In case anyone associated with Vanderbilt’s baseball program was feeling a little too confident following after five straight victories at the end of the regular season and a runner-up finish at the Southeastern Conference tournament, remainders of the Commodores’ fallibility were plentiful.
As players, coaches and a large number of fans gathered at the Commodore Grill on Monday morning, a rebroadcast of Sunday’s shutout loss to Mississippi State in the SEC championship game on ESPN2 preceded the revelation of the 64-team field for the NCAA tournament. As analysts discussed Stanford — one of the top seeds — during the selection show, the highlight package included a Cardinal pitcher throwing to Commodores first baseman/cleanup hitter Conrad Gregor in what obviously was not one of Gregor’s best at-bats.
Named the second seed in a regional to be hosted by North Carolina State, though, neither the three straight, season-opening losses at Stanford, or the end of its recent nine-game win streak a day earlier, created any sort of doubt.
“I think [our players] have a great deal of confidence — and it’s earned,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “And I think it’s an honest confidence. I don’t think it’s a confidence that is disproportionate to what we’re doing. They’ve certainly gone through a tough road to get where they have.”
Vanderbilt (33-26) will face third seed North Carolina Wilmington (38-21) Friday in the opening game of the regional, which includes top seed and host North Carolina State (39-17) and No. 4 Sacred Heart (25-30).
The Commodores charged their way into the field, which includes seven other SEC teams, with 16 victories in their last 20 games, including two in the SEC tournament over Florida, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA field.
Prior to that, they won just seven of 22. The three losses at Stanford kicked off a 1-7 start to the season. The conference season began with three losses at Florida in mid-March and four victories in 12 contests.
“There was a point where we were 7-15 and people were saying, ‘Do we actually have a shot [to make the NCAA tournament]?” right fielder Mike Yastrzemski said. “It’s just a credit to our personality. A lot of the guys on the team are real positive and we stuck with each other.
“After such a tough start to the season everyone’s just playing loose and fun — and that’s the best way to play.”
This, of course, is the best time of year to play.
The Commodores are in the NCAA tournament for the seventh straight year and seek their third straight regional title. Anyone who had seen them play at Stanford might not have envisioned that streak would continue — or that they would have shown up in the conference championship game.
“I think we kind of understand our identity a little bit and understand our personality and what we do well,” centerfielder Connor Harrell said. “I think we’re going to use that to move forward and take into this weekend
“And I think we’re confident in that.”
A look at the other teams in the Raleigh, N.C. regional:
• North Carolina State is hosting for the third time overall, the first since 2008. Carlos Rodon (9-0, 1.46 ERA), the ACC pitcher of the year and freshman of the year, is the ace of a staff that had a 3.29 ERA and held opponents to a .226 average. Another freshman, Trea Turner leads the nation with 55 steals (in 59 attempts).
• North Carolina-Wilmington is the Colonial Athletic Association champion and is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008. Andrew Cain, a 6-foot-6 senior outfielder, has both power (nine home runs) and speed (20 stolen bases). Thomas Pope, a 5-foot-9 senior outfielder, has a .374 batting average. The pitching staff had a 3.39 overall ERA.
• Sacred Heart is the Northeast Conference champion and are in the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. The Pioneers have just 10 home runs as a team but have three starting pitchers, led by Troy Scribner (65 strikeouts, 17 walks in 84.2 innings), that are .500 or better. The rest of the staff is a combined 8-16.