Commodores, foiled by Florida again, reflect on a season worth celebrating

Sunday, June 26, 2011 at 9:13pm
Jacob Jones and his father, Seth, were among the nearly 300 fans who welcomed home the Vanderbilt baseball team Saturday.

Once they tipped their caps to Florida for the final time, members of the Vanderbilt baseball team hung their heads.

“Everybody was pretty sad,” pitcher Taylor Hill said. “Most people were pretty much devastated, for a while at least.”

Coach Tim Corbin addressed those emotions at a meeting on the second floor of the team’s Omaha, Neb., hotel roughly two hours after the most successful season in program history ended with a 6-4 loss Friday in the Commodores’ fourth game of the College World Series. He spoke for roughly 30 minutes before he sent the players on their way to spend time with their families or one another to reflect on what they had accomplished.

“I just kind of put a finalization on the season,” Corbin said a day later. “I told them before I started, ‘I won’t be able to do enough justice at this particular meeting in a half hour. I can’t. But you understand because of how you acted this year, this disappointment is greater because what you did was so fulfilling to so many.’

“… The sadness was definitely a good thing because they all felt it.”

The feeling already had started to fade by the time the team returned to Nashville with a 54-12 record, an SEC-record 12 Major League Baseball draft picks and the first taste of the CWS ever by a Vanderbilt team. It was pushed further into the past upon their 2:05 p.m. arrival at campus, where a crowd of roughly 300 greeted them with chants, cheers and — most importantly — smiles.

The 2011 Commodores won more games, went deeper in the postseason and generally acquitted themselves better than any of their predecessors.

They simply could not solve Florida.

The Gators, who open the CWS championship series Monday against fellow SEC team South Carolina, won five of six head-to-head meetings with Vanderbilt. That included two games in Omaha as well as the SEC tournament title contest.

“At the end of the day, we ran into one team that is very talented and executes,” center fielder Connor Harrell said. “We had 12 losses — five of them were to Florida. We can’t let that determine the outlook on our season.  We’re very happy with what we did.”

Here’s the odd part: On the strength of their one victory — 14-1 on May 14 — the Commodores actually matched Florida 27-27 in runs scored against one another, and the hits were 59-49 in the Commodores’ favor (VU out-hit Florida twice, was out-hit three times and they tied once).

Both teams were ranked No. 1 at times during the season, and — along with South Carolina — they shared the regular-season conference title.

In wins and losses, though, Florida’s advantage was decisive.

“They’re a great team,” Hill said. “Obviously, I still think — and I’m going to say it — that we are a better team. But they got the best of us. That’s the game of baseball — anybody can win on any given day. It doesn’t matter who you are.

“They’re a great team. Best of luck to them.”

Four years ago, a team led by David Price and Pedro Alvarez had its dream of making it to the College World Series dashed by one swing in a loss to the University of Michigan. It was a stunning, sudden turn of events that hung over the program until this spring.

This time, Corbin’s team made it to Omaha but along the way continued to run into Florida. The Gators ultimately were an impassable road block and with the two losses last week, there was nowhere else for Vanderbilt to go but home — and into the record books.

“Hats off to Florida and hats off to us,” third baseman Jason Esposito said. “We played well. We did the best we could. We had a goal; we reached that goal and maybe in years to come Vanderbilt University will win a national championship.”

It is difficult to imagine any future team will have one opponent so daunting.