The Vanderbilt pitching staff received a baptism by fire — and got torched.
More than two months in, the young and inexperienced arms finally have started to fire back.
Statistically, the Commodores still rank 11th in the Southeastern Conference in team ERA (4.29), walks (182) and wins (20). But improvement is obvious, especially last weekend when they tamed the Kentucky bats and took two of three from the third-ranked Wildcats.
Kentucky entered the weekend leading the SEC in nine offensive categories but scored just nine runs — a season-low — in the series. against Vanderbilt's Saturday and Sunday starters, Tyler Beede and Kevin Ziomek, combined for 12 2/3 scoreless innings and 16 strikeouts. In the Commodores' 6-1 victory on Sunday, Kentucky was held to fewer than two runs for just the third time this season.
“Every time they go out there and every time they get a chance to touch the ball you feel like they’re going to get one step further to being able to trust their stuff,” pitching coach Derek Johnson said.
The Commodores lost seven of last year’s pitchers, including the entire weekend starting rotation, to the MLB draft. Only T.J. Pecoraro and Ziomek started in 2011 and Pecoraro missed more than a month as he was recovering from elbow surgery.
Vanderbilt won just one in its first eight games. Beede, a first-round pick by the Toronto Blue Jays, didn’t pick up his first win until March 31. Sam Selman dropped out of the weekend rotation. In fact, six different players have started weekend games.
“We’ve been working on our mentality throughout the year,” Ziomek said. “Obviously we’ve been maturing as a staff and as a team even.”
In the last 12 games, Vanderbilt’s starting pitchers have just three losses.
Selman is flourishing in his new midweek role, winning his last five starts. The junior left-hander allowed just one run on one hit in 2 1/3 innings of relief to pick up his team-leading sixth win on Sunday after Ziomek’s strong start. With only one midweek game left — May 9 against Louisville — there will be more chances to star on the weekend.
“I’ll pitch wherever they put me,” Selman said. “I like [pitching midweek]. It’s great to start, do whatever I can to help the team win.”
Pecoraro is still adjusting to being back on the mound. A Freshman All-American last year, he has made just three starts and is 0-2 with a 5.30 ERA. Beede, on the other hand, is settling in. After struggling to go deep into games, the freshman has reached the seventh inning in his last five starts. Saturday marked the first time he hadn’t allowed a run in 11 appearances.
“It was a lot of things that I tried to keep them off balance, just mess up their timing a little bit,” Beede said on Saturday. “The changeup was an effective pitch for me [Saturday]. When you have a three-run cushion it is just about trusting your pitches, trusting your defense and getting out there and throwing strikes.”
If the Commodores continue to find the strike zone, they could play into June. Winners of four of five, they heading into this weekend’s series at Tennessee (22-22, 7-14) tied with Georgia for ninth place in the SEC. The Commodores (21-23, 9-12) hold a two-game lead over the Vols.
If they end the regular season — and conference tournament — above .500 their strength of schedule and body of work might be enough to propel them into the NCAA Tournament.
“This type of weekend can be huge,” Johnson said on Sunday. “You can walk into the next couple, three weeks and feel different about your self and feel different about your team.”