The good news for battered and bruised Vanderbilt pitchers is they believe their problems are correctable.
The bad news is that time is quickly running out.
Poor pitching in the final weeks of the regular season plagued the Commodores, who have lost five straight games as they prepare for the start of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Wednesday.
VU, unranked for the first time since 2006, has surrendered 38 runs in its past four games, including 26 last weekend while being swept in a three-game series at Florida. Vanderbilt squandered leads in each loss to the Gators, twice in the eighth inning.
Commodores pitching coach Derek Johnson isn’t panicking, however.
“It’s definitely not as bad it seems,” he said. “You probably would not have asked me this question three weeks ago.”
Indeed, on May 6, Vanderbilt’s team earned-run average was 4.12, the lowest since the end of March. Since May 6, it was swelled to 4.47 and 5.37 in SEC play.
Success ebbs and flows for every pitching staff. Johnson said since his troops were lashed late in the season, critics quickly forget the success of earlier in the season.
“What has changed?” Johnson said. “The kids are the same. Maybe they haven’t pitched as well in the past couple of weeks, but they’re still the same guys.
“Could it be an aberration? Sure. It’s part of the game that happens to every team.”
Vanderbilt is particularly waiting for a return to form by sophomore left-hander Mike Minor, a Freshman All-America pick in 2007.
Minor, slated to start Wednesday against Florida, finished the regular season 5-3 with a 4.20 ERA. A year ago, his final numbers were 9-1 and 3.09.
“Lately I haven’t been as sharp,” Minor said. “When the tournament starts, I’ll step it up even more. At the end of the season, every game is big, and I feel like I perform even better under pressure.”
Johnson is banking on nothing less.
“I think he’s capable of a lot more, and I think he’ll say the same thing,” he said. “He looks at it like he should never even give up a run, and maybe not even a hit. He’s a perfectionist and works hard at what he does. I can foresee him going out and having the type of game he hasn’t had in awhile.”
Vanderbilt needs all the help it can get this week. By being swept at Florida, the defending SEC champions tumbled into a No. 6 seed in the eight-team league tournament field this week.
At this point, not even an NCAA Tournament bid is assured without some success this week.
Johnson gingerly reminded his young pitching staff of that fact this week.
“We’re younger, so confidence is certainly an issue,” Johnson said. “Challenging them in a positive way could definitely work. That’s going to be the key for us for the rest of the season.”
GOLD NUGGETS: Vanderbilt was 5-13 this season against teams appearing in this week’s SEC Tournament and 10-1 against the rest of the conference. …VU is making its third consecutive SEC Tournament appearance this week and fifth in six years under coach Tim Corbin. The Commodores have advanced to the championship game in each of their past three appearances (2004, 2006 and 2007). …The SEC Tournament will be played this week for the 11th straight year at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala. As usual, the tournament will follow a double-elimination format.
SEC Baseball Tournament
Game 1 — 10 a.m. #7 South Carolina vs. #2 LSU [CSS]
Game 2 — 1 p.m. #6 Vanderbilt vs. #3 Florida [CSS]
Game 3 — 5 p.m. #8 Ole Miss vs. #1 Georgia [CSS]
Game 4 — 8 p.m. #5 Alabama vs. #4 Kentucky [CSS]
Game 5 — 10 a.m. Loser G1 vs. Loser G2 [CSS]
Game 6 — 1 p.m. Loser G3 vs. Loser G4 [CSS]
Game 7 — 5 p.m. Winner G1 vs. Winner G2 [CSS]
Game 8 — 8 p.m. Winner G3 vs. Winner G4 [CSS]
Game 9 — 3 p.m. Winner G5 vs. Loser G7 [FSN]
Game 10 — 6:30 p.m. Winner G6 vs. Loser G8 [FSN]
Game 11 — 10 a.m. Winner G8 vs. Winner G9 [FSN]
Game 12 — 1:30 p.m. Winner G7 vs. Winner G10 [FSN]
Game 13* — 5 p.m. Winner G11 vs. Loser G11 [CSS]
Game 14* — 8 p.m. Winner G12 vs. Loser G12 [CSS]
Game 15* -- 3 p.m. Winner G13 vs. Winner G14 [FSN]
*If both bracket winners are undefeated, there will be no 5 p.m. or 8 p.m. games on Saturday and the championship game Sunday will be Game 13.