One of the best teams assembled at Vanderbilt will be defined by what it failed to accomplish.
The College World Series begins Saturday in Omaha, Neb., and the Commodores, for all their achievements over the last four months, won’t vie for the ultimate prize.
Despite matching the school record with 54 wins, collecting a Southeastern Conference-best 26 wins along with a regular-season championship and earning the No. 2 national seed in the NCAA Tournament, Vanderbilt’s season ended with two straight losses to Louisville in a Super Regional.
The pain felt eerily similar to 2007, when a team with five future first-round picks, including David Price, Mike Minor and Pedro Alvarez, failed to make it out of a Regional as the No. 1 national seed.
“2007 was completely different. It is history. It ended in a different way,” coach Tim Corbin said. “This team was very, very good and it was one I don’t know if you can compare it. We might not have had the Davids and Pedros but we certainly had a number of quality, quality players. The locker room, the environment was very good to be in as a coach. It was like your kids were doing the right things. They just policed themselves very well, and they took a lot of pride in serving one another. As I said, that’s tough for male athletes to do. You don’t get that everywhere.”
For much of the season, Vanderbilt (54-12) seemed nearly invincible, winning 13 games in a row early before piecing together two 14-game winning streaks.
Over the last three weeks, however, league’s leader in hits, batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and runs scored began to fade. The Commodores lost six of their final 13 games, were shut out twice and scored four runs or less seven times starting with the SEC Tournament opener. After batting .317 through the first 62 games, Vanderbilt hit just .176 and scored only four runs in two games to Louisville.
Sturdy starting pitching also began to quake. Sophomore Tyler Beede (14-1) won his first 13 starts but in his last four he had two no-decisions and his first loss. His shortest outing of the year — 2 2/3 innings — came at an inopportune time in the finale against Louisville. The nation’s leader in wins allowed two early runs and walked three to finish with 63 for the year — freebies once again serving as his Achilles’ heel.
Left-hander Kevin Ziomek also had just one win in his final four starts. Against Louisville last Saturday, he was strong for six innings but gave up three hits and three runs in the seventh to surrender a one-run lead and suffer his first loss since April 20.
Finding a reliable third starter also posed problems. Junior T.J. Pecoraro, bouncing back from early knee injuries, never got into a groove. Sophomore Philip Pfeifer showed splashes of brilliance — he pitched five scoreless innings in a regional championship win over Georgia Tech. But the left-hander also wilted against SEC competition, never lasting more than five innings and allowing 17 runs in five league starts. Freshman Walker Buehler got the starting nod in both the SEC Tournament opener and the third Regional game — but gave up nine runs and 17 hits in those starts.
“It is just sad because you play with so many good guys,” Franklin native and SEC player of the year Tony Kemp said. “You guys don’t even know what we go through. You might sit here and say, ‘Yeah, they are baseball players.’ But you just don’t know the brotherhood we put together in the locker room. You don’t know all the hard hours we put in. It is like a job but it is not a job to us because we’re having fun doing it. We don’t work just because we wanted to go to Omaha. We wanted to work for each game and each player.”
After a seemingly improbable late season tear in 2012 that ended in a trip to a Regional, Vanderbilt cruised for much of 2013 thanks to experienced leaders.
Half of the starting lineup consisted of juniors and seniors, starting up top with leadoff hitter Kemp and anchored by veteran outfielders Connor Harrell and Mike Yastrzemski. On the mound, the Commodores were led by Ziomek and Beede, who combined for 25 wins, and solid relief in Freshman All-American Carson Fulmer and single-season saves leader Brian Miller.
“This group was special, definitely,” freshman designated hitter Zander Wiel said. “Just the unity we all had. All the older guys were just so accepting of me, the younger guys, the freshmen who came in. We all really grew together and we bonded. It is definitely tough to see some of these guys go. It is definitely going to be tough to part with them.”
As many as six players from the starting lineup might have to be replaced.
Seniors Harrell and Yastrzemski are gone. Most likely the same is true of the right side of the infield given that juniors Conrad Gregor (first base) and Kemp (second base) were drafted by the Houston Astros in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively. Junior catcher Spencer Navin might leave after being drafted in the 11th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ziomek is the only pitcher leaving. The junior was taken by Detroit in the second round.
But the Commodores return Beede, Miller and Fulmer, along with 10 other pitchers who threw this season. Freshman All-American and third baseman Xavier Turner and shortstop Vince Conde are the only starting position players certain to return. But the successful rotating designated hitter combination of Rhett Wiseman, John Norwood, Kyle Smith and Wiel expect to hunt for spots in the field. They comprise just a fraction of the nation’s top recruiting classes over the last two years.
For a program that has averaged 42 wins in 11 years since Corbin took over, success no doubt will continue. But it is hard for Corbin to look ahead without praising the past, especially the most recent recording-breaking chapter.
“It was very successful,” he said. “What I’ll remember about the team was the seniors because Mike Yastrzemski didn’t have to come back to school. Connor Harrell didn’t have to come back to school. Male athletes today just aren’t wired like that. Those guys are different. They’re humble, they’re accepting of young people. Leadership qualities for them come naturally. Their parents are in the ground and guided well. That was why we were able to have such a good year in my opinion.”