Tony Kemp didn’t expect to be in the starting lineup his freshman year at Vanderbilt.
Though he has spent the last four years as a center fielder at Centennial High School in Franklin, Kemp’s not complaining about his new starting position in left field.
“Wherever Coach [Tim Corbin] puts me, I feel comfortable,” Kemp said. “So luckily he trusts me in left field and that is where I feel comfortable.”
Through five games, the Commodores have no complaints either from their tiny but speedy leadoff hitter. Kemp, just 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds, added to his solid collegiate start with two RBIs and several nice defensive plays as third-ranked Vanderbilt won its home opener against Belmont 6-2 on Wednesday in front of 1,794 at Hawkins Field.
“I like him right where he is,” Corbin said of stationing Kemp in left field. “That is good enough for us.”
His speed, or quickness as Corbin saw it, bailed out Vanderbilt (5-0) from a couple jams against Belmont (2-3). In the first inning, with a runner on second and two outs, he made a diving catch on a fly ball from Dylan Craig that sliced toward the left field line. Then, in the second and fourth innings, he took away leadoff hits from Matt Zeblo and Nate Wood, respectively, when he tracked down balls in the left-center gap.
“He probably has better quickness than actual speed. He can get the first step really fast,” Corbin said. “He saved us. He saved us a run in that first inning and he saved potential big innings because if you don’t get to those balls, those are doubles and the inning continues.”
In the bottom of the fourth, Kemp used his bat to give Vanderbilt some breathing room in a one-run game. With runners on second and third and two outs, he chopped a single up the middle and over second base to score both runners for a 3-0 lead.
“Coach gave me the swing away and my team needed me,” Kemp said. “So luckily I was able to get that hit up the middle.”
Kemp now has seven hits and five RBIs — both team-highs — to go along with four stolen bases and a .368 batting average.
“He is kind of a tough guy to pitch to because he provides a small zone and he is not willing to chase out of the zone,” Corbin said. “He is a good little player, a good setup man.”
Kemp wasn’t the only Vanderbilt freshman to make an impact on Wednesday. Pitcher T.J. Pecoraro made his first collegiate start and didn’t allow any runs on three hits, with just one walk as he struck out five.
The 5-11, 160-pounder from Dix Hills, N.Y., worked out of his only serious jam in the fourth. After back-to-back singles and a stolen base put runners at second and third with one out for the Bruins, the right-hander settled down and struck out the next two batters swinging.
“The last inning was impressive because there were guys in scoring position and he went strikeout, strikeout and ended the inning. That was a big lift for him,” Corbin said. “I am proud of the way he went out there and threw strikes.”
Since the Commodore coaching staff planned on sticking to a pitch count with Pecoraro — he threw 65 pitches, 39 strikes — he was awarded the win despite not going the minimal of five innings.
“It was a little nerve-wracking, first college outing — had the jitterbugs,” Pecoraro said. “I just tried to stay confident. I knew I had a solid defense behind me, tried to pitch some strikes. ... I think [Corbin] just wanted me to get some pitches and see some time. He didn’t want to overuse me. I got what I had to get done and then got out of there.”
• Four Commodores — Corey Williams, Sam Selman, Stephen Rice and Will Clinard — pitched the last five innings. They allowed just three hits and two earned runs combined.
Rice got into a jam in the eighth, when he walked all four batters he faced. With Belmont suddenly trailing just 6-2, with no outs and the bases loaded, Clinard came in and sandwiched two strikeouts around a big play from catcher Curt Casali, who picked off Vinny Casha at first.
“It was momentum-changing, like blocking a punt in football,” Corbin said of the pickoff. “We were kind of reeling a little bit because we couldn’t get an out. ... and then the throw behind [from Casali] kind of killed that inning because it put a lot of pressure on the hitter with the bases loaded and two strikes. That was the difference in that particular inning. This game could have gone the other way — no question.”
• Belmont also got four innings from its starter and used five pitchers. Garrett Fanchier, a Lebanon native, allowed four runs — all unearned — in four innings of work as he gave up four hits, walked three and struck out three.
Vanderbilt had just five hits and benefited more from Bruins' miscues. Belmont had two errors — a miscommunication on a bunt coverage that ultimately led to Kemp’s two-run hit in the fourth and a throwing error by Casha in the fifth. The Bruins also had two passed balls — both by Zeblo, who was making his first start at catcher this season after undergoing arm surgery last fall.
“More than anything else, we made some silly mistakes,” Belmont coach Dave Jarvis said. “It is exciting to know that when we eliminate a couple of those mental mistakes, a couple of those silly things that we shouldn’t be doing, we are very competitive with this team. And I think Tim has as outstanding a team that I have seen him have in the last nine years.”