There was a time — not too long ago — when Tim Corbin took nothing for granted, least of all a victory.
With a team that won 44 games during the regular season and three more in the Southeastern Conference tournament in front by 10 runs on Friday, though, Vanderbilt’s coach felt comfortable enough to pull his starting pitcher.
Sonny Gray allowed just three hits, no walks and no runs but left after six innings of the Commodores’ NCAA regional opener against Belmont having thrown just 68 pitches (46 strikes). That move meant the junior right-hander would be available later in the weekend, if needed, and did little to change the nature of the contest as Vanderbilt cruised to a 10-0 victory before a sellout crowd of 3,531 at Hawkins Field.
“It’s good for Sonny,” Corbin said. “It’s not necessarily a situation where you’re going to think about bringing him back. I guess you could. We did last year in that situation. … You’d rather not have to do that if you could help it. It was preservation of the arm, more than anything else, for a young kid who’s got more baseball in him.
“…Could we have done that in the past? I don’t know that we could have, but we can with this group.”
The margin of victory matched Vanderbilt’s all-time high in NCAA tournament play. It defeated Indiana 10-0 two years ago in an elimination game at Louisville. Gray started that one and pitched eight innings.
“I don’t think you can ask for a better first game than that against a solid, conference tournament champion in Belmont,” catcher Curt Casali said. “We were just trying to come out fast and hopefully we can do the same thing [Saturday].”
Vanderbilt, the top seed in the field, will face No. 3 Troy at 7 p.m. Saturday. Belmont, the fourth seed, will face No. 2 Oklahoma State in a 2 p.m. elimination contest.
Gray retired the first 14 batters he faced before he finally allowed two-out single to Belmont’s Greg Brody in the top of the fifth. The only runner who got beyond first against him was Zac Mitchell, who reached on a one-out single in the first and advanced when Derek Hamblen followed with another single.
“It’s going to take a lot more guys to win this tournament, and we know that,” Gray said. “We got some guys some experience [Friday] night and that was good for us. And it was good that we had three shutout innings from the bullpen.”
He also got plenty of run support. Six different VU players had two hits and seven had at least one run scored and one RBI, led by Casali (three RBIs) and Anthony Gomez (three runs). Casali’s two-run double in the bottom of the first put the Commodores on the board and ahead to stay.
Vanderbilt (48-10) broke open the game in the fourth when it took advantage of two errors by Bruins’ starter Matt Hamann and scored six runs, three of them unearned. Hamann ultimately lasted 5.1 innings  and gave up all 10 runs on 14 hits.
“If you look at the past games we’ve played the rest of this season, I think we’re really tough to beat when we score first,” Casali said. “It’s a fun atmosphere. You want to make everyone happy and you want to give them something to cheer about and get the energy going. Fortunately, we were able to get two across in the first and it translated to the rest of the at-bats through the rest of the lineup. It was fun.”
Belmont (36-25) responded to Gray’s departure with a walk and back-to-back singles against reliever Will Clinard, which loaded the bases with nobody out. The Bruins loaded the bases again with no one out in the ninth against Jack Armstrong, the Commodores’ fourth pitcher.
Clinard got out of the seventh with a pair of strikeouts and a ground ball. Armstrong did the same in the ninth to preserve Vanderbilt’s fourth shutout all-time in regional play (all in the last three years). In between, Kevin Ziomek pitched an uneventful eighth.
“I think the lead allowed us to do that, but we wanted to preserve [Gray's] arm and we also wanted to give three guys an opportunity to pitch in that environment so the next time they go out there they feel a little bit better,” Corbin said. “That was the mindset behind doing that.”
“Even with a guy like Jack and with Will, they got themselves in a situation where they had to pitch out of a jam. But you know what? That’s kind of a good thing. We’ll take that as a plus. We would have liked to have pitched a few more guys, but we did what we needed to do to win.”