Gray gets one more chance to get Vanderbilt off to a good start

Thursday, June 16, 2011 at 11:35pm

It is accurate to say that big games for Vanderbilt’s baseball team start with Sonny Gray on the mound. That is only part of the story, though.

In a very real way, the Commodores’ success this season starts with the undersized, hard-throwing right-handed junior.

On a team filled with draft picks, all-conference and All-American players, teammates universally point to Gray as one of the biggest reasons Vanderbilt is in the College World Series for the first time.

“I think everybody takes on his bulldog mentality,” third baseman Jason Esposito said. “That’s the way he plays and that’s what everybody tries to emulate.

“He goes out there the first game of the weekend usually, and we try to build on his performance whether it’s winning or losing. Lately it’s been winning.”

Indeed it has.

Gray, who is listed at 5-foot-11, won both of his starts in the current NCAA baseball tournament and allowed just one run in 12.2 innings. He held Belmont scoreless for six innings in the regional opener before he was pulled early in order to rest and then kept Oregon State off the board until the seventh inning of the Super Regional opener.

All-time Gray is 4-1 with a 2.39 ERA in seven career NCAA appearances. Vanderbilt has three Super Regional victories all-time, and he has recorded two of them including the first, last year at Florida State.

He’ll attempt to extend that level of play one more time when he takes the ball Saturday (1 p.m., ESPN) in the 2011 CWS opener against the University of North Carolina — the first College World Series game in VU history.

“He’s a huge competitor but he’s one of our best teammates,” Curt Casali said. “He’s involved in every single pitch when he’s not pitching. When he is pitching, he loves every single one of us. We feel the same way about him.

“We wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for his leadership style and his competitiveness.”

This is not the first time Gray has helped take a team deeper into a season than ever.

As a high school quarterback, he directed Smyrna to its first state championship, in 2006. For good measure, he led that team to a second straight title in 2007. He also helped his high school baseball team reach the state tournament during his junior season and might have done the same when he was a senior had an injury not cut short his campaign.

“He’s fantastic,” pitcher Grayson Garvin, who will start on Monday, said. “He’s definitely a team player and has that rah-rah type mentality. He has the ability to get the guys up, and that’s a special gift that a lot of people don’t possess. He‘s definitely a great team leader.”

Predictably, it was Gray who led a record-setting performance by the Commodores in this year’s Major League Baseball draft.

VU set a Southeastern Conference record when it had 12 players selected over the three days and 50 rounds. The first to go was Gray, who went 18th overall to the Oakland A’s.

That means he is a virtual lock to leave school with one remaining year of eligibility.

First, though, he has one more game to pitch.

It goes without saying that he hopes to finish in typical fashion and get his team off to one more good start. Then again, there’s usually little that needs to be said when it comes to Gray.

“He’s one of the guys I don’t have to go out to the mound too often with,” Casali said. “There’s certain guys I’ll go out and calm them down and stuff, but I really don’t know what to say to Sonny. He’s in his own little world and it works for him.

“Sonny is a special kid.”

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