The preseason rankings are high and the outside expectations are lofty.
The Vanderbilt baseball team, however, isn’t trying to dwell on all the national attention they are receiving with the season opener less than two weeks away.
The Commodores have been ranked in the top five in four different preseason polls and have been listed as high as fourth by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) and Baseball America, along with the USA Today coaches poll.
“It is great to get a little respect from the media and different people associated with college baseball,” third baseman Jason Esposito said. “But you want to be No. 1, not fourth or fifth. That is what our sights are set on.”
Yes, Vanderbilt is indeed intent on making school history by reaching the program’s first College World Series.
Head coach Tim Corbin insists that getting to Omaha, Neb., where the CWS is played, has always been the goal since he took over eight years ago. But this year is a little different because the Commodores had the goal within its grasp last spring.
They went 46-20 a year ago and were just one win away from reaching the CWS. They fell 7-6 to Florida State in the decisive game of a Super Regional.
“It is huge motivation because you sniffed it,” Esposito said. “You were one run away, 90 feet away, from tying the game and who knows what could have happened. It is always motivation for every player to get back to where they were last year. ... We always talk about it and that’s our goal and it is all around this place. Like I said, one game at a time will get you to Omaha.”
Esposito is one of 21 lettermen who return from last year’s squad. He and fellow junior Sonny Gray have both been named preseason All-Americans by the NCBWA and Louisville Slugger. Esposito, a native of Bethany, Conn., hit .359 with 12 home runs and 64 RBIs in 2010 and leads an experienced infield. Gray returns as the team’s ace, after going 10-5 with a 3.48 ERA and 113 strikeouts last season. The right-hander from Smyrna leads a talented pitching staff, which includes weekend starters Taylor Hill and Jack Armstrong.
That experience all over the field could be the team’s biggest strength.
“Some guys who have been in the program for three years and have been in that postseason element I think more anything that helps, it helps a tremendous amount,” Corbin said.
The Commodores have been practicing for more than a week and open the season on Feb. 18 with a game at San Diego. They’ll play two games against the Toreros and two against San Diego State on the trip. Then the Commodores will return to Nashville to host Belmont on Feb. 23.
It will be the start of a 17-game homestand, giving Vanderbilt plenty of opportunities to defend those high preseason rankings.
But, right now, the Commodores are just making sure they take care of what they can control.
“We just have to be consumed with what we need to do and play against yourself really,” Corbin said. “You just try to play at the highest level of potential of what we are as a group. I think that is what we try to attain. The kids know, like I said, we have a good team but we just don’t want to be good. You want to finish this thing by being great and you want to get to the middle of the country by the end of the year.”