NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt did not enter the 2021 SEC Tournament the way it would have preferred.
One out away Saturday from clinching the SEC East Division and the No. 2 seed in Hoover, Alabama, five runs – courtesy of two home runs – later from from visiting Kentucky at Hawkins Field led to a 7-5, season-ending loss. That result dropped the Commodores (39-13) to the fourth seed and Wednesday’s late game at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
“I’ve been through this a bunch of times. It’s just part of competition, it’s part of the game,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “You go from exuberance on Thursday night (in a walk-off win) to devastation on Saturday. It’s just part of the deal and we talked about it and put it in the perspective it deserves. We lost a game. And someone would tell you you lost an opportunity at the division. I’d ask you do you remember the East Division champion in 2014? It would take you a while to think about it. But you know who the national champion is.
“There’s no medal for going halfway up the hill. It’s the team that finishes. That’s where we are. It’s probably a moment we needed and we went through it. But we clear it. We move from it quick because there’s a lot of great baseball in front of us.”
At 8 p.m. Wednesday the Dores will begin a quest for a second-straight SEC Tournament title. The 2019 team went 4-0 in the event in a precursor to winning a national championship later that postseason. The 2020 tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vandy’s path to the title this go around may be a tad more difficult, although the road to a trophy in Hoover is never easy. The Commodores will have to get by either Auburn (25-26) or Ole Miss (38-17) on Wednesday and then could possible face top-seed Arkansas (42-10) on Thursday.
“I think the most important thing is we love playing baseball. So let’s just play as any games as we can,” Vanderbilt junior Tate Kolwyck said in regards to his team’s mindset in Alabama. “We have fun on the field.”
With a win Wednesday, or at any point this week or next week during an NCAA Regional, Vanderbilt will record its 11th 40-win season in the Corbin era. That number may be a tad more impressive considering the circumstances of a season unlike any other.
Along with navigating COVID-19 protocols, Vandy has been dealt a rash of injuries from February until now. Kolwyck, Dominic Keegan, Cooper Davis, Carter Young, Troy LaNeve, Miles Garrett, Ethan Smith, Sam Hliboki and Michael Doolin are among the many who have been sidelined at one point or another.
Still, Corbin’s bunch found a way to have a shot at a division title going into the last game of the regular season and finished only 1/2-game behind Tennessee in the standings. The Commodores also claimed seven of the 10 SEC series they played.
“You could see what’s happened throughout the course of this season, we’ve really developed the next-man-up mentality,” Kolwyck said. “Every day we go to training – you’re trying to make the team. It’s so competitive and everybody knows that anything could happen in a split second and your name will be called.
“So just putting the focus on the training days more than anything, just day to day what can you do to get better so that if you get that position to be put in you’re ready for it.”
Vanderbilt will turn to freshman Christian Little on the mound Wednesday in the most significant start of the youngster’s career. Little (3-1) has made eight starts and 11 appearances in 2021 and sports a 5.57 ERA.
On May 18 against Florida International the St. Louis, Missouri, product went 4 2/3 innings and allowed just one run. On May 4 at Louisville, Little was touched up for six earned runs over five innings.
After Little’s start Wednesday the Commodores will rely on its big arms of Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, two of the nation’s top pitchers and top MLB Draft prospects. Leiter will be making his postseason debut when he gets the chance to pitch next and Rocker will be second ever SEC Tournament start.
After this week the Commodores will prepare to begin its run toward a possible second straight national championship. NCAA Regional play is scheduled to begin June 4.
Vandy would love to have some momentum on its side before then.
“I think it’s definitely a confidence booster if you go there and you play your ball and everything starts clicking. We’re just going to go out there and play our game,” Kolwyck said. “We’re a really competitive bunch. We’ve been in so many games this year where our backs are against the wall and we won’t give up.
“You can see how we’re always going to fight. We get punched and we’re going to punch back. I think that’s a very core value of this group.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.