On a map, Omaha, Neb., is a little less than 750 miles from Nashville. For Vanderbilt’s baseball team, though, it’s a moving target.
For years, the host city of the College World Series might as well have been a million miles away. No matter how good the Commodores have been, no matter how many top-flight professional prospects they’ve had, it has remained agonizingly out of reach.
As they approach the halfway point of this year’s SEC schedule, it suddenly seems closer than ever.
Anyone who has followed Tim Corbin’s team for any period of time recognizes the potential for this year’s bunch to go further than ever — or at least to cover those 750 miles. The Commodores have had good pitching in the past. This year they have a deeper staff than ever, with plenty of starters and a bullpen full of experienced arms that offer potential solutions to any predicament.
Previous lineups have had plenty of pop. The current one has possibly the most complete mix of speed, aggressiveness and power yet.
There’s never been any quit in Corbin’s teams, but this one set a standard early on when it won several games — against top-notch opposition — in its final at-bat.
Pollsters certainly have taken notice. It was a little over a week ago that Vanderbilt became the consensus No. 1, sitting atop the three most recognized college baseball rankings.
There are many places throughout the country — LSU comes immediately to mind — where people who support such a team would be scanning the Internet for hotel deals in Omaha right now. While the optimism is obvious on West End Avenue, it’s also muted. That’s because it’s likely that no program understands better just how far away Omaha can be.
The Commodores’ path was clear in 2007, when David Price blew people away with his arm, and Pedro Alvarez delivered awe-inspiring home runs for a team that spent virtually the entire season as everybody’s No. 1. Then an unlikely Michigan team tripped up that bunch in the only NCAA Regional played at Hawkins Field.
Last year, VU kept its head down and feet moving. Suddenly it was in the ultimate game of an NCAA Super Regional, where a bottom-of-the-ninth fell one run short as the tying run was left on first base.
So close to Omaha, yet so far.
It was the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu who several centuries ago said: “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” Unless Lao was also a time traveler, he wasn’t thinking about Tim Corbin and the Commodores. At this point, though, they’ve taken seemingly every step except that final one. They consistently have recruited some of the top players in the country. They’ve won conference championships — regular season and tournament — and regional titles. They’ve played in some of the most famous venues the college baseball world has to offer.
Watch this team and it’s easy to see that it belongs in the CWS. Anyone would be hard-pressed to make the case that there are eight schools that are better right now.
But it’s a long way from April to Omaha. Too long, in fact, to say with any certainty that the Commodores are going to get there this spring. But let the mind wander just a bit, and it seems like Vanderbilt’s first trip is just around the corner.