Georgia wants what Vanderbilt has, but Vanderbilt isn’t willing to let it go without a fight.
The 11th-ranked Bulldogs and 18th-ranked Commodores meet at Hawkins Field this weekend for a key-three game baseball series that could decide the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship.
Georgia can win the title by administering a sweep. Vanderbilt, defending SEC champion, can pull into the lead by winning all three games.
Thus, the stage is set for VU’s most significant series of the season.
“We know what’s ahead,” Commodore shortstop Ryan Flaherty said. “We know what we can do and what we can’t do this weekend. We kind of hold our own fate. It’s right there in front of us.”
Red-hot Vanderbilt, which has won five straight games and 17 of its past 20, appears to be playing its best baseball of the season.
Georgia has been playing with similar efficiency throughout the season and has set the pace in the SEC race from the start.
Pitching has powered the Bulldogs, who have an SEC-best 3.84 earned-run average in SEC play.
Closer Josh Fields, described by Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin as “the equivalent of Mariano Rivera,” has 13 saves, a 0.37 ERA and has struck out 44 batters in 24.1 innings of work.
“They’re a team that sort of sets themselves apart because they have power pitching and don’t lose any steps when they go into their bullpen,” Corbin said.
Bulldogs coach Dave Perno noted that his team’s pitching staff matches up well against Vanderbilt for the first time in recent years.
“This is the first year since Tim has been there that we are pretty even, and might even have an edge, in pitching because of our veterans,” Perno said.
In addition, Georgia shortstop Gordon Beckham, who leads the league with 22 home runs and 160 total bases, is the frontrunner for SEC Player of the Year honors.
Vanderbilt, meanwhile, enters the weekend with fresh memories of last season’s SEC regular-season championship, its first ever.
It’s a feeling the Commodores continue to pursue.
“It’s always exciting to win the conference outright and know you were the best team in the conference,” outfielder David Macias said. “We’re just going to try to win some games this weekend.”
Corbin admitted that he’s thinking of more than just SEC crowns. With six regular-season games remaining, and with a spot in the conference tournament May 21-25 all but nailed down, the Commodores are playing for the right to host an NCAA Tournament regional.
A year ago, VU hosted a regional for the first time. Corbin figures a first- or second-place finish in the SEC will produce the same result this year.
“We’ve put ourselves right back into a situation where, ultimately and in the big picture, we can be playing more games at home,” Corbin said. “That’s exactly what we want to do.
“We can’t ignore that. If I didn’t talk about it, it would seem kind of weird. The players know it, read it and understand it, and Georgia is the one team that stands in their way.”
GOLD NUGGETS: Tickets for this weekend’s series can be purchased by calling 322-GOLD or by visiting VUCommodores.com. …Seven VU seniors will be honored in a ceremony after Saturday’s game: Macias, Dominic de la Osa, Brad French, Parker Hanks, Shea Robin, Alex Feinberg and Adam Cronk. Jonathan White, a fourth-year junior, will graduate in December and isn’t likely to return for the 2009 season, Corbin said.
Vanderbilt vs. Georgia
Friday, 6 p.m. [CSS]
Saturday, 2 p.m.
Sunday, 1 p.m.