NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Omaha is where Vanderbilt always expected to end up in 2021. The journey there, of course, was never easy.
And even though the Commodores (45-15) made it look as such Friday and Saturday by outscoring visiting East Carolina 6-1 in two games while holding the Pirates to just five hits, the struggle to be one of the eight teams left standing when the College World Series starts next week wasn’t lost on veteran head coach Tim Corbin.
“This road was not easy, by any stretch,” he said. “A lot of kids who were on the field (this weekend) were for the first time. You had some kids that were with the 2019 team that were never on the field. So to do it with this group is special. They’ve been very consistent with their behaviors and because of that they’ve put themselves in good situations.”
Carter Young, who just recently dislocated a shoulder, drove in two runs with a double in the fifth inning that proved to the game-winning hit. The fact that a banged-up Commodore was at the heart of the heroics Saturday was somewhat symbolic.
“That’s what he has done all year,” Leiter said. “I’m happy to see him back in the lineup. Really good hitter. It was a good piece of hitting and a really big moment for him and the team.”
Vandy’s season started with Cooper Davis taking a foul ball to the face which resulted in a broken nose. Sam Hliboki, a key reliever, had season-ending arm surgery along the way. Tate Kolwyck has been out of the lineup in recent days with an injured hand.
Dominic Keegan, Troy LaNeve and Ethan Smith are just a few of the other key Commodores who have been sidelined at one moment or another. Only Bradfield and Parker Noland had played in more than 50 games for Vanderbilt coming into the postseason.
Still, the Dores managed to cross the 40-win threshold and goes to Omaha, Nebraska, 5-0 in the postseason.
“This journey has been special for everybody in the organization – players, staff and everybody associated with us,” Bradfield said. “We’ve faced so much adversity as a team and one thing remains the same is that we’ve been able to lean on each other and we always find our way back to each other. That has helped us to get through he rough patches, the injuries, whatever it may be. We’re still standing and we’re still here.”
Vanderbilt, technically, is the defending national champions having won the event in 2019. But there was no College World Series in 2020 due to COVID-19 and the pandemic continued to greatly alter competition at the season’s outset.
The Commodores beat Wright State on Feb. 22 inside a virtually empty stadium with snow on the sidelines. On Saturday a capacity crowd of 3,573 roared when the 27th out was made.
“The fact that we could withstand (COVID-19) and then gain some momentum and just kind of put some things to gather, put our classroom back together again – I knew we were playing well,” Corbin said. “I felt like (capacity crowds) would give us a good chance to gain some momentum once we started playing at home. We played so well through the course of the year to give ourselves an opportunity to host a Regional and Super Regional.
“If you don’t do that it becomes very difficult.”
As for Leiter and Rocker, that duo combined to throw 14 2/3 innings, allow one earned run and strike out 21 hitters against East Carolina. Nick Maldonado threw 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief over two appearances and Luke Murphy recorded a save with a perfect 1-2-3 inning Friday in the 2-0 win.
The Rocker-Leiter duo will give Vanderbilt a great chance to make a deep run in the College World Series, but the team will need other starters like Patrick Reilly, Thomas Schultz and Christian Little to step up as well. Bradfield became an incomparable spark for the team’s offense at the top of the order and Keegan arguably developed into the squad’s most-dangerous power hitter, but against baseball’s elite Vanderbilt will need some more clutch hitting from some unlikely sources.
If all that happens the Commodores could be hoisting the trophy for the third time in seven tries. But no matter the final result at the end of the month, Corbin’s club once again has, at the very least, a chance.
“This is why you come to Vanderbilt for moments like this,” Leiter said. “Honestly this season just would felt incomplete if we didn’t make it this far. I’m just happy for the team and I can’t wait to celebrate with them.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.