Thanks to a year of experience and training at the college level, a Thanksgiving trip to Far East where they played four games, and the definition of their respective roles within the team, many of Vanderbilt’s baseball players know a lot more than they did this time a year ago.
Heck, the recent stretch of cold and snow even contributed to the learning curve.
“We weren’t accustomed to playing in 20-degree weather,” junior Curt Casali said. “But we are now. We’ve gotten used to it.”
Things were warmer beginning Friday afternoon, when the Commodores opened their 2010 season against Niagara (4 p.m., Hawkins Field) in the first of a three-game series [Vandy has taken the first two]. The hope among players and coaches is that the 2009 campaign effectively was a warm-up for the sophomore class within the team, which is the largest in terms of numbers and possibly in terms of production.
Pitcher Sonny Gray, the starter in the opener and the Friday starter throughout the season, is in his second year. So are starting third baseman Jay Esposito and second baseman Riley Reynolds. The same is true for outfielder Joe Loftus and designated hitter Aaron Westlake.
“I do think this team is experienced in a way,” coach Tim Corbin said. “At least [the players] do present themselves in that way. The way they move around and the way they carry themselves is a whole lot different than last year.
“To me, it seems like a lot of third and fourth-year guys, which isn’t really the case. We’ve got a few guys who have been here for four years, but not a slew of them.”
Westlake and Reynolds were freshmen All-Americans in 2009, when Vanderbilt went 37-27 and fell one game short of advancing to the NCAA Super Regionals. Gray began the season as a part-time closer and eventually became a starter and even pitched a couple series openers. Esposito played several different infield positions early before he settled in at third base, where he provided a consistent defensive presence. Reynolds settled in at second base because of his consistency in terms of play and preparation.
“I feel a lot more comfortable this year than last year,” Gray said. “It was a long season, and as a team — and myself — we had our ups and downs. … Hopefully that will lead to a long, successful season [in 2010].
“If you look at a lot of the players — we have the whole infield back, we have one or two outfielders coming back who got some experience last year. We have an older pitching staff. … So we do have an older team, and that’s going to carry us a long way.”
The biggest amount of uncertainty for this opening weekend is the opponent.
“Niagara presents a situation where all we know is [uniform] numbers and names — that’s really it,” Corbin said. “We can’t look at them physically or visualize who they are.
“That doesn’t matter for us. We have to go into this as if we’re continuing to progress as a team and continuing to get better fundamentally.”