Riley Reynolds finished his freshman season riding high. He left his sophomore year grounded.
Entering his junior campaign at Vanderbilt, with baseball practices set to begin Friday, Reynolds realizes he can’t take anything for granted because a lot can happen in a year’s time.
“I feel like it helped me grow a lot as a person,” he said. “It helped me learn the work habits I need to have to get better, to not just be content with what I was at freshman year but to get better, and that you always have to work for what you want. You are never going to get handed anything.”
Reynolds learned that the hard way.
The native of Lee’s Summit, Mo., trotted onto the collegiate diamond in 2009 as the Commodores’ starting second baseman during a freshman season in which he hit .332 with 15 doubles, 40 runs scored and 22 RBIs — mostly out of the bottom third of the lineup.
The accolades poured in. Not only was he named to the All-SEC Freshman team and Louisville All-Regional team, but he also was selected to Louisville Slugger’s Freshman All-American team.
He rolled into last spring expecting second base to be his job and it was — until it was taken away.
Anthony Gomez, an all-state selection out of Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey, entered his freshman season at Vanderbilt full of confidence. It showed. He led the Commodores and all SEC freshmen in hitting, with a .379 batting average in 2010. He also received national recognition, being named a Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.
It was a huge boost for Vanderbilt, which reached a Super Regional and was one win away from the program’s first trip to a College World Series.
Unfortunately for Reynolds, Gomez also was an infielder. So when Reynolds’ hitting started to fade — he batted just .209 — Gomez took over at second and started 51 games. Reynolds became a role player. He appeared in 42 games but started just 24.
“It was just a clear situation of a kid that, once we gave him a chance, performed better than what Riley did at the time,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “That’s not taking anything away from Riley. Riley was not the type of kid that he didn’t assume he was going to start. I think he probably felt he was going to. When you have a year like that, you’re a young kid, you probably think, ‘I have a chance to play again this year. I think I can do the same things as I did last year.’ You know, in life, when you perform well you’ve got a target on your back. And the same goes for Gomez this year, too.”
With the graduation of shortstop Brian Harris — a Montgomery Bell grad whom Corbin called “probably the most reliable infielder in this program” during his nine years as head coach — Gomez will move to shortstop. Thus, Reynolds will be back at second base, where — this time — he plans to stay. The 21-year-old admits he was complacent entering his sophomore year.
“[In 2009] they threw a lot of away pitches. That was always what I was pretty good at [hitting] when I was younger,” said Reynolds, who bats left but throws right-handed. “Last year they started to throw in, and I didn’t really take the time to learn to hit that. By the time I figured it out, it was too late.
While Corbin has been impressed with how his second baseman has attacked his hitting this offseason, the veteran coach said he learned a lot watching how Reynolds reacted last spring.
“When a guy gets removed or is not playing, he usually attaches himself to other kids that are in the same position as he. He chose not to do that,” Corbin said. “He attached himself to Gomez, and he became Gomez’s biggest fan. He celebrated what Anthony was doing. Because of that, he endeared himself to his teammates.”
Reynolds said he dialed up the intensity in the offseason, working “twice as hard as I ever have.”
If that is the case, Vanderbilt got a glimpse of things to come back in October, when it played at Texas for a three-game series. Reynolds had a game-high four hits and three RBIs in the opening contests and finished the weekend 5-for-8.
“I feel like this, right now, is the best I have felt since I have been here, to be honest,” he said. “Freshman year … I was in the nine-hole [in the batting lineup], and they would just throw fastballs. They kind of overlooked me, and I could hit a fastball. Now, I feel like I can hit all different types of pitches.
“I’m faster. I’m stronger. So I just feel the best I have since I have been here.”