Vanderbilt experienced a Southeastern Conference regular season unlike any team before with a record-setting 26 wins and just three losses.
The SEC Tournament wasn’t as accommodating.
The Commodores suffered their first shutout loss in more than a year. Twice they played more than nine innings. And they needed a late rally to force extra baseball in their first meeting with second-ranked LSU this season.
But the response after losing to Texas A&M in the opener – three straight wins before falling to LSU in 11 innings in the title game on Sunday – re-encouraged coach Tim Corbin heading into the NCAA Tournament.
“How they reacted to it is how they’ve reacted to everything this year,” Corbin said. “If they had a slip up they’ve come right back and handled it. I told them after the game was over [Sunday], ‘I just appreciate how you guys respect the tournament and how you got about business.’ They just kept getting better as I thought they would as time went on. We put ourselves in position to win [Sunday].”
On Monday, the Commodores received the No. 2 national seed and will host an NCAA Regional this weekend at Hawkins Field.
Vanderbilt (51-9) will play the regional’s No. 4 seed East Tennessee State (36-22) at 6 p.m. on Friday (ESPNU). Georgia Tech (34-25) is the second seed and Illinois (34-18) is the third.
ETSU earned its first NCAA Regional bid since 1981 by winning the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament championship with four straight wins as the No. 4 seed. The Buccaneers are 0-3 all-time against Vanderbilt and the teams last met in 2003.
ETSU is led by senior right-hander Kerry Doane (13-1, 1.99 ERA), who tops the country in complete games (12) and innings pitched (140).
“The regional is tough. Being a No. 2 seed certainly didn’t do us any favors,” Corbin said. “The No. 4 seed is an SEC[-caliber] team. Obviously Illinois and Georgia Tech are very strong too. We’ve got our hands full but we’ve had our hands full all year. That’s what I told the kids. We’ve played a very high level of competition and we’ve handled it well so we’ll see.”
Playing five games in five days could be beneficial to Vanderbilt as it heads into its second straight double-elimination tournament in as many weeks.
The Commodores faced NCAA Regional-caliber competition. Texas A&M, South Carolina, Mississippi State and LSU all made the postseason (the SEC leads the country with nine teams in a Regional). Plus, given that he used 10 pitcher, Corbin was able to get extra work for a bunch of his arms.
Tyler Beede (14-0) got back into a groove after he suffered a no-decision for the first time this season in the regular-season finale. Freshman Carson Fulmer pitched a career-high 4.1 innings in relief and held South Carolina in check long enough to stave off elimination in the second game. Corbin also got starts out of Walker Buehler, T.J. Pecoraro and Philip Pfeifer – all vying for the pivotal third starting spot.
“I think that tournament is great for us,” Corbin said. “I think that is the best thing about going five games deep is look at all the pitching [we used]. We got [Andrew] Ravenelle out there in a great situation. We got [Steven] Rice out there in a great situation. We got Pfeifer out there in a starting situation. That could come about again. To get those guys and force their hand in that type of environment was much needed for us.”
Perhaps most importantly, though, the SEC Tournament offered the Commodores a dress rehearsal for the double-elimination Regional format.
Vanderbilt managed just three hits in a stunning 5-0 loss to Texas A&M last Wednesday.
“That was the first time [this season] we really got handily beat,” starting pitcher Kevin Ziomek said.
Instead of surrendering and heading back to Nashville early – possibly giving those arms some rest – the Commodores answered by taking the long route to their third straight SEC championship game.
“I think it was good for us to experience that,” Ziomek said. “[Corbin] always talks about stuff you don’t experience. Just being able to go through the motions and experience each thing as it happens is going to help you build for the future. I think it is going to be good for us to rebound from that and see how we did after that. We definitely played our butts off after that so I think it will be helpful for us.”
(at Hawkins Field)
Game 1: No. 2 Georgia Tech vs. No. 3 Illinois, 1 p.m., ESPN3
Game 2: No. 1 Vanderbilt (51-9) vs. No. 4 East Tennessee State, 6 p.m., ESPNU/ESPN3
Game 3: Vanderbilt/ETSU loser vs. Georgia Tech/Illinois loser, 2 p.m., ESPNU/ESPN3
Game 4: Vanderbilt/ETSU winner vs. Georgia Tech/Illinois winner, 7 p.m., ESPNU/ESPN3
Game 5: Loser Game 4 vs. Winner Game 3, 2 p.m., ESPNU/ESPN3
Game 6: Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 4, 7 p.m., ESPNU/ESPN3
Game 7 (If necessary): Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6, 6 p.m., ESPNU/ESPN3