It might be on the minds of players and coaches. It certainly is not on their lips.
Even so, with less than three weeks left in college baseball’s regular season, Vanderbilt must be part of the conversation for the overall No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
At 45-6 and on track for a Southeastern Conference championship, the Commodores are a favorite to reach the College World Series for the second time. And they intend to put themselves in position to take the path of least resistance.
“Absolutely,” right fielder Mike Yastrzemski said. “That is a goal, and we want to put ourselves in the best spot there is to make it to Omaha and win a national championship. It just goes unsaid. We expect to do our best and we want to finish somewhere to be in a good spot to win.”
Two national polls have the Commodores ranked No. 1, and over the weekend they clinched their SEC title -- and second outright championship -- with a sweep of Kentucky. At 24-2 in league play, they’re off to the best start in SEC history and need just two more wins to set the conference record.
The 64-team field will be announced on Memorial Day. With the second-best RPI in the country, Vanderbilt is in the running for the top spot. So are North Carolina (45-6) and LSU (45-7).
North Carolina, with the No. 1 RPI, appears to be the favorite. Plus, history is on its side given that the ACC has received more No. 1 seeds (six) than any other conference. The SEC, despite its reputation as college baseball’s best conference, has received the No. 1 seed just three times — South Carolina in 2000, Vanderbilt in 2007 and Florida in 2012.
They won their first 16 games and recently rattled off 14 straight wins, thanks in large part to a strong pitching staff that ranks third in the country with a 2.28 ERA. Just this past weekend, though, they lost their first series by dropping two of three to Georgia Tech.
LSU, a perennial power, is right behind North Carolina with the fourth-best ERA (2.39) in the nation. The Tigers have also been boosted by the play of freshman Alex Bregman, who leads the SEC with a .401 batting average. Despite recently slipping up and losing two of three to South Carolina, LSU poses the biggest threat for Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament.
When asked, Commodores coach Tim Corbin passed on the opportunity to lobby for a No. 1 seed for his team. With eight regular-season games and the SEC Tournament remaining, he said it is “way too early” to look ahead.
“That is neither here nor there right now,” Corbin said. “I don’t have a vote, so I don’t think it matters. We’ll see. If we put ourselves in that position, we keep playing well then we’ll let other people decide upon that. But there are a lot of good teams out there that I haven’t seen — several in our conference I won’t see. I have no idea how good a team they are. I’ve seen bits and pieces of LSU on TV. I haven’t looked at North Carolina. Nonetheless it really doesn’t matter.”
It certainly didn’t in 2007.
Behind co-national player of the year David Price, Vanderbilt earned the No. 1 overall seed and hosted an NCAA Regional for the first time. Its postseason trip was short-lived, however. Two losses to Michigan in the regional at Hawkins Field remain a painful memory for Commodores fans, particularly the decisive 10th-inning home run by Wolverines pinch-hitter Alan Oaks in the decisive contest.
Since the NCAA began assigning eight national seeds in 1999, the No. 1 seed has failed to make the College World Series just four times — South Carolina in 2000, Florida State in 2002 and 2003 and Vanderbilt. The Commodores, though, were the only one of the 14 No. 1 seeds that failed to make it out of the regional round.
As the field is cut to 16 teams for super regionals and eight for the College World Series, the impact of the seeding is minimized. Only three times have No. 1 seeds reached the championship series, and Miami in 1999 was the only top seed to win it all.
Caliber of competition seems to matter more. The SEC has put a team in the College World Series 27 of the last 28 years and had a team in the final series each of the past five seasons. Four national championships since 1999 are the most in that span by any league.
For all of its success in earning No. 1 seeds, the ACC has not had a baseball national champion since Wake Forest in 1955. Miami (Fla.) won in 2001, three years before it moved to the ACC.
“This team has put in so much work and so much effort to what they have done in such a tough conference,” Yastrzemski said. “I think it just impressive to see the consistency each guy comes in with. There is no different mindset if I’m playing well or not. It is all about the team and it is all about winning. When we can do that we just play real well and have a lot of fun.”
Vanderbilt is on pace not only to win its third regular-season SEC championship — all since 2007 — but also to eclipse the school record of 54 wins, which is shared by the 2007 and 2011 teams. Both of those squads also ended the regular season as locks to host an NCAA Regional and Super Regional.
This Vanderbilt squad is well on its way to do the same — and possibly with a No. 1 next to its name.
“We’re just trying to concentrate on what we can control and what we can control is how we play every day,” Corbin said. “That includes really the days in between the games more than anything else. If you look at the teams in the past that came up short it is maybe because we didn’t handle those days appropriately and didn’t manage the ancillary items that are associated with winning baseball. We just kind of choose to really focus on what we can do today.”