Commodores, Pirates Battle for Spot in CWS

Vanderbilt welcome East Carolina for Super Regional

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin knows what he’ll see this weekend when his Commodores step onto the field against East Carolina in an NCAA Super Regional at 11 a.m. Friday.

He also knows it’s an opponent unlike any other his side has witnessed in 2021.

“They do a lot of different things,” Corbin said. “If they get on base they push a lot of buttons. They’re very active in terms of running. They have pretty deep playbook in terms of what they do. You just have to prepare for that. I think the simplest way is trying to get the lead-off out as quickly as you can. That’s a big deal. If you don’t then they like to force pressure on you.

“They’re probably as unique a team as we’ve faced all year. When I was talking about them to the kids I really couldn’t compare them to anyone because there’s no one that compares to them in terms of the balance of the hitters, the power, the speed. They just play a brand of baseball that’s completely different.”

Corbin will also look across Hawkins Field and see a familiar face in East Carolina head coach Cliff Godwin. Godwin spent the 2005 season with Corbin as Vandy’s director of operations and the two have long been friends.

Since then the veteran coach Godwin has helped build the Pirates into a perennial contender in the American Athletic Conference. And although East Carolina (44-15) has never been to the College World Series, it is in its seventh NCAA Tournament since 2011 and third Super Regional since 2016.

East Carolina arrives in Nashville having won the Greenville Regional with wins over Norfolk State, Charlotte and Maryland, respectively. It also won the AAC regular-season title.

“Every team is good at this point,” Vanderbilt junior Dominic Keegan said of the matchup. “Every time you step on the field you’re getting everybody’s best. You just got to go out there and play your game and be confident with what you’ve done up to this point and your preparation.

“I’m confident in my guys and I think we’re going to go out there and we’re going to give it all we got.”

While Vanderbilt has rode the momentum of its 1-2, starting-pitching punch of Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, East Carolina has a legitimate starting pitching duo of its own.

Gavin Williams, a 6-foot-6, 240-pound junior, is 10-0 with a 1.82 ERA and has fanned 117 hitters in 74 innings. Carson Whisenhunt, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound freshman, is 6-1 with a 3.75 ERA and has 76 Ks in 57 2/3 innings.

Second baseman and lead-off hitter Connor Norby ranks eighth nationally with a .418 average and has driven in 61 runs to go along with 15 home runs. He’s one of five Pirates hitting at least .299 and one of seven with at least 30 RBIs.

More than the gaudy numbers, Corbin said, the Pirates have a mentality about them as well.

“You play for Cliff Godwin and you play in East Carolina’s program and you’re going to be a tough kid,” Corbin said of the Pirates’ makeup. “You’re going to have fibers that are going to allow you to compete at a high level.”

Vanderbilt (43-15) is fresh off an exhilarating, three-game sweep of the Nashville Regional in which it beat Presbyterian and then Georgia Tech twice. The last victory was a five-hour, 11-inning marathon that the Dores won 14-11.

It was a result in which Corbin said he saw his team grow since many of the younger players on his roster had yet to experience such a high-intensity series of moments. Going into another pressure-packed weekend there will be more moments some of the first-timers will have to fight through in order to get to the other side.

“We have a lot of guys in the locker room who have done this before. It’s just learning from them and leaning on them for support and having an idea of what to expect,” Vandy sophomore catcher CJ Rodriguez said. “There’s also a lot of guys in this lineup who haven’t one through this yet so we just have to learn as we go and lean on the older guys for help and guidance through the postseason.”

Vanderbilt is searching for its fifth trip to the College World Series – all coming since 2011. The Commodores will need to beat East Carolina twice this weekend (Saturday’s game is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. while Sunday’s third game, if necessary, is slated to start at 2 p.m.) to return to Omaha, Nebraska, where it won a national championship in 2014 and 2019.

Vandy is also 22-7 in its last 29 postseason games.

Of course, all of that matters very little in the present going into a series that is shaping up to be a classic.

“Regardless of what the narrative is of Vanderbilt, what the narrative is of East Carolina, all teams are very dangerous right now,” Corbin said. “It’s not the best team that wins. It’s the team that plays the best. You have to go through some moments that can enable you to move forward in a championship environment.”

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for
Follow him @MrChadBishop.