To say that Vanderbilt has had some stability at the top of the starting rotation over the last six years is a bit of an understatement.
During that stretch, three pitchers assumed the role of ace for the Commodores. After they held down the Friday night spot for two years, they were drafted in the first round: David Price (2007, Tampa Bay), Mike Minor (2009, Atlanta) and Sonny Gray (2011, Oakland).
How about that for shoes to fill, Kevin Ziomek?
“I think there is a little pressure but mostly just excitement,” Ziomek said. “I’m going to try to keep up the tradition we’ve got going here with the great pitching staff. It is exciting to kind of live up to that potential. But I’m just trying to go out there, pitch and win some games.”
Ziomek, a sophomore left-hander, will step onto the mound on Friday night for the season opener when No. 11 Vanderbilt takes on No. 4 Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif., in the first of a three-game series.
Whether he’ll still be in that role at the end of the season remains to be seen.
“I don’t know that,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “Just pitch and see what that brings us. This is all new to us too. It is all new to them.”
Ziomek is part of a new-look starting rotation after last year’s trio of Gray, Grayson Garvin and Taylor Hill was drafted within the first six rounds. They amassed 31 of Vanderbilt’s program-record 54 wins last year.
This spring’s rotation brings in just three wins — all by Ziomek. Highly touted freshman right-hander Tyler Beede, a first-round pick a year ago who passed on millions of dollars from the Toronto Blue Jays to go to college, will start on Saturday. Junior lefty Sam Selman will take the hill on Sunday.
An eventual first-rounder has been in the starting rotation in all 10 seasons of Corbin’s tenure at Vanderbilt.
Ziomek brings in the most experience of any of the starters. He pitched twice in Vanderbilt’s trip to the College World Series and was one of two pitchers to earn freshman All-American honors. The other was T.J. Pecoraro, who went 7-0 but suffered a season-ending elbow injury in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The possible heir to the Friday night throne, he underwent Tommy John surgery and is out until at least May.
Ziomek, a 6-foot-3, 200-pounder from Amherst, Mass., started five games last year, including the second game of the season. He made 27 appearances, finishing with a 3-0 record, a 1.59 ERA, 41 strikeouts and 16 walks in 45.1 innings pitched.
“There is a comfort level with him, albeit he is just a sophomore,” Corbin said. “But in the terms of experience he is probably the most experienced guy that we have right now that could be a starter. Will Clinard could too but we’ve chosen to use him at the end of the game.”
Clinard, a senior from Cross Plains, was the lone drafted player, out of an SEC record 12, to return to Vanderbilt. The Commodores lost seven pitchers to the draft, all who contributed to a program record 2.44 ERA.
Clinard was 2-2 with a 2.75 ERA and three saves as he made all 35 appearances out of the bullpen. He’ll be joined by freshmen Brian Miller and Philip Pfeifer, a Farragut product, who set the state high school record for career wins (46). Transfer Drew VerHagen, who spent last year at Navarro College after starting his career at Oklahoma, also will be in the bullpen mix after losing out on the Saturday slot to Beede.
“We’ve got a lot of talent on the staff,” Ziomek said, “so really anybody could have taken that [Friday] spot.”
With three and a half months of baseball on the horizon, that possibility is still out there.
“I have to go out and earn it,” Ziomek said. “Nothing is set in stone here at Vanderbilt. We’ve got great competition for everybody. I’m just going to go out there and try to pitch my game. Whether it is me on Friday nights or Selman or Beede, whoever, I know they are going to go out there and get the job done.”