It’s not that Drew Hayes makes a bad first impression. It’s more like an inaccurate one.
Consider that following his days as a highly accomplished two-sport star at McKenzie High School, the Arizona Diamondbacks thought enough of him that they drafted him in the 29th round … to be a shortstop.
Hayes saw himself more as a pitcher, so he went to Bethel College for one year and earned all-conference honors as a starter. Then he transferred to Vanderbilt, which viewed him as a good fit for its bullpen, possibly even as a closer.
Nearly two years later, he has established himself as part of the weekend rotation.
“We just found a role for him that was more comfortable than coming into a game midway through or at the end,” coach Tim Corbin said. “He’s a kid who has been good in starting his own game and being able to pitch through it.”
The right-hander has appeared in 17 contests this season with six starts, the last three of them during SEC weekends. He finished the regular season with four wins (one short of the team lead) and struck out 50 in 42 innings.
“It’s just a little bit different of a weekly schedule being more focused on getting some things done in the bullpen instead of being focused on pitching during the mid-week games,” Hayes said. “I like it. I like what I’m doing now and I like starting on the weekends.”
Corbin said Monday that he has not decided on who his pitcher will be for the Commodores’ first-round SEC tournament game against LSU (5 p.m., Wednesday).
It’s possible that he could choose Hayes, who threw just three innings on Saturday against Tennessee before a rain delay of nearly three hours made it impractical for him to return to the mound.
Freshman Sonny Gray opened each of VU’s last two weekend series’ but gave up four runs on eight hits in his most recent appearance, last Thursday. Mike Minor, the Commodores’ ace each of the last two seasons, has averaged 131.5 pitches in his last two outings, the most recent of which was last Friday. Caleb Cotham, a starter for much of the season, has been relegated to a relief role the last three weeks by a knee injury, which limits the number of innings he can throw at one time.
“That’s one of those things where we have to get these guys out there throwing,” Corbin said. “We’ve got guys who can come back after four days or five days rest.”
Given that he is three years out of high school, Hayes once again is eligible for the Major League draft, which will take place this year on June 9-10.
At that time, he’ll find out which teams, if any, actually have given him a second look.
“I’m focused on the fact that we’re going down to Hoover to try to win a few games and hopefully win that tournament,” Hayes said. “(The draft) doesn’t even matter. I’m just thinking about how I can best get prepared for the third game of this tournament, or if I’m needed in the first how I can get best prepared to pitch this week.”
• The Commodores have a strong history in the SEC tournament under Corbin, who became head coach in 2003. They have qualified every year except one since then (2005), won it in 2007 and three other times finished as runner-up (2004, 2006, 2007).
All-time they are 14-8 under the current coach.
“It’s tough to say what other coaches do and how they approach the tournament,” Corbin said. “I’ve always felt that … you play the SEC tournament to win it. You learn how to play tournaments so that when you get into a regional or super regional or (college world series) format you grow accustomed to it.
“In my way of thinking, this is the best tournament that college baseball has outside of Omaha (the college world series).”
• Vanderbilt’s 12-17 SEC record this season is its worst under Corbin and creates doubt about whether or not the team will earn a spot in the NCAA tournament. The Commodores’ RPI is 38 (easily among the top 64).
“Our conference record certainly doesn’t help us,” Corbin said. “You can’t go to war with that record and say, ‘We’re a shoe-in.’ Now, if we had a good conference record and that RPI, I would tell you that we’re probably OK, but with our conference record, no.”