Vanderbilt was certain that its pitching ace this season would be a young player from Middle Tennessee.
That it turned out to be Caleb Cotham, and not Mike Minor, has been one of the surprise developments for the 19th-ranked Commodores.
Cotham, a redshirt freshman from Mount Juliet, is 7-3 with a team-leading 3.28 earned-run average. He has emerged as Vanderbilt’s most reliable starter after being thrown into action as a weekend starter against Southeastern Conference opponents.
Most figured the anchor of the staff would be Minor, a sophomore from Chapel Hill who earned Freshman All-America honors in 2007.
Minor still starts on Friday nights. The mostly unknown Cotham, a right-hander, has pitched so well on Saturdays that VU coach Tim Corbin can almost sense the opposing team’s thoughts.
“Who is that guy?” Corbin said. “We didn’t know he was that good.”
Cotham was at his best last Saturday against SEC champion Georgia, giving up no runs in seven innings. Although he wasn’t involved in the decision as the Bulldogs rallied for a 4-2 win in 10 innings, Cotham delivered a resounding message by handcuffing the league’s best team.
“We felt he would be a weekend starter for us,” Corbin said. “He’s backed everything up, and he’s done it with a quiet demeanor. I like what’s he’s given us. He’s been very dependable thus far.”
After redshirting last year, Cotham turned heads during fall practice, setting the stage for his emergence this season.
“When I hit against him, he was able to spot up all his pitches,” VU outfielder Dominic de la Osa said. “He was throwing hard, keeping the ball low and wasn’t making any mistakes. He’s a strike-thrower. He’s been lights-out for us.”
Cotham starred at Mount Juliet High by relying exclusively on a fastball and slider. Succeeding in the SEC required him to develop a third pitch.
With the help of VU pitching coach Derek Johnson, Cotham added a changeup to his arsenal that he hasn’t hesitated to use.
“I hadn’t really thrown a changeup ever in my life,” he said. “Knowing you have three pitches you can throw for strikes helps out a bunch.”
The Commodores hope for another strong outing Friday from Cotham during a three-game series at Florida that begins Thursday.
Vanderbilt needs one win to wrap up a spot in next week’s SEC Tournament. Two victories at Florida will ensure the No. 3 seed.
Pitching under such do-or-die conditions is what Cotham hoped for before the season began.
“I felt I could contribute,” he said. “My goal was to be a weekend starter. That’s definitely where I wanted to be.”
Vanderbilt at Florida
Thursday, 5:30 p.m.
Friday, 5:30 p.m.
SEC Baseball Standings
#Georgia 19-7-1, 33-13-1
Vanderbilt 15-11, 37-15
Florida 14-13, 30-20
Kentucky 14-13, 38-14
S.Carolina 13-14, 34-18
Tennessee 11-16, 25-27
LSU 15-11-1, 35-16-1
Alabama 14-13, 30-23
Ole Miss 14-13, 33-20
Arkansas 13-13, 31-20
Auburn 11-16, 27-25
Miss. State 7-20, 20-32
#Clinched SEC championship
*Three regular-season games remain for each team. Top eight teams based on winning percentage advance to SEC Tournament, May 21-25 in Hoover, Ala. Division winners receive seeds 1 and 2.
Series Thursday through Saturday
Vanderbilt at Florida
Alabama at Georgia
Arkansas at Mississippi State
LSU at Auburn
Ole Miss at Kentucky
Tennessee at South Carolina