NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt isn’t exactly the hottest baseball team going into the NCAA Tournament, but that likely matters little for a squad – and a program – that has been there and done that time and time again.
The Commodores (40-15) set out on the road to the College World Series at 6 p.m. Friday against Presbyterian (22-21) and, despite losing 3 of 4 coming in, are looking forward to the start of a new and most-important part of the season.
“We come out the gate hot, of course, and then as we moved on people start to get a little bit more tired and you see the faces get a little different,” Vanderbilt junior Kumar Rocker said. “And then, a new slate, it’s a new fresh season and I think we showed that (during Thursday’s training) just by our simple practice.
“I think we’re ready to move and have to understand where we’re at. We get to host a Regional, play in front of a nice crowd, we get play on TV – it’s the little things like that that we need to enjoy.”
Rocker, who could be making his last, or penultimate start, at Hawkins Filed this weekend if he decides to turn to professional baseball later this summer, leads Vandy into the Nashville Regional two years after his stardom took off with a no-hitter against Duke in a Super Regional elimination game. The then-freshman would go on to help the Dores to a 2019 national championship.
Vanderbilt didn’t get a chance to defend that title in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it’s back in the national postseason for the 15th time in a row.
“Handling the postseason is completely new,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “Basically it’s rewiring yourself for what’s coming now because what has happened in the past is very much in the past. It’s been a great proving ground for developing a very good baseball foundation, but just because things happened in a certain way during the regular season that doesn’t mean that’s going to happen moving forward.
“Our kids have confidence, they understand what they’ve done during the course of the season, they understand what they played and they just have to trust what they do and their foundation in moving forward.”
Corbin, sitting on 899 career wins, saw his team drop the regular-season finale to Kentucky and 2 of 3 contests at the always-challenging SEC Tournament. But in a three-win-and-advance scenario in Regional and Super Regional play the Commodores have to love their chances to get back to Omaha, Nebraska.
Rocker (11-3, 2.86) will be followed in this weekend’s rotation by fellow ace Jack Leiter (8-3, 2.28) and facing that 1-2 punch has been a daunting task for opponents all season long. Vandy’s bullpen with Nick Maldonado, Hugh Fisher, Luke Murphy and Ethan Smith has proven to be affective and Chris McElvain, Christian Little and Patrick Reilly can eat innings if needed.
Vanderbilt’s offense has relied on the table-setting abilities of Enrique Bradfield at the top of the lineup and the run production of Parker Noland. No other Commodore, however, has played in more than 50 games due a myriad of minor or major injuries and RBI-leader Carter Young (dislocated shoulder) remains day-to-day.
“Nothing has changed for us, really, it’s just coming out and doing what we know how to do best,” Bradfield said on the team’s mentality. “We’ve trained and we’ve played for these moments and we’ve worked for this. It’s just about enjoying the game and having fun together, playing smart and playing hard.”
Should Vandy prevail against the Blue Hose on Friday it will face the Georgia Tech-Indiana State winner at 6 p.m. Saturday. Here’s more on the 2021 Nashville Regional participants:
Presbyterian made the NCAA Tournament thanks to an automatic bid via a Big South Conference Tournament championship.
The Blue House beat Campbell, Gardner-Webb and then Campbell again to advance to the Division I postseason for the first time in program history. Kyle Decker (.316) and Zacchaeus Rasberry (.314) lead the Hose offensively while Eric Toth has driven in a lineup-best 41 runs – Toth also has a team-high eight saves.
Duncan Howard and Charlie McDaniel have each started 11 games and sport sub-5.00 ERAs.
Vanderbilt has played Presbyterian three times in its history – twice in 2018 and once in 2013 – and has outscored the Blue Hose 27-5 in those meetings. Corbin coached at the school from 1988-1993 and finished with a record of 106-138 while the team transitioned from NAIA during a first season in 1988 to Division II status by 1993.
“I’m excited for (Presbyterian coach) Elton Pollock and Presbyterian. I’m excited for them because I know how difficult it is to get into a Regional when you’re Presbyterian,” Corbin said. “They had to win their tournament and they had to play well and they are playing well and they are very dangerous and a mentally tough team like their coach.
“But I’m extremely excited for the University and Elton. Elton played for me, he was tough as nails, he was a great kid, he helped build that program when I was there and I just know how difficult what he has had to endure and preserves in order to get his team to where they are right now. I’m just excited they’ll be able to share the field with us, but we just need to play well.”
The Sycamores and Commodores are no strangers.
Vandy had to beat Indiana State twice in 2019 in the Nashville Regional to advance to a Super Regional. Those wins made the Dores 8-3 all-time against the consistently-tough program out of the Missouri Valley Conference.
Indiana State went 30-19 this season and received an at-large bid into the 64-team field after going 3-2 in the recent MWC Tournament. Jordan Schaffer (.360) leads three players in the Indiana State lineup who are all hitting more than .300 and Max Wright has 16 home runs and 40 RBIs.
Ace Geremy Guerrero (1.93) is 10-1 and has fanned 97 hitters in 93 1/3 innings. He’s also the national leader in WHIP at 0.76.
Out of the highly-competitive Atlantic Coast Conference, Georgia Tech went 29-23 this season and made the field of 64 despite going 1-2 at the ACC Tournament.
Five Yellow Jackets have driven in at least 30 runs this season led by Vanderbilt transfer Justyn-Henry Malloy who has 39 – he also has 10 home runs. Kevin Parada is hitting a team-best .328.
The Georgia Tech staff has three pitchers who have made at least 10 starts and reliever Zach Maxwell sports a 3.26 ERA.
Vandy hosted Georgia Tech in the 2013 Nashville Regional, the last time the two programs met. The Yellow Jackets own a 59-36-1 advantage in a series that dates to 1901.
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.