NASHVILLE, Tenn. — First pitch is so close the Commodores can taste it.
“It’s been fun playing each other. It’s always fun and very competitive for us,” Vanderbilt senior second baseman Harrison Ray said. “But once you get to go against somebody else, that’s the ultimate joy. You’re getting a chance to go and compete with your guys against another opponent. That’s a great feeling.”
Vanderbilt begins the much-anticipated 2020 season Friday at the MLB4 Tournament outside of Scottsdale, Arizona. The defending national champions are coming off an incomparable season in which they won 59 games, an SEC regular-season and tournament championship and, of course, the second national title in program history.
Turning the page to the next chapter of Vandy baseball began months ago in the fall. The writing of that next chapter begins this weekend with three games that mark the first step on a long trail the program hopes ends once again in Omaha, Nebraska.
“If you’re a player that’s played in the program before and experienced that, the team success is really reliant upon the energies that were created among the group and how they can orchestrate them and how they can move forward,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “It helps to have kids that have been through things before so they can relay information, but at the same time you’re recreating another team. It’s only dependent upon what you’re doing right now – it’s not dependent on what happened.
“It’s a very independent thing.”
The Commodores bring back two of the top starting pitchers in college baseball in sophomore Kumar Rocker (12-5, 3.25 ERA, 114 strikeouts in 99 2/3 innings in 2019) and junior Mason Hickman (9-0, 2.05 ERA, .183 opponents batting averaged, 129 strikeouts in 96 2/3 innings). Senior Tyler Brown (20 career saves) is back to anchor the bullpen and Corbin announced Wednesday that junior Jake Eder will begin the season as the team’s third starting pitcher.
Vandy, however, has to replace six starters from a lineup that hit a program record 100 home runs and scored 8.1 runs per game last season. There are also 14 position players on the roster who are freshmen or sophomores.
So the first few weeks of the season will feature plenty of fluidity when it comes to lineups, positions switches and innings played.
“Our goal coming into this year is not to try to be that team or come close to that (2019) team. We’re going to be a different team,” Ray said. “We’re going to run, we’re going to play more small ball – we’re going to do different things, move guys over, get them in.
“We’re going to do all those little things to score all the runs that we did last year – it’s just going to come in a different way.”
Friday’s tilt between Vanderbilt and Michigan is an historic matchup of two programs that have been at the forefront of college baseball over the past nine months. Vanderbilt took 2 of 3 from Michigan in the College World Series finals in June, then the two teams met in a November exhibition for the David Williams Fall Classic at Hawkins Field.
The rematch at 6 p.m. CT Friday marks the first time the two CWS finalists from a year prior will begin the ensuing season against one another (Georgia beat Oklahoma State in the 1990 College World Series then opened the 1991 regular season against the Cowboys).
“It’s going to be a very good game, very well-played, both teams are going to be well-prepared,” Ray said. “Michigan, they bring back a lot of old guys so they’re going to come after us pretty hard. We wouldn’t expect anything else from them. We expect a really good game.”
Vanderbilt will also face UConn at 6 p.m. CT Saturday and Cal Poly at 3 p.m. CT Sunday. UConn, who last faced Vandy in 2005, went 39-25 in 2019 and 12-12 in the Big East – the Huskies went 3-2 in an NCAA Regional in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
The Mustangs of Cal Poly were a 28-28 team a season ago and finished 17-7 in the Big West Conference. Cal Poly last made an NCAA Regional in 2014.
Vandy started the 2019 season also in Arizona and beat Virginia and Cal State Fullerton, respectively, before falling to TCU. This weekend’s games are scheduled to be played at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, the spring training home to both the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies.
“We enjoyed it so much (in 2019), thought it was a good celebration to start the season and, of course, being on the MLB Network is a benefit, too, for the program,” Corbin said. “We’re playing three very good teams, starting off with a team we’re very familiar with.
“I think it’s just a great celebration for the kids. It’s good for them and good for the program.”