When outfielders Mike Yastrzemski and Connor Harrell turned down professional contracts last summer to return for their senior seasons at Vanderbilt, second baseman Tony Kemp was ecstatic.
He also was a little surprised.
“The way they played last year you didn’t think they were going to come back for sure,” Kemp said. “Now that you have those two senior leaders coming back it means so much for the team.”
Yastrzemski and Harrell joined their teammates on the new artificial turf at Hawkins Field last Friday for the first practice. Their return, coupled with two successive No. 1 recruiting classes, has the Commodores primed for a potential return to the College World Series, where they finished the 2011 season.
Vanderbilt opens in more than two weeks with a three-game series against Long Beach State that begins on Feb. 15 at Hawkins Field. The Commodores are ranked in the top three in three preseason polls, including No. 2 in Baseball America for the highest preseason ranking in school history.
“You saw the way [the team] grew last year and you started to taste the potential we could have for this year, especially with another class of freshmen,” Harrell said. “Then you kept hearing about how talented the freshmen were and started feeling how much better these guys are going to be. You look at our roster now and you think, ‘Man those guys can play.’ And that’s exciting.”
In June, Yastrzemski and Harrell were selected in the 30th and 31st rounds of the MLB Draft by the Seattle Mariners and Detroit Tigers, respectively.
Statistically, both players dipped from 2011 to 2012 but had aspirations to go higher in the draft. Yastrzemski, a right fielder, batted .286 with six home runs and 46 RBIs. Harrell, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound center fielder, slugged through an up-and-down season, hitting .241 with seven home runs and 26 RBIs.
“When Yaz and I came down to the wire and obviously weren’t picked where maybe we thought we could have for our potential, we started thinking about coming back for our senior year,” Harrell said. “What better place is there to be for another year than right here?”
For Yastrzemski, the decision was made harder by an aggressive pursuit from the Mariners.
According to MLB.com’s Peter Gammons, Yastrzemski turned down a $300,000 offer from the Mariners on the last day of the signing period in July to return to Vanderbilt and graduate with his degree this May.
“It was a little difficult,” Yastrzemski said last week. “But with such a great opportunity coming back for my last year, being with my friends, getting the chance to graduate, it was an easy choice for me to come back.”
An experienced senior quartet gives hope to coach Tim Corbin after he watched their experience pay dividends last year. After starting the season 7-15, the Commodores pulled off an improbable turnaround. Winning 22 of its last 32 regular-season games, they qualified for an NCAA Regional and were six outs away from a trip to the Super Regional before North Carolina State rallied for the win.
When Harrell and Yastrzemski opted to return they doubled the senior class. Left fielder Jack Lupo is a fifth-year senior who transferred from the Air Force Academy after the 2009 season. Montgomery Bell Academy product and reserve infielder Andrew Harris also returns for his fifth season while juggling the responsibilities of graduate school.
“All four of those seniors did not have to come back to school,” Corbin said. “My respect for them to be back here, No. 1, is tremendous, and, No. 2, for the type of people they are. They are very serving guys and they all get it naturally. I’m very lucky to have four guys like that at one time.”