Mike Yastrzemski didn’t look the part of Iron Man his freshman season.
At least not to Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin.
“I didn’t know if he’d play as a freshman. I really didn’t,” Corbin said. “I thought he was too weak. I thought he was small. I thought he needed to get in the weight room more. … I may have misjudged his strength as a hitter. Even as a freshman, he could hit the ball pretty hard. He just had a know-how for playing. I think because of that he put himself in a position to play.”
A permanent position.
Since June 5, 2010, there has been one constant for the Commodores: Yastrzemski in the starting lineup.
He has started 182 straight games — primarily in right field, where he has started all 45 games this year. For his career, the senior has made 209 starts — second to only teammate and center fielder Connor Harrell, who has started 210.
“I know it is a rented spot and very easily with one game it can be switched over to someone else,” Yastrzemski said. “So I try to take full advantage of every opportunity I get out there and make the most of it. That has been my ultimate goal to come out and give everything I have every day.”
The scrawny 5-foot-10 freshman from Andover, Mass., arrived at Vanderbilt four years ago weighing just 168 pounds. He has since beefed up to 190 pounds and hasn’t let a bruise or sprain or pulled muscle keep him out of the lineup.
“You’re never 100 percent during the season except for your first game,” he said. “Every game wears on you. Every game is essentially a physical grind. Mentally, not so much because you are out there having fun. You don’t notice it. Just being able to be around guys you enjoy takes your mind off of it. I give a lot of credit to everyone else on the team for it.”
Like his weight, Yastrzemski, the grandson of Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, has steadily built a strong career. He batted .284 over his first three seasons, and this spring off-days at the plate have been rare for the left-handed hitter.
Among regular starters, he ranks second in batting average (.331), hits (59) and doubles (12). He is third on the team in RBIs (32), runs scored (34), home runs (3), walks (22) and stolen bases (14). In the field, he has committed just two errors to bring his career total to 11.
“What he can really do is he knows how to play the game. He knows how to play it well — every facet of it,” Corbin said. “Whether it is running or defending or picking pitches, his acumen is high. Because of that it allows him to play.”
But what Corbin values just as much in Yastrzemski is his leadership.
The 22-year-old turned down an offer last summer to sign with the Seattle Mariners, who drafted him in the 30th round. His veteran presence, along with Harrell, who returned after being drafted by the Detroit Tigers, has anchored the Commodores, who jumped to No. 1 in two national polls earlier this week.
Vanderbilt (39-6, 19-2 Southeastern Conference) will face one of its toughest tests when it travels to No. 9 South Carolina (33-12, 13-8) on Friday for a three-game series.
Yastrzemski carries a consistent, upbeat attitude. When Corbin addresses the team — in practice, at team meetings, before and after games — Yastrzemski is always at the front of the group, attentive and alert.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without him,” Corbin said. “Not just because of him but Connor and older kids [too]. But the maturity, the patience level, the teach-ability, the spirit to play, the consistency and approach to play, he is a model. He is a model of how you want younger guys to attack the game and how you want them to arrive at the ballpark and how you want them to dress.
“There are a lot of things coaches can verbalize. Then there are other things coaches need from players to act out in order for it to happen time and time again. He does that.”