Vanderbilt baseball's depth means no starting job is safe

Monday, April 25, 2011 at 11:07pm

Tim Corbin simply answered with a wry smile and a question.

Asked if reserve outfielder Jack Lupo would stay in the starting lineup this week after a four-hit performance on Sunday against LSU, the Vanderbilt baseball coach grinned.

“What do you think?” Corbin responded on Monday. “I think you go with who is hot. Guys who play well, they deserve to stay in there.”

Lupo is one of many Commodores (35-5, 14-4) this season who has shown he deserves to be in there. In fact, their depth makes it a tough 27 outs for any pitching staff. 

LSU learned that the hard way. The Tigers gave up 31 runs and 45 hits this weekend as Vanderbilt, which moved up to No. 2 in the country, swept a three-game series.

Last weekend, Vanderbilt received a big lift from the bottom third of its lineup. The seven, eight and nine hitters combined to bat .558 in the three games, and Conrad Gregor, Riley Reynolds and Lupo went 10-for-13 on Sunday with three RBIs and six runs scored.

“I look at our order and I think we are never out of it,” Corbin said.

Lupo took the role as Vanderbilt’s first outfielder off the bench after Joe Loftus broke the hamate bone in his hand last week. Loftus could be out for more than a month.

Lupo, a sophomore transfer from the Air Force Academy, then started on Saturday and Sunday in center field for Connor Harrell, whose batting average dipped to .232 after he had one hit in 13 at-bats over his last four games. Lupo entered the weekend with just 12 at-bats.

“We are of the mindset of giving people opportunities to keep everyone fresh,” Corbin said. “I think that is important too — to keep everyone stimulated.”

The Commodores have been able to find that right mix. Though there are just 14 regular-season games left, Corbin continues to tweak with the batting order but it doesn’t seem to affect the offense. Vanderbilt is second in the SEC in both batting (.313) and runs scored (264).

“I just don’t think there is much breathing room for other pitchers and I say that respectfully because I think we are balanced left-handed and right-handed,” Corbin said. “It is really the first time that we’ve been here where we could put a batting order together that has four or five left-handed hitters, sometimes six. That’s tough on a right-handed pitcher. You negate his breaking ball and you might negate his out pitch. We’ve been able to do that.”

The abundance of depth doesn’t stop with the bats, tough.

Corbin and pitching coach Derek Johnson ran out seven pitchers on Sunday. Weekend starters Sonny Gray, Grayson Garvin and Taylor Hill have a combined record 19-3. Midweek starter T.J. Pecoraro (5-0) could emerge into a possible fourth go-to guy when the postseason rolls around.

The bullpen has had the occasional hiccup — they gave up four runs on Sunday — but has been tagged with only two losses, both of which came in SEC play. Plus, closer Navery Moore has nine saves with a stunning 0.42 ERA.

“We didn’t have that type of versatility in our bullpen in years past, even when we did have really good bullpens,” Corbin said. “It is good to have a lot of guys in your bullpen, but it is more important that the guys in your bullpen are really good.”

Briefly

• Gregor was named the SEC’s co-freshman of the week after he hit .615 for the weekend with eight hits and six RBIs.

The designated hitter from Carmel, Ind., has the third-best batting average (.346) on the team. The left-handed hitter has produced despite getting most of his at-bats in the bottom third of the lineup.

“That is a high-order hitter that is hitting seventh,” Corbin said.

• Next up is a non-conference game at Western Kentucky, 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Corbin says his squad isn’t looking past WKU to the Tennessee series, which begins Friday at Hawkins Field.

Vanderbilt won an earlier meeting this season 6-5.

Western Kentucky has dropped eight of the last nine in the series but is capable of pulling off the upset. The Hilltoppers did so last year when they pounded the Commodores 17-2 in Nashville.

Western Kentucky (25-16, 16-4 Sun Belt) has defeated two SEC teams already this year, with wins over Ole Miss and Kentucky.

“Western Kentucky is a team we could end up playing again. You could see them in the postseason, for sure,” Corbin said. “They have a very good team. I know they had a tough weekend [losing three straight to Troy] but I don’t think that will matter. We go to their place. It is completely different. We know what they are capable of doing. It is a good program.”