NASHVILLE, Tenn. — One week.
That’s all that remains between Vanderbilt and opening pitch in Arizona. The Commodores enter the home stretch of preseason training leading up to the season-opener against Michigan at 6 p.m. CT Feb. 14 in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“The guys are ready – we’re ready to go,” Vandy sophomore outfielder Isaiah Thomas said. “We’ve been playing against each other for a while now and we’re ready to face some other competition.”
Coming off a 59-win season and a national championship, Vandy begins the 2020 campaign with plenty of new faces and looking to fill the shoes left by six of the team’s nine position starters from 2019. Catcher Ty Duvall, second baseman Harrison Ray and third baseman Austin Martin remain from a team that won the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament championships.
Position battles to fill in the lineup this preseason have been fun to watch for head coach Tim Corbin.
“Pretty fluid,” Corbin said about his lineup and starters. “I don’t know how much of it will change dependent on the pitcher, some of it will. Some of it will depend on whether or not we can get certain guys back that would affect another hitter position.
“Right now I would say it’s completely up in the air. There aren’t positions that I think are solidified, at least (in the outfield).”
Roaming the outfield in 2020 will be junior Cooper Davis, sophomores Tate Kolwyck, Matt Hogan and Thomas and freshmen Will Duff and Parker Noland. Davis started 31 games in 2019 and played in 35 – he hit .331 with 19 RBIs and made 53 putouts.
Kolwyck, a former star quarterback in high school and an infielder in 2019, has transitioned to centerfield. Thomas played in 21 games last season and hit .368.
“It’s always a competitive environment with our guys. It makes us better at the end of the day,” Thomas said. “But the best guys will be out there and that just helps us every day.
“We play every position. We mix it up and no guy is in a certain position right now. It helps build that depth in the outfield and just builds that bond with the guys because we play each position. It’s fun being out there.”
Martin, a junior, returns to man his station at third and will begin the season as one of the top professional prospects in all of college baseball. Ray, a senior, resumes his spot at second base coming off a .276/.397/.358 season in which he also made 116 assists.
Joining them in the infield could be freshmen Carter Young or Sterling Hayes at shortstop. Sophomores Dominic Keegan and Justyn-Henry Malloy and freshman Spencer Jones have been fighting for playing time at first base.
“The young guys come ready to play,” Vanderbilt sophomore relief pitcher Chance Huff said of the infield behind him. “Just with anything, (Corbin) expects young guys to come in and do their thing. They’ve proven that over the fall.”
Vanderbilt’s starting rotation could shape up to be one of the best in the nation with sophomore Kumar Rocker and junior Mason Hickman leading the charge. Junior Tyler Brown bolsters the back end as the squad’s returning closer.
Behind the plate Duvall is coming off a season in which he hit .275 and drove in 42 runs in 63 games as both a catcher and designated hitter. Keegan could see time behind the plate as well along with freshmen CJ Rodriguez and Maxwell Romero Jr.
The middle part of the diamond is always key to success, Corbin said.
“I think a person that can play that triangle spot from short to center to second and slide over to both spots is very helpful to us,” Corbin said. “You’re an ankle injury away from having to put a player somewhere else. We’ve just tried to take pieces and put them all over the field in case we need that spot offensively or in case we come down with an injury.”
The Commodores won’t be afforded the luxury of easing into the schedule. After facing Michigan, Vandy takes the field Feb. 15 against a Connecticut team that won 39 games in 2019 and went 3-2 in the Oklahoma State regional.
Vanderbilt opens the 2020 home slate Feb. 18 against a traditionally-strong South Alabama program that won 30 games last season.
“You have to be in some fights, and you have to get hit in the jaw a couple of times to know what it feels like,” Corbin said. “I think the quicker you get into that – that type of opponent – then you benefit from it, win or lose.”