Vanderbilt's well-rehearsed celebration a long time coming

Sunday, June 12, 2011 at 8:22pm

Tim Corbin pictured the moment for a long time. In fact, the Vanderbilt baseball coach had his players practice it.

Back in December, Corbin and the Commodores piled up in celebratory fashion in the infield of Hawkins Field. Vanderbilt hadn’t won anything. The Commodores’ season opener was two months away.

But Corbin wanted to plant the feeling of winning in his players’ heads then so that it would motivate them to put in the work required to reach the stage in which such celebrations are called for.

“We rehearse victory many times during the course of the fall to put a vision in their minds so they can get to this point,” Corbin said. “You just envision yourself, you envision those kids celebrating like that.”

On Saturday night, the dress rehearsal paid off. The Commodores piled up in jubilant fashion in front of an ecstatic home crowd after their 9-3 victory over Oregon State in a decisive second game of a NCAA Super Regional. The win propelled Vanderbilt into its first College World Series.

It was a Kodak moment for what has been — to this point — a picture perfect season.

The Commodores, seeded sixth nationally, roll into the CWS and Omaha, Neb., with a 52-10 record. They have lost consecutive games only once this season and have won 11 of their last 12. In five NCAA Tournament games — all wins — they have outscored opponents 46-7.

“They certainly earned their way to Omaha,” Oregon State coach Pat Casey said late Saturday night.

Impressively, their two victories against Oregon State came just days after 12 Commodores were taken in the Major League Baseball draft — a school and Southeastern Conference record for the most selected in one year. But they didn’t seem to be fazed by the draft and the attention that came with it.

“They are a very confident group,” Corbin said. “I told them they walk on water but they understand there are rocks underneath the water holding them up. So there is a strong sense of humility too. They don’t think they can walk on water. They understand there is a balance there.”

They have steamrolled the postseason competition the same way they have all season — with explosive, consistent hitting and nearly untouchable pitching.

Entering this weekend, Vanderbilt ranked sixth in the country in team batting average and third in ERA. After scoring 20 runs and allowing just four in two games against Oregon State, the Commodores are hitting .319 and have an ERA of 2.38. Offensively, they have the potential to knock the ball out of the park.

They have hit 47 home runs, with a team-leading 17 coming from Aaron Westlake, who blasted three in the Super Regional clincher, but a lot of their damage is done by stringing together hits and playing small ball. They rank in the top 15 nationally in total hits (682 in 62 games) and total runs (442). They have successfully placed 60 sacrifice bunts — which rank among the top 40 in the country — and have stolen 78 bases.

As for pitching, VU's three weekend starters — Sonny Gray, Grayson Garvin and Taylor Hill — have combined for a 30-5 record. The bullpen has allowed just one run in 13.1 innings this postseason. Plus, closer Navery Moore (11 saves, 1.21 ERA) hasn’t been used since May 28. Defensively, the Commodores are just as sound, committing only 62 errors as they had the fewest in the Southeastern Conference prior to Friday’s opener.

“They are very, very locked in,” Corbin said. “That is the terminology they’ve used all year. It is a consistent, consistent group. They haven’t backed off and we’ve talked about it since Aug. 25. I mean it is amazing. We use the dash — Aug. 25 to the final date — and we say the dash is the most important part. Those are the experiences. We wanted that dash to mean something this year.”

Reaching the College World Series has been Corbin’s goal since he took over the program nine years ago. 
He got there four times as an assistant coach at Clemson. He quickly made an impact at Vanderbilt when he took the Commodores to their first Super Regional in 2004, his second season. They were ranked No. 1 nationally for most of 2007 but fell short in the regional. Last year, they went as far as any VU team ever had to that point when they won a Super Regional contest against Florida State.

“It is just the frustration of coming close and coming [up] short,” Corbin said. “It is one thing to experience success in the regular season. There is another mountain to climb once you get into the postseason. ... It just takes time, it really does. It is not easy. I think what happens is that the kids even try harder once they get close. But I’ve had these conversations with [my wife] Maggie many times over. We knew that at some point it would break.”

Finally, on Saturday, the Commodores broke through. The year has been filled with many accomplishments — individual records, team records, a share of the SEC regular-season championship, totaling 50 wins for just the second time in school history and so on.

But winning the Super Regional and getting to Omaha was the only goal that really mattered. Now that the Commodores are headed to the eight-team, double-elimination tournament, which begins on Saturday, they don’t plan on letting up on the gas.

And maybe they can unleash their celebratory pileup on a national stage.

“We are not going to change our routine,” Corbin said. “What we’ve done the entire year works. It stays true for them. They’re comfort kids. So they will be fine once we get out there, I’m quite of sure it. Now the competition is pretty good, but we’re pretty good too.”