NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt baseball’s long-awaited return to the diamond is finally here.
First pitch of the 2021 season is finally scheduled for a doubleheader at noon Monday. That’s when the Commodores host Wright State at Hawkins Field.
“We’re just eager to play and start the season. We feel like we’re very fortunate to have this right now,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “The transition from the fall to the spring has been – knock on wood – a healthy one for all of us. Our attention is slowly moving toward an opponent, but we still have a lot of work to do, obviously.
“Right now we’re just trying to use these days as best we possibly can to grow the team.”
By the time Corbin’s Commodores take the field Friday it will have been 349 days since they last faced a different colored jersey. Hopes of repeating as 2019 national champions in 2020 were ended by the COVID-19 pandemic March 11 and Vandy hasn’t been on the field since.
Navigating an offseason outside the realm of normalcy while welcoming the traditional influx of new faces to the program has put a spin on position battles leading up to this weekend. Corbin, however, said he and his staff have begun recognize who will vie for the most playing time in 2021.
“We’ve had a fall to move some pieces some around. We’re moving more toward some consistent predictability among those positions. But this is very fluid,” he said. “We haven’t faced a lot of outside competition. I do recognize that things change when you’re facing another shirt – good and sometimes not so good.”
𝑺𝒖𝒏𝒅𝒂𝒚𝒔 𝒂𝒓𝒆 𝒔𝒑𝒆𝒄𝒊𝒂𝒍 𝒉𝒆𝒓𝒆. 🇺🇸
— Vanderbilt Baseball (@VandyBoys) February 17, 2021
What is certainly known is that pitching aces Kumar Rocker, a junior, and Jack Leiter, a sophomore, will be a 1-2 punch unmatched by any program in college baseball. Each is expected to selected inside the top-five picks of the 2021 MLB Draft.
After that this sextet of arms could take the mound for a start or long innings out of the bullpen: Thomas Schultz, Ethan Smith, Hugh Fisher, Sam Hliboki, Chris McElvain and Luke Murphy. Christian Little could be thrown in the mix as well.
The defense around those pitchers will include some familiar names, but names without a wealth of experience.
CJ Rodriguez is expected to begin his second season behind the dish, juniors Dominic Keegan (first base) and Tate Kolwyck (second base) will man the right side of the infield and Carter Young will quarterback the defense from shortstop. Parker Noland and Jayson Gonzalez will get looks at both third base and designated hitter while freshman Jack Bulger could be called upon for an at-bat or two in the early goings.
“There’s going to be some experience (to be gained),” Kolwyck said about the makeup of the young Vanderbilt lineup. “We’re going to have to learn. It’s an experience for a bunch of guys, but I think intersquading and scrimmaging against each other has definitely paid off. It’s going to help us a lot.”
It’s game week. 😎
— Vanderbilt Baseball (@VandyBoys) February 15, 2021
Vanderbilt has 17 freshmen on the roster and 15 sophomores. That’s 32 student-athletes who have yet to experience the grind of a 50+ game schedule or the depths of SEC competition.
Corbin noted that Wright State played more SEC games in 2020 than Vandy did – the Raiders went 6-9 overall and nine of those contests were against Mississippi State, Auburn and Tennessee.
Wright State went 42-17 in 2019 and 22-8 in the Horizon League only to be ousted in the league tournament. But coach Alex Segard’s program has been to the NCAA Tournament three times since 2015.
After this weekend’s opener, the Dores are scheduled to welcome in Western Kentucky on Tuesday before hosting Georgia State for a four-game series next weekend.
“I think the main thing is mentality,” Kolwyck said of the Commodores’ beginning this season. “Once that transition happens to another opponent, you’re just playing team offense, you’re with your boys and you just go up there and you’re just trying pass the baton to the next guy.
“As long as you just keep that team mentality I think that’s how it’s going to progress.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.