NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Although Vanderbilt arrives at the 2021 College World Series as the last team to win a national championship, the Commodores are well-enough removed from a 2019 national title to have that be a distant memory.
The COVID-19 pandemic coupled with roster additions and departures virtually makes this season’s squad more of a a newcomer to the experience that is Omaha and TD Ameritrade Park.
Yes, veteran Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin has made the trip often. And seniors like Cooper Davis, Jayson Gonzalez and Hugh Fisher have been there before and starting pitcher Kumar Rocker played a vital role in the ’19 championship run. But the majority of the key players wearing black and gold this time around will be experiencing something completely new.
“There’s a tourist piece to this and I think there’s a player piece to this. You learn how to work through that because there’s an awe factor to that and you want them to work through that,” Corbin said. “It’s like going to Disneyworld in a lot of different ways, but it’s baseball rather than rides. The emotional you get from being in it is fun and we’ll enjoy that the next couple of days.
“I think it’s just trying to get comfortable. I think in a lot of ways teams that get comfortable quick experience some type of success. They feel a little bit of normalcy.”
Vanderbilt arrived in the Gateway to the West on Wednesday in an effort to acclimate itself to the surroundings as quickly as possible. On Friday it held its final training session at TD Ameritrade Park before showtime at 6 p.m. Saturday against Arizona.
The Dores have yet to lose in the NCAA Tournament after beating East Carolina twice at Hawkins Field in a Super Regional and going 3-0 against Presbyterian and Georgia Tech in the Nashville Regional. They’ve rode the ace pitching of Rocker and sophomore Jack Leiter to suffocate opposing offenses while getting just enough timely hits to stay alive unto this point.
Now the stakes have been raised as Corbin’s club looks for a third national championship in program history among an elite field of seven other teams.
“They’re not giddy, they’re not weird, they’re not posturing or coming out of their personality,” Corbin said of his team’s mentality. “You want to go (to Omaha) and take it in first and then at any point in time you transition into that player piece. We will. We’ll do that. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but there’s a comfort level in getting here and indulging in the emotion of it before you start playing and we do that.”
Arizona (45-16) got to Omaha after staving off elimination against Ole Miss in the Tucson Super Regional by beating the Rebels 16-3 on Sunday in a third and decisive game. The Wildcats beat Grand Canyon and California Santa Barbara (twice) in the Tucson Regional to begin their postseason run.
After starting the year with a disappointing, four-game split against Ball State at home, Arizona went on a nine-game winning streak. It would go on to win the Pac-12 Conference (which has no league tournament) by a game over Oregon.
The Wildcats lead the country in doubles (138), hits (526) and triples (29) and are second in on-base percentage (.428), fourth in batting average (.329), fifth in scoring (8.6 runs per game) and sixth in slugging (.513).
Junior outfielder Donta Williams has drawn 50 walks and scored 80 runs this season, sophomore outfielder Brandon Boissiere is eight hits away from 100 and freshman third baseman Jacob Berry has 70 RBIs and 164 total bases.
“Just in general you hear a lot about Arizona’s offense. It’s a good offense, a hit-first offense,” Rocker said. “Really, as a pitcher in my position I guess, I go out there and play my game regardless. So that’s what I’m going to do when it comes the time.”
Should Vanderbilt get past Arizona it would face North Carolina State (35-18) or Stanford (38-15) at 6 p.m. Monday. A loss means a 1 p.m. contest Monday against either of those squads.
All eight teams will be looking to be one of two left standing come June 28 for the best-of-three final series which will crown the national champion. Vanderbilt has certainly climbed that mountain before – but this group will have to find its new path to the summit.
“Emotion comes when you’re young – this is a young group,” Rocker said. “We’re going to play how we want to play.
“With this team, the emotion, once these kids get a grasp on that and move forward and play with it? I think the best version of themselves is going to come out.”
• Vanderbilt is 16-7 all-time at the College World Series.
• The Commodores are 24-7 in their last 31 postseason games.
• Rocker is now has a record of 27-9 for his career with a 2.77 ERA having struck out 297 hitters over 220 2/3 innings.
• Rocker is 7-1 all-time in the postseason with a 1.59 ERA and 6-0 with an 0.63 ERA in the NCAA Tournament.
• Rocker ranks second nationally with 155 strikeouts and is seventh in hits allowed per nine innings (5.01). He is also tied for the national lead in wins with 13.
• Rocker needs one more win to tie the program record for pitching wins in a season (14) set by Tyler Beede in 2013 and matched by Carson Fulmer in 2015.
• The 26 career pitching wins for Rocker ranks fourth in Vanderbilt history behind Sonny Gray (27), Jeff Peeples (29) and Patrick Raby (32).
• Rocker has 297 career strikeouts which ranks him eight for a Vanderbilt career, six behind Mike Minor for seventh. David Price recorded 441 strikeouts.
• Leiter is now 12-3 with an ERA of 2.09. He has struck out 178 batters in 111 2/3 innings pitched.
• Leiter leads the nation with 156 strikeouts, is second in hits allowed per nine innings (3.84), fourth in strikeouts per nine innings (14.6) and seventh in WHIP (.085).
• Leiter ranks third in Vandy history for strikeouts in a single season while Rocker is fourth. Carson Fulmer struck out 167 hitters in 2015 while David Price recorded 194 in 2007.
• Leiter’s 2.09 ERA ranks third all-time in Vanderbilt history while Rocker’s 2.77 mark is sixth.
• Vandy pitchers have struck out 699 hitters this season, 66 fewer than the 2019 staff which fanned a program-record 765.
• Vanderbilt freshman Enrique Bradfield leads the nation with 46 stolen bases, seven more than Texas senior Mike Antico.
• The Commodores go into the College World Series ranking first in WHIP (1.07) and hits allowed per nine innings (5.97), second in strikeouts per nine innings (11.8), third in shutouts (eight), sixth in ERA (3.37), seventh in doubles (127), hits (612) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.19), eighth in slugging (.503) and ninth in triples (20).
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.