Vanderbilt baseball hopes familiar surroundings fuel fast start

Friday, February 15, 2013 at 1:36am

When Vanderbilt takes the field on Friday for the season opener, Hawkins Field will feature a new look and feel with a synthetic turf surface instead of grass.

The second-ranked Commodores will get plenty of chances early to test whether the change tweaked their homefield advantage.

Long Beach State comes to town for this weekend's three-game series and 13 of Vanderbilt’s first 14 games are at home, with the only road game during that stretch on Tuesday against Belmont at Rose Park.

“It doesn’t play to our disadvantage,” coach Tim Corbin said. “We’re familiar with the turf and we’re thankful we can play in front of our fans. There is a comfort level that goes into dressing in your own locker room and playing on your own field and having a routine already in place. We’ve already practiced this routine three or four of five times. Now we’re just going to do it with another shirt on the other side. We’re certainly not going to be uncomfortable.”

The Commodores have opened a season at home just once in the previous seven years.

They hope it lends to a better start than last year when they were swept at No. 1 Stanford. They sputtered to a 7-15 start before a furious finish that ended with their seventh straight trip to an NCAA Regional.

“Last year everyone would have hoped that we would have come out of that a little bit sooner,” center fielder Connor Harrell said. “But I do think we showed you what we had the last 30 or so games.”

Because of that finish and with what Vanderbilt brings back, lofty there are lofty expectations for this season.

The Commodores are ranked in the top eight by all four major preseason polls. Baseball America projects Vanderbilt as the second-best team in the country, the highest preseason ranking in program history.

Vanderbilt was picked to win the Southeastern Conference East Division and to finish second in the league. Many believe the Commodores are capable of reaching the College World Series for the second time in three years.

Eight position players return and the bulk of last year’s pitching staff, including this weekend’s starting rotation of lefty Kevin Ziomek and right-handers Tyler Beede and T.J. Pecoraro. In addition, the last two recruiting classes have been ranked as the best in the country.

But Corbin believes the team’s biggest strength is experience.

The 11th-year coach has 12 players who were a part of the 2011 team that made history and reached the school’s first College World Series. He also has 22 who endured the lows of last season and grew in making an improbable run to extend its postseason success.

“If you had to ask me what our strength I think it is that – leadership,” Corbin said. “Some older guys have been around and been privy to a lot of experiences. ... I think last year, with the way we started, will help us in different ways this year. But I think the kids are just locked in to playing this first game and trying to play as well as they possibly can. We just try to take the games in small doses and moments, enjoy them while we can and then move on.”