Vandy Baseball: Sixth Week Behind, Week Ahead
From the darkest of moments, the Vanderbilt season has seemingly turned a corner. Although it would be hard to imagine another Omaha run and the NCAA playoffs still seem like a long shot, the VandyBoys do appear to be having fun out there. After a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Georgia on Friday, the Commodores erupted upon Conrad Gregor’s game winning single on Saturday night. Visiting Bulldog fans might have wondered what could have caused a near dog pile type celebration, but after seeing the frustration of a 7-15 record at the time and a season with so much promise in which so many things have gone wrong, the raucous victory lap was long overdue.
The Dores have a long way to go to get truly right, but it was a great first step and a pair of nail-biter victories over the Bulldogs were complimented by an easy midweek win over Tennessee Tech. More importantly, for the first time this season, Vanderbilt appears to be really having fun out there and is playing a more fundamentally sound version of baseball.
The Immediate Progression – Getting to .501
Eligibility for the SEC playoffs has been expanded to ten teams in 2012. Currently, only one team seems certain to be excluded. The Alabama Crimson Tide are 9-16 and just 1-5 in SEC play with an RPI of 135. While Vanderbilt is just a game better on the season (and, more troubling, has yet to win any of their seven road games – though six have been against NCAA’s elite Florida and Stanford squads), the Commodores schedule appears softer than the Tide from hereon out. So it seems that Vanderbilt will likely compete with Tennessee (15-10, 2-4) and an injury-plagued Mississippi State (17-9, 2-4) squad for the lower end of Hoover eligibility this year.
Now, it’s entirely possible that the VandyBoys could either click on full in SEC play – after all, the talent is there – or completely fall apart. My guess is that we end up somewhere in the middle of that road. The starting pitching has certainly come around, and if TJ Pecoraro can regain his feel for pitching and have enough endurance to start, Vanderbilt should feel confident in a Sunday win each week (especially with Drew VerHagen and Will Clinard sharing closing duties).
So what would Vanderbilt need to do to be eligible for post-season play?
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To make it to Hoover, as little as twelve and as many as fourteen wins may be necessary. There is going to be more balance in the middle of the league this year, with Florida as the only truly elite squad (relative to 2011, in which Vanderbilt, South Carolina and the Gators were a whopping 57-15 against the rest of the SEC). Kentucky and Tennessee’s poor performance (a combined 15-45 offset that excellence a bit, but one can expect that an 11-13 finish to SEC play should get the Commodores into post-season action.
NCAA eligibility is a different matter. Under the current format, a team must finish above .500 entering regional play to be eligible. Because Vanderbilt played two fall games, we have only 54 games to get there (as opposed to the 56 game maximum for regular season schedules), in addition to any SEC tournament play. At 10-15, we’re five games in the hole entering the series against South Carolina.
Vanderbilt has a probable win on the out of conference slate against UT-Martin (7-15, 209 RPI) and two against Middle Tennessee (15-11, 148). Competitive matchups remain against Belmont (16-10,46), who defeated Vanderbilt back on March 6th, and Louisville (18-7, 61). All of these games are at home and a clean sweep could even up Vanderbilt at .500.
The SEC slate is a tougher road to hoe. South Carolina (18-7, 12) is in town this weekend, followed by a visit to Mississippi State (17-9, 33). Auburn (15-10, 33) then comes to town before Vanderbilt travels to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama (9-16, 135). Red hot Kentucky (25-1, 5) visits in the last weekend of April, before Vanderbilt open May in Knoxville at Tennessee (15-10, 67). The season ends with a trip to Louisiana State (19-6, 29) and a visit from Ole Miss (18-7, 21).
As you can see, none of these will be easy wins; however, Vanderbilt escapes having to face SEC West leader Arkansas (22-3, 8 RPI) this season and gets South Carolina and Kentucky at home. If Vanderbilt is capable of winning out its out of conference slate, a mere 12-12 conference finish (for a 14-16 SEC record) would be enough for Vanderbilt to enter Hoover at .500.
In 2011, two teams flirted with NCAA eligibility entering Hoover. Auburn was 29-27 and needed just one win to secure eligibility, but lost in consecutive matchups with South Carolina and Georgia, resulting in a 29-29 record and a trip to whatever summer leagues their players dispersed to. Georgia, on the other hand, was 28-28 at the end of the regular season and needed three wins in the SEC tournament (or a championship for the automatic SEC bid). They accomplished that with wins over Auburn, South Carolina and Florida, sandwiched between Vanderbilt and Florida.
To be very comfortable, Vanderbilt would want to be at 28-26 or 29-25 entering the SEC tournament, requiring a herculean finish of 18-11 or 19-10. That’s not terribly likely; however, in facing a double elimination tournament, you do not want to have to enter that setting needing more than two or three wins for eligibility. Of course, Coach Corbin’s mantra will be to win the darn thing outright.
Ultimately, Vanderbilt will have a sufficient RPI to the extent that we get over .500 in our regular season record plus Hoover. Our current Warren Nolan RPI is 66, but that is against the sixth ranked strength of schedule.
The Week Behind
I still haven’t figured out how to manage getting the blog done with my time schedule, so these recaps will be concise.
Friday – Georgia 1, Vanderbilt 0
A solid start by Kevin Ziomek was wasted the Commodores couldn’t recover from a fourth inning home run by former VandyBoy Curt Powell (who transferred out after his freshman Fall, eventually landing in Athens). Ziomek allowed just one hit and one walk over 5.1 innings, while striking out six in an outing that was cut short by an extended rain delay. Drew VerHagen also was excellent in 3.2 innings of relief, striking out one while allowing two hits and one walk. The Dores outhit Georgia seven to three, with Spencer Navin and Conrad Gregor each collecting two hits. The game ended with Navin being thrown out on the rear end of a double steal with Gregor. The loss marked the first five-game losing streak for Vandy in four years.
Saturday – Vanderbilt 5, Georgia 4
The Commodores picked up their first win of the year when scoring less than seven runs and they did it in spectacular fashion, thanks to a late inning collapse of the Georgia bullpen. Tyler Beede was excellent for the Dores, touching 94 and 95 in the Black and Gold for the first time. His added velocity helps him set a career high with eight strikeouts over his five innings of one run work.
That said, the game was tenuous as Georgia seemed to continuously reach on seeing eye singles and flares over the infield. Despite not striking the ball well, Bulldog batters had a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .548 (a virtually unheard of number that was actually around .667 in the late innings). On the other side, the Commodores rallied for nine hits and six walks and put together a stout rally in the ninth (with the help of an error and closer Blake Dietrich’s wildness) that ended with Conrad Gregor (3-5, 2 RBI) pounding a walk off single to right. As I said on twitter, it’s not often that you lose a game in which you yield three hits on one day, while winning one in which you give up 17 the next.
The Dores used five pitchers in relief, but the headliner was TJ Pecoraro, who looked very, very strong and sharp in his first action since leaving a game in last year’s final regular season series (also against Georgia) with an injury that would require Tommy John surgery. He will certainly factor into the pitching mix quite quickly, as he showed his ability to beat batters with the fastball and enough confidence to throw strikes consistently.
Sunday – Vanderbilt 5, Georgia 3
The Dores picked up their first SEC series win with another come from behind victory over the Bulldogs. Will Clinard was effective in his first start of the year (just a day after picking up the win with an inning of relief), and Drew VerHagen excelled in the Flex reliever role he seemed to have assumed from Clinard. Philip Pfeifer also impressed in his first appearance in several weeks.
Again the VandyBoys forced a late inning bullpen collapse from Georgia, this time from stud reliever Brian Benzor. The Dores put up a four spot in the eighth inning, led by a game-tying RBI single by Gregor, followed by a Navin single and a rocketed triple off the bat of Vicente Conde, which would prove to be the decisive blow. Conde went 2-4 for the day with three RBI and a run, marking an end to a mini-slump that had plagued the young third baseman.
Wednesday – Vanderbilt 6, Tennessee Tech 0
It was another day and another set of VandyBoys stepping up for the Commodores on Tuesday. After snapping their longest losing streak of the season, the Dores extended their longest winning streak of the season to three behind the stout arm of Sam Selman and a dominating performance at the plate by Joel McKeithan. It was great to see as both players had been struggling, with Selman’s ERA floating around 10.00 and McKeithan going 0-9 on the season to date.
Selman’s fastball was simply unhittable throughout the day, sitting in the 92-94 range while extending to 95 several times and touching 96 once. More importantly, he spotted it where he wanted. While his devastating slider proved a little harder to control, he used it well enough to earn a couple of extra strikeouts. On the day, he went five innings, allowing two hits and two fifth inning walks against seven strikeouts. Freshman Brian Dramamine Miller followed on with a stout relief appearance, striking out one, hitting three batters and allowing just two hits over the final four innings for the save.
Meanwhile, McKeithan seems to just want to play Tennessee Tech. Going 4-4 with two runs and an RBI, the Sophomore now counts all five of his career hits against Tech. In fact, he’s 5-5 against them and 0-13 against the rest of the Commodore slate of opponents. Gregor continued his hot hitting, with two base knocks and a pair of RBI.
Apologies, Corrections and Indignation
Apologies have gone out in the past for my failure to get a season preview out. Further apologies go out now for my failure to get the promised recruiting overview done. I’ve collected a tremendous amount of information on the incoming class, but I just haven’t had the chance to get it typed up yet.
A correction goes out with respect to my concerns regarding our infield defense. Although Riley is always a rock, I expressed doubt in the capabilities of Anthony Gomez at short – which is really quite amusing as he was a well-above average shortstop last year who simply hit a rough patch at the start of this season. Gomez has rebounded and was nothing short of excellent on Friday night in support of Kevin Ziomek. His defense has returned to 2011 levels. Meanwhile, Vicente Conde has settled in a good bit at third base after a disastrous start to his Vanderbilt career. I still have some concerns about his footwork not being where it needs to be, but he’s shown marked improvement, while reminding us of just how spoiled one can get with Jason Esposito manning the hot corner. At first, Conrad Gregor is not a plus defender and may never be, but he’s really held his own of late by making every play he should, and showing good instincts on ground balls to him and the related tosses to pitchers covering. He still struggles a bit digging low throws out of the dirt, but he’s been more than serviceable of late. Coach Corbin has been mixing the lineup up a bit by trying to get Jack Lupo into the outfield (by either sitting Connor Harrell or moving Tony Kemp to second), which resulted in Riley Reynolds sitting for several games in the last week, but the defense has responded positively.
Indignation goes out to ESPN for not doing enough to promote their outstanding SEC slate of Thursday night games. I know we’re in the middle of March Madness, but last weekend saw one of the premiere series in all of College baseball this year. Florida and South Carolina went toe to toe in a doozy with four of the nation’s best pitchers (Hudson Randall and Austin Maddox of the Gators and Michael Roth and Matt Price of the Gamecocks) on the hill. I don’t know what the TV ratings ESPNU drew for that matchup, but I can tell you it should have been much higher. Here’s hoping that ESPN finally realizes the value-added it received when SEC baseball was thrown in with basketball and Olympic sports in the SEC-ESPN football media contract.
As is the new tradition, the weekly honors are named after the novelty fake Drew Fann account for Position Players and the twitter account for David Price’s dog Astro for Pitcher honors.
@FakeDrewFann Position Player of the Week
Conrad Gregor got it done this week, going 8 of 17 at the plate with a pair of runs and five RBI. More importantly, he was right in the middle of both wins against Georgia with a walk-off win single and a game tying single on consecutive nights.
@Astro_DPsDog Pitcher of the Week
This was the hardest selection of a pitcher of the week to date. The sentimentalist in me immediately thought TJ Pecoraro, who struck out two while allowing one hit and hitting a batter in 1.2 innings on Saturday; however, each of the four Vanderbilt starters turned in excellent performances. Ultimately, it was Selman who ruled the day. His seven strikeouts in five innings was just a brilliant example of a Major League arm finally finding the plate consistently. Credit also should be given to Drew Fann who was very good behind the plate and, when Selman struggled in the five inning, went out and reminded the lefty to keep his shoulder in, resulting in a quick, big out to end a potential threat.
Notes and Ramblings
I learned an interesting tidbit from this ESPN article on new Football quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels. The transfer from Wyoming and former Conference Freshman of the Year is the blood of a former Vanderbilt baseball star. Carta-Samuels’ grandfather Tom was a Commodore center fielder and cleanup hitter. The current Bay area doctor fondly recalls batting cleanup and hitting homers on top of the Memorial patio, according to Austyn.
It was a good week for Commodores in the pros with Mark Lamm making his debut pitching a spring training inning for the Atlanta Braves. Meanwhile, Flash Flaherty appears to have earned a spot on the Orioles roster and recent had two RBI in a game in which Jason Esposito got to play and laced two hits and scored a pair of runs. The Doreioles indeed!
The Week Ahead
South Carolina enters this weekend at just 18-7 and 1-5 in conference play. To put that in perspective, they were (as were Vanderbilt and Florida) 22-8 in SEC play last year. They met that fate due to having run into then unbeaten Kentucky and the ever dominant Florida. But that 18-7, 1-5 record should fool no one. They still are the two-time defending champs and have the chops to prove it.
It starts with all-Americans in the rotation. Michael Roth (2-0, 1.28 ERA, 42.1 IP, 41 K) continues his Friday night dominance and has a miniscule .152 batting average against. Meanwhile, Matt Price (3-2, 3.73, 31.1, 37) has shifted to primarily starting and has numbers that are vastly inflated by a couple of poor performances that belie his .165 batting average against and mid-90s heat. If Price is not needed to close on Friday night (as he did against Florida), expect him to start on Saturday. If Price does close, Forrest Koumas (1-2, 5.93, 13.2, 18) is the likely starter, though he is coming off a shellacking at the hands of the Gators last week. Sunday belongs to lefty Colby Holmes (3-0, 2.67, 27, 27), who has emerged to become one of the SEC’s top Sunday guys. Key relievers include Tyler Webb (2-0, 0.93, 19.1, 22) and Nolan Belcher (1-1, 2.45, 11, 9), while Ethan Carter has yet to allow a run in 10 innings and has a batting average against of .088.
At the plate, Evan Marzilli (.340, 1 HR, 12 RBI, .876 OPS) and Christian Walker (.311, 3, 23, .905) lead the way for a squad that is hitting a respectable .280 as a team. Joey Pankake (.354, 1, 8, .896) is the team leader in batting average, but the Gamecocks make their bones on the mound, with a 2.75 team ERA and a minuscule .190 batting average against. If Vanderbilt is to emerge with a series win, the Dores will need big performances from the starters and a few clutch hits to make things happen.
The Commodores will send Kevin Ziomek (2-3, 3.82, 33, 34) to the hill on Friday and Ty Beede (0-3, 6.46, 23.2, 26) will take the ball on Friday. If Will Clinard (2-1, 3.80, 23.2, 20) is not used in relief in the opening games, he should be expected to start on Sunday. Drew VerHagen (3-2, 3.41, 29, 15) will likely see key innings in relief, but could also start on Sunday if rested. Sam Selman (1-3, 7.83, 23, 23) would be the likely third option, if needed.
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
Baseball America – Top 25 Tracker Page (updates when posted by BA)