Vanderbilt Baseball 2012: First Week Behind, Week Ahead
Vanderbilt kicked off the season before I could finish my season preview, but that’s not going to stop the Week Behind, Week Ahead from going forward on schedule. It would have been nice to have some had positive preview stories to kick off the new year. Instead, Vanderbilt transitioned from perhaps their best season on the diamond into the worst weekend of the Corbin era out West.
The Commodores took their traditional west coast voyage to start the year, a tradition that has seen visits to Arizona State (DeMarini Classic), Stanford , UCLA (Legends Classic) and San Diego in the past four years. The common theme of the sunset trips has been an unpleasant experience at Sunken Diamond field. While the Dores went 1-6 in their trips to Palo Alto (including a 2009 loss to Cal-Berkley), they had a good deal of success in Tucson, Los Angeles and San Diego, not to mention a clean sweep of the Houston Minute Maid Classic in 2007. So perhaps the lesson here is to stop scheduling trips to Palo Alto.
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Of course, Coach Tim Corbin would most certainly remind me of how little I know relative to him when it comes to running a baseball team – though I don’t think Coach would need to actually say it out loud. One of the great successes of this baseball administration has been utilizing the “throw ‘em right into the fire” mentality. While this is best exemplified by scheduling a long distance road trip against top talent for the year’s first weekend, Coach Corbin has gone a step further with Fall series at Texas and hosting Fullerton in the past two years. While these early tests most certainly provide a tough measure, they also build both familiarity with the Spring-long grind of baseball season and allow players to check their mettle as a team. Sometimes that chemistry fits like a glove from the start, while at other times a little tinkering and perhaps alchemy is needed to fortify the bonds and various pieces of a team. In 2012, the early indication is that we’re still in the lab.
The Immediate Progression – The Newbies, Debuts and Big Innings
In his last press conference before heading out to Stanford, Coach Corbin referred to each team he coaches as a new child to be raised. You have to try to learn from what worked and didn’t with the last child and adapt that toward how your rear the new one. While there are many shared characteristics between last year’s College World Series baby and the 2012 version (notably, the outfield and middle infielders), losing an SEC record twelve players to the professional ranks means there will be a learning curve for both the players and the coaches.
One of the biggest question marks after Palo Alto is the degree to which the team needs to learn to avoid the snowball effect when things go wrong on defense. In fact, the weekend saw a striking low in permitting the big inning. Since the start of the 2007 season, Vanderbilt has allowed 6 or more runs in an inning a handful of times; however, Stanford stands out as the only team to have bested that mark.
In 2009, they dropped a seven-spot late in a blowout Vanderbilt victory in the second game of the season. That game marked the debut test for Big Jack Armstrong and he was allowed just long enough of a leash to give up seven earned runs in the eighth inning (Vanderbilt still went on to win comfortably as a 12-1 lead turned into a 12-9 victory). This weekend saw several Vanderbilt player debuts and they were, at times, not much better than Big Jack’s.
In particular, Sunday saw two innings that shattered any confidence that had been built by a 4-0 lead established with a solid top of the second inning. In the bottom half of the frame, three Commodore errors helped flip a four-run lead into a four-run deficit as the Cardinal scored what might be a Corbin-era record eight runs (my data set runs out prior to 2007). The Stanford bats weren’t yet done as they utilized another Vanderbilt error to help plate seven runs in the sixth inning. A confidence building lead became cause for concern that the Coaching staff might try to run fielding drills on the plane ride back to Nashville – fortunately, the Transportation Security Administration does not permit fungo bats though the body scanners. All in all, the Cardinal plated 18 unanswered runs from the bottom of the second through the eight inning. In the past five-plus years, the worst single game scoring streaks allowed by the Commodores were 13 to Western Kentucky (2010), 12 to Arizona State (2008) and 11 to South Carolina (2008).
One would hope that Coaches Corbin, Holliday, Johnson and Day are able to turn the Palo Alto drubbing into a teaching point, particularly for those pitchers making their first appearances in meaningful innings for the Dores. Five Commodore batters (Connor Castellano, Vicente Conde, Will Cooper, Chris Harvey and John Norwood) and junior transfer DJ Luna saw their first collegiate plate appearances and did so against one of the top pitching staffs in the country. Meanwhile, four freshman pitchers (Ty Beede, Brian Miller, Jared Miller and Philip Pfeifer) and junior transfer Drew Verhagen made their initial appearances in Black and Gold against a lineup filled with All-American talent. While most of those debuts didn’t feature a great level of success, many players flashed their talent levels. With the jitters of a road debut against a top three squad under their belts, one can expect the team to grow and continue to progress to a NCAA tournament caliber squad when Southeastern Conference play rolls around.
The Week Behind
The last time Vanderbilt opened the season in Palo Alto was 2009. That visit also marked the last time Vanderbilt lost a season opener or a season opening series. Unfortunately, history repeated itself a bit, as the Dores start the 2012 campaign on the wrong side of the ledger after being outscored 35 to 13 by the Cardinal for the weekend. More disconcertingly, the team committed 11 errors and allowed 10 unearned runs, results uncharacteristic for a Corbin coached squad. In 2011, the team committed just 66 errors and allowed only 29 unearned runs over a 66 game season. While some may wish to simply forget the weekend altogether, here at WhenItStrikesMe, we recap nonetheless.
Friday – Stanford 8, Vanderbilt 3
Well, when you travel 2,000 miles to face the #2 team in the nation with the #1 major league prospect on the hill, you have to know you’re jumping right into the fire. Add in another pair of preseason All-Americans in Steven Piscotty and Kenny Diekroeger, and you have a tall task. Yet that’s the reason Coach Corbin schedules the west coast trips. He wants to team to jump right into the fire. Unfortunately, the fire it was on Friday.
Vanderbilt could muster little of anything off of preseason All-Everything Mark Appel. Through seven innings, the big righty allowed a run on just a pair of hits and a pair of walks. He struck out five Dores, but more importantly he simply kept things under control. The Dores never really threatened after putting a few runners on in the first.
Stanford, meanwhile, played all or nothing against Kevin Ziomek. In each of the first two innings, the Omega Man struck out the first batter before giving up solo homeruns to Piscotty and Christian Griffiths. Things fell apart when Stanford put a three spot in the third inning and they added additional runs in the fifth, seventh and eighth innings. Ziomek ended the day allowing five runs on six hits and four walks in 3.1 innings. He also hit two batters. Brian #Dramamine Miller and Jared Miller made their Vandy debuts in relief. Brian allowed two earned runs on four hits and a hit batter over 2.2 innings, striking out three, while Jared yielded an earned run on four hits and a hit batter in two innings pitched.
Leading the day at the plate for the Commodores was Chris Harvey. The freshman DH went 2-3 with a run, walk and double. Vince Conde had 2 RBI in his debut, going 1-3.
Saturday – Stanford 9, Vanderbilt 5
Day two of the 2012 season featured beautiful weather for baseball, but sadly the result was the same on the scoreboard. Much of the college baseball nation was tuning in (or at least eagerly waiting for reports) for the debut of highly touted freshman Tyler Beede. The big righty showed flashes of brilliance in his debut. In particular, he utilized a devastating changeup early in the game to make some very good Stanford hitters look bad; however, in the second inning he lost his ability to spot his fastball and was forced to rely on a curveball that didn’t have terribly great bite on this Saturday. Combined with very poor defense (the Commodores committed a whopping four errors), the Stanford bats were able to sit back on the off speed stuff and put together an offensive assault. This culminated with three unearned runs in a four-run third inning and a trio of runs in the fifth inning that ended Beede’s day.
On the other hand, Stanford lefty Brett Mooneyham kept getting just enough of the plate to keep the Commodore bats down. The southpaw struggled some with control, but flashed a good low 90s fastball to get the outs he needed, including three strikeouts of Tony Kemp and two of Chris Harvey’s three strikeouts on the day. Providing a late spark were Mike Yastrzemski and Connor Harrell. Yaz managed sharp singles in each of his last two at bats, which preceded a pair of mammoth home runs by Harrell, who leads the team with five RBI through two games. Anthony Gomez also chipped in with three singles and a walk in five plate appearances, but a combined 2-23 day from the rest of the team left the Dores without a consistent offensive threat to back the pitchers.
There was a pair of bright spots on the hill for the Commodores, as Steven Rice had two very solid innings, utilizing a devastating breaking ball to strike out three batters. His penchant for wildness did strike with three walks; however, Will Clinard’s 2012 debut was excellent, working out of a jam in the eighth inning in relief of Rice. On the day, Beede was tagged for all nine runs (five earned) on nine hits, a walk and a hit batsman in 4.1 innings. He recorded two strikeouts. Pfeifer relieved Beede and allowed two inherited runners to score by walking two and giving up a sac fly in two-thirds of an inning.
The 9-5 win gave Stanford the win in the weekend series. VUCommodores.com Recap
Sunday – Stanford 18, Vanderbilt 5
While Ziomek and Beede flashed good stuff but had trouble with control, Sam Selman’s bad pitching line is due in large part to extra outs. Though the team registered just four errors in his five-plus innings of work, that was due in no small part to generous scoring and a controversial out call at first that could easily have ballooned that total to seven errors. In baseball, free outs mean trouble and despite Selman pitching well, he ended the day allowing 12 runs (six earned) on eight hits and three walks, against two strikeouts.
The trouble began after the Commodores put together their first truly solid offensive inning of the year in the top of the second. Highlighted by doubles from red-hot Harrell and Riley Reynolds, the Dores allowed the Cardinal to flip a 4-0 deficit into an 8-4 lead through poor defense and a series of timely hits, punctuated by a three-run double from Piscotty. After settling down, Selman couldn’t escape the sixth inning when some chippy defense helped lead to another big inning, with Piscotty’s grand slam off of Brian Miller putting an end to any question toward the game’s final outcome.
Miller allowed two earned runs in his two-third of an inning on a hit and a walk, while Keenan Kolinsky yielded another pair of earned runs on two hits and a hit batsman in 1.1 innings. Drew Verhagen made his Vanderbilt debut, surrendering two earned runs on three hits and a hit batsman in the eight inning. At the plate, only Gomez managed much for the Commodores, collecting a pair of hits in five at bats, while Connor Harrell continued to hit the ball hard with an atom ball to Lonnie Kaupilla at short accompanying a scorched double. After jumping all over Stanford starter AJ Venagas, the Vanderbilt bats were silenced by John Hochstatter, who through 6.1 innings of hitless relief for the win.
On the weekend, Vanderbilt’s worrisome pitching line (9.38 ERA, .356 BAA) was made ever more apparent by the accompanying lack of offensive firepower against Hochstatter, Mooneyham and Appel. The offense had a .214 batting average and a meager .293 on base percentage, with only two batters (Gomez at .462 and Harrell at .444) providing any consistent umph at the plate. We’ll just pretend the .904 fielding percentage did not happen at all. As we close the book on the weekend, we remember that baseball is a funny game and that sometimes teams can utilize bad performances as turn them right around into positives. As one team staff member tweeted late Sunday, the weekend was reminiscent of the aforementioned 17-2 loss to Western Kentucky, which helped motivate the team to put 17 runs right back on the Hilltoppers the next day.
Apologies, Corrections and Indignation
The first apology of the season is, quite obviously, for not getting out my season preview series on time. It’s been a busy spring and a swamped job, new girlfriend and family obligations (along with an unhealthy love of playing five-on-five basketball) have left me with not quite enough time to churn them out. I do promise to get them out relatively soon.
As for corrections, I must note that I was darn wrong on Chris Harvey. The talent is readily apparent for all to see. The kid put tremendous leverage into the ball when he makes contact, as shown by his 425 foot home run in the fall series with Cal State Fullerton. That said, I saw an inexperienced bat in that series – one that made me question whether he’d be able to immediately contribute against high level pitching. He was fooled badly by some off speed stuff from Fullerton righties and I doubted his ability to hit pitchers of Appel and Mooneyham’s quality this early in his career – remembering, of course, that Harvey should be a senior in high school right now. Well, Harv proved me wrong on Friday, with a 2-3 performance that included a walk and a double off of Appel. While he did have a 0-5 against Mooneyham with three strikeouts, he looked comfortable at the plate and absolutely will hit at a high level early.
Indignation goes out to those who expect this Vanderbilt squad to pick right up from where the 2011 VandyBoys left off. There will be lumps taken but, as Coach Corbin has said, this team will be very different in April than it is right now. And, ultimately, the team in April is the one that will challenge SEC foes and will make an NCAA run. The 2011 squad was the winningest and most successful team in Vanderbilt history in large part due to an experienced and dominating pitching staff that flashed a school record 2.44 team earned run average. That pitching staff allowed the Dores to go a remarkable 29-1 against non-SEC opponents and 53-7 against teams not named the Florida Gators. This sport is baseball. You lose games in baseball no matter who you are. This team needs the patience of fans to allow them to develop. There’s just about as much talent on this year’s team as last’s, but that steak was dry aged and seasoned and this one is barely out of the packing plant. I’ve not seen too much negativity on the interwebs with respect to the weekend’s series loss, but the expectations of another dominating season are unfounded. While I expect we might be a top 10 team in June, we’re far closer to a lower end top 25 team right now. And I’ll take that trajectory any day of the week.
Position Player of the Week
It was not a stellar start to the season for the Commodore squad, at the plate or in the field. That said, one Commodore made his presence felt in Palo Alto on Saturday. Connor Harrell launch a pair of two-run home runs off Brett Mooneyham in the sixth and Brian Busick in the eighth. He ended the day in the hole, just two batters from coming up as the tying run in the Commodores 9-5 loss. For the weekend, Harrell went 4 of 9 with a double, 2 homeruns, 3 runs and 5 RBI.
Sonny Gray of the Week
There really were only two candidates who could even qualify for the award this week. Steven Rice and Will Clinard were the only two Vanderbilt pitchers to keep the Cardinal in check. Though the Weatherman was dominant (using just four pitches to escape an inherited first and second, no out situation), the honor this week goes to the pitcher he bailed out in that Saturday scenario. Rice broke off a series of nasty curveballs on the paint to stymie what were red hot Stanford bats. In two plus innings, he struck out three, allowing one hit and three walks. The numbers aren’t outstanding, but the stuff he flashed was, with a fastball around 89 to 90 MPH, a hard breaking curve and a serviceable change that helped earned his first strikeout. For a guy with a role that seemed undefined coming into the weekend, Rice made a very solid statement.
Rankings and Metric
Baseball America: 17th (LW: 10th)
ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll: 12th* (LW: 3rd)
NCBWA: 16th (LW: 11th)
Collegiate Baseball: Not Ranked (LW: 23rd)
Perfect Game: 17th (LW: 12th)
* – Indicated preseason poll, no new poll released as of yet
Warren Nolan Metrics
Simulated RPI: Too early
Nolan Power Index: Too early
Strength of Schedule: Too early
Boyd’s World Metrics
Simulated RPI: Too early
Iterative Strength Rating: Too early
Strength of Schedule: Too early
Intended Strength of Schedule: 15th
The Week Ahead
Vanderbilt kicks off its home slate this weekend with a visit from the Oakland Grizzlies. The Grizzlies were 19-31 in 2011 (10-18 Summit) and are making their 2012 debut against the Dores on Wednesday, February 22nd at 4:00 PM Central. The Grizzlies return four position starters, including outfielders Tim Ryan (.319 BA, 20 RBI) and Aaron Cieslak (.288, 31) and third baseman Mike Carson (.329, 28). On the hill, nine experienced pitchers return, though it’s difficult to say who the Commodores might face. The Grizzlies lack any big power arms with high strikeout capacity, but righty Russell Luxton (4-4, 4.72 ERA, 55.1 IP) and lefty Jeff Gorecki (1-3, 4.57, 43.1) have some decent numbers.
Expect the Commodores to allow several pitchers to work by committee in the home opener. In particular, Will Clinard and Drew Verhagen should be penciled in for an inning apiece, while Nevin Wilson may be offered the opportunity to make his Commodores debut. Despite facing an opponent who may be overmatched on paper and by talent, there will be pressure on the Commodores to rectify those things that went wrong in Palo Alto.
In the opening weekend series of the season, George Horton brings his Oregon Ducks to town. The Ducks, who finished 2011 with a 33-26-1 record and an eighth place finish in the Pac-10 with a mark of 11-16. Even more so than with the Commodores, Oregon has a ton of new faces on its young program’s roster with 18 new team members. They feature two solid veterans in the field with first baseman Ryon Healy (.320, 4 HR, 20 RBI) and catcher/outfielder Aaron Jones (.270, 2, 36). On the hill, they anticipate starting senior Alex Keudell (7-3, 2.89 ERA, 71 K, 90.1 IP) on Friday, with freshman Jake Reed and sophomore Brando Tessar (1-1, 2.08, 10, 17.1) carrying the Saturday and Sunday banners.
This past weekend, Oregon traveled to Hawaii for some good baseball weather. On Friday, Keudell pitched well, but was let down by his defense and bullpen in a 4-1 loss. Reed impressed on Saturday in a 12 inning, 3-2 victory, and Tessar was just alright over 6.2 innings in a 14-5 blowout win. Oregon will play one more game with Hawaii Monday night before heading home and then to Nashville on Wednesday night in advance of a Thursday game with Belmont. Having to play eight games in just 11 days may provide the Commodores an advantage in this early season, particularly with the number of new faces having Horton hearing many a “Who?”
While it would be easy to expect a changeup in the patterns used by Coach Corbin in the starting lineup, I expect we’ll see the same three starters for the Commodores this weekend. While only Selman was relatively sharp among the starters (and even then he was hit hard), no one other than perhaps Clinard could really stake a claim to being really on this early in the season.
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)
Vandy BlogoSphere – Anchor of Gold and VandySportsLine
Vandy Message Boards – VandySports and VandyMania
College Baseball Daily – Vanderbilt Tag
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