On Monday, Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin fired up his computer and sent out his weekly email to his team.
This week’s message was simple: there is a lot of baseball left to be played.
“They don’t select a winner at the 13-mile mark of a marathon,” Corbin wrote.
Just beyond the midway point of a 54-game regular season, Corbin and the Commodores (12-17, 3-6 SEC) find themselves in an unfamiliar position – below .500. Heading into this weekend’s road trip at Mississippi State, however, Vanderbilt is riding a newfound sense of confidence after winning five of its last seven and splitting its last six conference games.
“I know exactly where we are right now in terms of a record but it certainly doesn’t diminish how I personally feel, nor the coaches, on the progress we’ve made to this point,” Corbin said. “I’m very happy with that.”
With 25 games remaining before the SEC Tournament, the Commodores aren’t giving up on reaching the NCAA tournament for the seventh straight year. In order to do be considered for an at-large berth, they’ll have to finish the season with a winning record.
If they can accomplish that, their résumé might be enough to get them in. They have played 18 games against ranked opponents, including nine against Top 10 opponents, and have gone just 4-14. They’ll have more opportunities to bolster that record and boost their RPI of 67 with nine more games against teams that are currently ranked.
“We don’t talk about it. We know what we have to do to get there,” center fielder Connor Harrell said of the NCAA tournament. “We understand that our schedule is tough and if we perform like we’re capable in this last half of the season we’ll be able to get there. Having played Stanford, Florida, Oregon, San Diego and all these teams that are in the Top 25 can give us some confidence.
“We understand that we may face teams that are good but no one is going to be better. We can draw some will and know-how from having played those teams.”
Closing that win-loss gap can be helped by winning close games. Vanderbilt is just 2-8 in contests decided by two runs or fewer.
Lately, the Commodores have shown more resiliency. Two weeks ago, against then-No. 17 Georgia, they rallied in late innings of consecutive games to claim their first SEC series win. On Sunday, in the rubber game against two-time defending national champ South Carolina, they erased a four-run deficit and forced extra innings before losing 6-4 in the 13th.
While that close call could be considered a moral victory for a young team, Vanderbilt felt it let one get away. The Commodores left 10 runners on base and had the game-winning run on third in the 11th and 12th innings.
“I really don’t think pressing is an issue. I think it is about the inexperience of being in those situations,” Corbin said. “The more you are in those situations the better you perform. We got a taste of it against Georgia. We got a taste of it playing South Carolina on Sunday. But that was completely different because it was a situation where we were tied. We did come back. But it was tied and we had runners on third base several times and we just weren’t able to get the big hit.”
Improving on the road is another must. Vanderbilt is winless (0-7) outside of Hawkins Field. Six of those losses came to No. 6 Stanford and top-ranked Florida.
Mississippi State has won 16 of 21 at home but the Bulldogs (18-11) are also battling for positioning. They also have a 3-6 conference mark and are one of three teams tied for ninth place. Only the top 10 reach the SEC Tournament – a necessary destination for teams hoping to get the chance to play in June.
“I think that is very healthy for us to play a team like that on the road,” Corbin said. “We need to bond a little bit and for us this will be like a camping trip in which we are taking three days, getting on a bus and staying in the same hotel. It is just us against Mississippi State in that environment. That will be good.”