asked to intentionally walk Preston Tucker. Moore relieved Armstrong and served up a 3-2 fastball up and away which Zunino crushed into the right field bleachers for what ultimately was the deciding blow.
Armstrong was the tough luck loser, moving to 0-1 on the year. The Gators, Gamecocks and Commodores all enter the last week of the year in a three way tie atop the SEC standing. Having lost series to both squads (their only two series losses of the year), Vanderbilt will have great difficulty earning the number one seed in Hoover two weeks from now. Florida will host Kentucky, while Vanderbilt travels to Georgia and South Carolina to Alabama.
Apologies, Corrections and Indignation
The apologies this week go out to Khayyan Norfork and any other player on the Tennessee Vols who is actually giving any effort. After another series sweep (this time at the hands of LSU), the Vols have lost eleven straight SEC games. During those games, they’ve been outscored by a whopping 80 runs and have allowed exactly ten runs per game. I noted in my recap the week of the Nashville Massacre that Norfork appeared to be the only player really trying, and I saw in another recap this week that an AP writer chose to note the same thing. Just because they suit up for the Evil Orange does not mean that some guys who play with heart don’t deserve our pity. The Vols are a 23-26 on the year and a dreadful 5-21 in SEC play.
Corrections go out regarding Vanderbilt and Florida. While I’m still heartily convinced that they are the two most talented teams in the nation, I feel like I really misjudged the pitching comparison. I anticipated that Vanderbilt might have a slight edge on Friday and Saturday, with Whitson having an edge on Hill among the starters. Similarly, I thought the teams would be close in the relief corps with Florida going just a bit deeper with consistently excellent arms. I underestimated the advantages on each account.
Perhaps the most depressing element of Vanderbilt’s series loss is that the disparity in starting pitching was stark. Randall was lucky to escape with only four runs surrendered, Johnson was massacred with eight runs in less than five innings and Whitson failed to really impress while giving up three runs in four and a third innings. On the other side of the aisle, the Commodore arms dominated. Gray had permitted just two hits in his six innings before the rains called his night for him. Meanwhile Garvin dominated through seven innings and Hill did the same into the seventh.
But boy was I wrong on bullpens. Florida brought out several top notch arms and it seemed like the stable was never ending. Yes, Vanderbilt roughed up the bottom of the pen in game two, but there was, quite simply, no answer for Panteliodis, Larson, Rodriguez, DeSclafini, Maddox, Maronde and Toledo. Each Florida pitcher threw hard and through with great accuracy. It’s not easy to assemble a set of bullpen arms that surpasses Vanderbilt’s, but Kevin O’Sullivan has done so in Gainesville.
That is not to say that Vanderbilt’s pen was terrible this weekend. TJ Pecoraro did cede a two run home run to Nick Fontana to earn the first of two Vanderbilt blown saves in game one, but a grooved first pitch sometimes happens. Corey Williams was excellent in game 1 before imploding on Sunday after getting 0-2 counts on the first two batters. Clinard, Lamm, Ziomek and Armstrong all threw quite well, but the problem was the back of the pen. Navery Moore appeared to be aiming his fastball and wasn’t getting on top of his breaking pitch consistently. Despite being consistently at 94 MPH on the gun, he was not consistently getting ahead in the count and that marked the end for him. You need a guy you can count on late in the game and Moore has been that all year long; but he was not that man this weekend.
I do hope these two teams see each other again, as it could be entertaining. They are evenly matched with great defense, stout offense and the deepest pitching staffs in the nation. I will not be correcting my statement last week that these are the two best squads in the country.
There are two doses of indignation this week. The first goes to the umpiring, which was downright awful all weekend. It reached its high point when a basic rules point was blown on Sunday. In the 10th inning, Steven Rodriguez (a lefty) pitched to Aaron Westlake. After Westlake reached, Coach O’Sullivan went for the matchup and moved Austin Maddox (a righty) from first to the hill and shifted Rodriguez to first for the batter. This was because Rodriguez would return to the mound to face Yastrzemski a batter later. This move eliminated the designated hitter, Brian Johnson, and should have left the pitcher batting in the fifth spot in the batting order. Two innings later, however, O’Sullivan pinch hit Jeff Moyer for Toledo in the five hole and yet somehow ran Toledo back out to close out the game in the bottom of the 12th inning. Amazingly, no one on either staff, in the umpiring crew or the press box caught this error. Had the Commodores protested after Toledo had thrown a pitch in the bottom half, it is conceivable the SEC office would have ruled the game a Florida forfeit or a tie game. In either respect, spilt milk aside, it was a terrible weekend for the crew in navy blue.
Additional indignation and primary blame for the weekend loss goes to the disappearance of clutch bats. We had previously discussed the excellence of Vanderbilt in getting the key hit. In fact, they entered the weekend with a remarkable 99 two-out RBI on the year. This weekend, though, the clutch disappeared. Vanderbilt was not bereft of opportunities to pile things on against Hudson Randall on Friday and, especially, against the entire Gators staff on Sunday. But with runners in scoring position and less than two out, Vanderbilt repeatedly came up empty. Maddeningly, Vanderbilt squandered runner at third, less than two out opportunities four times on Sunday. In extra innings, Vanderbilt had the chance to walk off with the win twice, but saw Esposito pop out and Yastrzemski strike out in the tenth and both Harrell and Sam Lind strike out in the eleventh. Earlier in the game, Reynolds struck out and Kemp bounced out in the second inning, while Westlake grounded out to second and Esposito struck out in the fifth inning. Quite simply, you’ve got to get those runners in. Great teams do it. Vanderbilt has done it most all of this year, but they failed in a big way on Sunday. It’s a great luxury to be able to complain when you’re 42-8 on the year and a top five team… my ability to still find indignation knows no bounds.
For more weekly honors, check out AnchorOfGold‘s Rookie of the Year-themed awards.
Position Player of the Week
The batter of the week this week is none other than the outstanding defender who was benched during a seriously dreadful mid-season slump. Connor Harrell reacted to the benching by pinch hitting in each weekend game against Tennessee and launching two home runs and a double. This weekend wasn’t quite so prodigious, but it wasn’t far behind, either. On the week, the Texan went 8-17 with three runs, four RBI, a walk, a home run and five doubles, doubling his season total to ten two-baggers.
On the other side, while Mike Zunino will earn praise for his two home runs on Sunday, it was Nolan Fontana who continues to impress me. Forgotten on Friday was his game tying two run home run off TJ Pecoraro. He also went 3-5 with two runs on Sunday, along with his stellar defense throughout the weekend.
Sonny Gray of the Week
Pitching honors this week could have gone to any of the three starters. In fact, due to their even keel and consistent performance, I’m thinking of renaming this the Gray-Garvin-Hill of the Week award. All said and done, though, while Gray was superb and Garvin cruised with a huge lead, it was Hill who really stepped his game up. Other than a long (and I mean long) home run to Zunino, his only blemish was a solo shot from Austin Maddox which came one highly contested pitch after 3,400 people at the Hawk saw Maddox take an uncalled strike three.
On the other side of the diamond, the Florida starters greatly disappointed. That left me to pick among their bevy of talented relievers. While Maddox was great fun to watch, he was merely a flamethrower. Lefty Nick Maronde, though, was the real deal on Sunday. His 3.1 innings of one hit ball was nothing short of pure, unadulterated awesome.
Rankings and Metrics
Warren Nolan Metrics
Simulated RPI: 4th
Nolan Power Index: 2nd
Strength of Schedule: 31nd
Boyd’s World Metrics
Simulated RPI: 5th
Iterative Strength Rating: 2nd
Strength of Schedule: 45th
Rankings per the Coaches Poll with records through Wednesday night games.
|#2 South Carolina||42-11||20-7||—|
The Week Ahead
In this, the final week of the regular season, things start a bit early with a Thursday night match up against the Bulldogs of Georgia. There’s no midweek game, but it’s more than made up for by the ESPNU national prime time broadcast on Thursday. Let’s take a look at how the teams stack up.
|vs RPI Top 50||17-7||17-20|
|vs RPI Top 100||20-7||19-22|
|WN RPI / SOS||4 / 31||24 / 2|
|Boyd ISR / SOS||2 / 45||36 / 1|
|Opp St Bases||34-47||92-111|
The things that stand out immediately are how lopsided this match up is on paper. While I’d like to explain the differential by noting that Georgia started out terrible in their difficult out-of-conference schedule and then resurrected themselves after the tragic injury to outfielder Jonathan Taylor, but their statistics really aren’t a whole lot better in conference play. They have a negative seven scoring margin in SEC play (roughly equivalent to their negative twenty margin in out-of-conference play), and a .276 BA and 4.70 ERA (as against .279 and 4.85 overall). So how have they turned their season around despite being on the wrong side of Pythagorean predictions? The short answer is that they haven’t, yet.
Georgia is a cornered cat right now. At 27-26 on the season, they must win as many games as they lose the rest of the way through the season to be eligible for a regional berth. Unless they beat the Commodores this weekend, they’re in a rough boat to make it there. If they sweep, they need not win any games as the fifth seed in Hoover next week. If they win two of three, they need to win at least one. If Vanderbilt takes two, Georgia will need three wins at Hoover. And if Vanderbilt sweeps, Georgia can write off their season unless they reach the SEC tournament final without losing or win the whole darn thing. That’s a high-pressure, tall order.
It doesn’t help that the match ups don’t favor the Bulldogs anywhere on the field, starting with the moundsmen. Number one starter Alex Wood will be over matched on paper by Sonny Gray. The southpaw is 4-6 with a 4.38 ERA and .299 batting average against while allowing 18 walks against just 57 strikeouts in 78 innings. Those numbers are not terrible, but they are sub par for SEC Friday night starters. A week ago against Kentucky, he allowed six runs on ten hits and three walks in five innings of a 7-4 loss.
Meanwhile, staff ace and normal Saturday hurler Michael Pallazone is a fine pitcher and has amassed an 8-3 record with a 3.09 ERA. The righty has allowed just a .254 batting average against and has struck out 61 batters against less than a walk per nine innings in his 93.1 innings pitched. But barring a stellar outing, he is not Grayson Garvin’s equal. Garvin will be attempting to be the first SEC pitcher in history to go a perfect 10-0 in conference play. In a near must-win game against Kentucky last Saturday, Palazone inflated his then fine stats with a disastrous 5.1 inning start that saw him surrender 15 hits and eleven earned runs.
On Saturday, sophomore lefty Blake Dieterich is probable to make his second start of the season, coming off a solid five inning, two run, eight hit and one walk performance against Kentucky last week. For the season, he is 2-3 with a 2.95 ERA in 42.2 innings of mostly relief work. He’s allowed a .306 batting average against and has walked eleven men against 37 strikeouts. Again, you’d take Taylor Hill’s numbers here.
In the bullpens, by removing Dieterich to the starting lineup, the Bulldog pen looks mighty weak. Among pitchers with at least five innings pitched, only Bryan Benzor (3.82 ERA, 20.2 IP, .250 BAA) has an ERA below four. Other key cogs are spot starters Chase Hawkings (4.65, 50.1, .302), Ben Cornwell (6.23, 26.0, .312) and Craig Gullickson (7.34, 41.2, .350) and setup men Patrick Boling (5.45, 21.1, .337) and Erik Daniels (5.87, 23, .322). Amazingly, closer Tyler Maloof is 2-1 with 16 saves in 24 appearances, despite his 6.85 ERA and .263 BAA in 22.1 innings.
All in all, Vandy will be happy to bring the SEC’s top offense into a hitter-friendly park against an under performing staff with a 4.85 ERA and .292 batting average against.
On the offensive side, the Bulldogs are a little more on the SEC norm with a .279 team average with 84 doubles and 31 home runs. They lead things off with second baseman Levi Hyams (.343, 4 HR, 35 RBI). Shortstop Kyle Farmer (.312, 7, 51) bats third and right fielder Chase Davidson (.282, 5, 24) cleans up. The key to the lineup is left fielder Zach Cone, who has had a disappointing year at just .277 with two home runs and 26 RBI. The rest of the lineup is staffed by .270 hitters, with one particular player of note. Third baseman Curt Powell was a member of the 2009-2010 recruiting class who transferred out after the fall semester – presumably due to playing time concerns. Powell has started 46 games for Georgia and had an alright season, batting .280 with just five extra base hits and twelve RBI. He will undoubtedly have some extra motivation this weekend.
All in all, if the Vanderbilt starting pitchers take care of business as they have over the last three weeks, I expect a sweep, with a keen eye on the Garvin-Pallazone match up on Friday night.
Perfect Game – Tennessee State Draft Preview
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.