After spending 12 innings stooped over, Spencer Navin appropriately walked off.
Vanderbilt’s junior catcher set the tone on Friday night in an eventual sweep of Tennessee with a walk-off single in the bottom of the 12th that lifted the Commodores to a 4-3 victory at Hawkins Field. Third-ranked Vanderbilt (25-4, 8-1 Southeastern Conference) followed with an 8-3 win on Saturday and a 12-8 victory on Sunday to win its seventh straight series.
The game-winning hit, however, was just part of the story for Navin, who caught all 12 innings in the opener.
“He is kind of that guy at any position who is very good at what he does at the highest level,” coach Tim Corbin said.
Navin was injured on a play at the plate early in Saturday's game (he was the runner) and sat out most of the rest of the series. Chris Harvey replaced him and broke open the middle contest with a bases loaded triple in the eighth.
Friday, though, in chilly conditions with rain that lasted for more than three hours, Navin directed two different pitchers — on a sore ankle.
He rolled his ankle against Oregon at the beginning of the month and sat out the SEC opening series against Auburn. He returned last weekend to catch all three games against Florida, but Corbin said Navin is still “dinged up.”
The effects didn’t show on Friday. In his 20th start of the season, the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder caught seven innings from Kevin Ziomek. The Commodores’ ace scattered six hits and allowed three runs while striking out 10 in seven innings. When Ziomek was through, closer Brian Miller came in and finished the night with a career-high five scoreless innings.
Ziomek is a mixture of power and off-speed pitches and among the top in the country with 62 strikeouts. Miller, on the other hand, tricks hitters with his side-arm motion and breaking balls.
Navin, however, isn’t fooled by either.
“Kevin is super hard to catch — his ball is moving all over the place — and Spencer handled him,” Miller said. “And then I came in with a different style of pitching. He handles me so well. Even just what he says to me and how he calls the game as well. … He just comes out and calms me down and makes sure we have a good pace going if I’m going too fast or going too slow. Nothing verbal really — sometimes it is — but it is usually body language and we’re used to each other.”
In his second season as the starting catcher, Navin has developed a feel for the pitching staff.
Last year, he grew up with an inexperienced team. After just playing eight games as a true freshman during Vanderbilt’s run to the College World Series in 2011, he started 57 of 63 games. The Des Moines, Iowa native not only helped mold the young pitching staff but he contributed to the defense. He threw out 20 of 39 base runners and posted a fielding percentage of .980 with just 10 passed balls.
Against Tennessee (13-13, 3-6), his arm strength was again on display — with mixed results.
In the eighth inning, he snuffed out a Vols’ opportunity by throwing out Scott Price at second. But, in the 10th, one got away from him. On a failed bunt attempt, base runner Will Maddox veered off second and Navin tried to catch him. But the ball skipped and bounced off Maddox and into the outfield, allowing the runners to move to second and third. Luckily, Miller induced a fly out to end the inning.
The frustration carried over into the bottom half of the inning, where Navin struck out with two outs and runners on second and third.
His redemption finally came in his last at-bat after he started the game 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. With the bases loaded, he lifted a 1-0 pitch to deep right, dropping just over the glove of Vincent Jackson to score Mike Yastrzemski.
“I didn’t come out on top [in the 10th] but I was glad to give back to the team on the last one,” Navin said. “I was just trying to make solid contact and put it in the air and just let everything else work. It was definitely a frustrating night. Throwing that ball down to second was an error. Tough night at the plate. But it felt good to capitalize at the end with that single.”
Along with catching one of the SEC’s top pitching staffs, Navin holds his own at the plate. He finished third on the team last year with a .298 batting average while also hitting three home runs and driving in 27 runs. This season, he is batting .292 with 11 RBIs. His on-base percentage of .471 is second among everyday starters. He has drawn 10 walks and been hit a team-high 12 times.
Of course, Corbin and the Commodores have never questioned Navin’s toughness.
“I didn’t say anything to the team afterwards [about his ankle injury] but that certainly was a great effort by him,” Corbin said on Friday. “Yeah, he is a tough kid. … When you’re good up the middle — and it starts with your catcher — you have a chance to be pretty decent as a team. And he’s good. He is elite in my mind in terms of what he does for us.”