Jason Esposito was by no means in a slump.
The Vanderbilt third baseman has spent most of the season batting above .300 and he brings an 18-game hitting streak into this weekend, when the No. 3 Commodores (32-5, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) play a three-game series against LSU at Hawkins Field.
In the wake of a 2010 season in which he led the team in RBIs (64) and slugging percentage (.599) and hit 12 home runs, expectations were understandably high for him coming into this season.
Initially, though, his power numbers were low. Through the first 29 games, the junior had just one home run and 21 strikeouts, while hitting primarily at spots in the lineup where teams expect some pop.
“Last year is in the past and this year is different,” Esposito, who is batting .329 with a slugging percentage of .507, said. “There are good pitchers this year and give them credit for what they do.”
Esposito doesn't think the new metal bats this season have hindered his power numbers. Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin figures it was more of what opposing pitchers were doing — throwing to Esposito differently this season. He also believes Esposito might have been pressing and swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone.
Still, the veteran coach never worried.
“Even when he wasn’t giving you the numbers, I still felt like he was a big offensive player,” Corbin said. “I have a great deal of confidence [in Esposito]. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t continue putting him there [in cleanup]. If he was 0-for 40, he would probably hit in the same spot, to be honest with you just because I feel like he is going to do something.”
Corbin’s faith was rewarded last weekend.
Esposito, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior from Bethany, Conn., broke through with three home runs and three RBIs during Vanderbilt’s three-game series at defending national champion South Carolina. He hit two home runs on Sunday and raised his season total to five, just one behind teammate Aaron Westlake for the team lead.
“It is such a long season that every hitter on our club goes through dryness, so to speak, where hits don’t come as easy,” Corbin said. “There is a sense of frustration that builds up. Last weekend was very indicative of what type of player he was. He had a similar weekend last year at Florida on the road on a Sunday in which he got it going and he maintained some offensive consistency. So, he is a good hitter and good hitters hit.”
His skill set doesn’t stop at the plate, however.
He began the season at shortstop (to fill the void left behind by Brian Harris) but then Corbin switched him back to third base — where he started the first 130 games of his career. There is a reason for that as Corbin says Esposito “is probably the best third baseman I have ever had the opportunity to coach.”
That is extremely high praise considering the last third baseman Corbin and Vanderbilt had — Pedro Alvarez, who now starts for the Pittsburgh Pirates — was strong, too.
“From a defensive standpoint, [Esposito] is pretty good,” Corbin said. “He fields everything. He is very consistent. His arm is very accurate. He enjoys the defensive part of the game as much as he enjoys the offense. You see his personality come out in the defensive side of the game a little bit more.”
Those tools — along with 61 stolen bases so far in his career — are why many draft experts project him a first-round pick this June.
But Esposito is trying not to get sucked into that talk.
“It is all about our team and getting to Omaha [the site of the College World Series],” Esposito said. “I look ahead to Omaha, to be honest with you. But as far as individual accomplishments, that will happen. That is why we play baseball to reach our ultimate goal. But right now it is about Vanderbilt.”
• Vanderbilt outfielder Joe Loftus will miss three to six weeks after breaking his hamate bone in his hand. He sustained the injury last Friday during an at-bat against South Carolina and had surgery earlier this week.
Loftus, a junior from Savage, Minn., started in 12 games this season, and hit .233. Corbin said Loftus was beginning to regain confidence after sustaining an arm injury earlier this season. Sophomore Jack Lupo could receive more time as the team’s fourth outfielder with the injury to Loftus.
“All we told Joe is just to stay involved in the group effort and involve himself mentally in everything we do,” Corbin said. “He could pinch run. He can do various things because he is aggressive and he can throw. So maybe he plays defense for us before he plays offense. His experience and value is big for our team.”
• Vanderbilt will try to avoid losing two straight games for the first time all season. After losing their first series of the season, the Commodores welcome LSU, which is ranked 27 th in the latest National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll.
The Tigers are 24-14 overall and 4-11 in the SEC, sitting in last in the Western division. But they are coming off a series win against Auburn.