Looking to expand on an Freshman All-American campaign, Vanderbilt leadoff hitter Tony Kemp decided to show off his flexibility last offseason.
He took yoga classes.
Kemp challenged his body’s limits by twisting his 5-foot-6, 160-pound frame into knots. Then the Franklin native took the field and endured a roller coaster season. He battled through a sophomore slump that included a rough start, a position change and a batting average that varied from sub .100 to above .300 before finishing at .261.
Not that the two were linked, but Kemp chose to place yoga on the shelf this offseason.
“I decided to put those to a rest. So not this year,” Kemp said laughing. “Yeah, it did [pay off] flexibility-wise but other than that no dividends.”
This year the only noticeable difference in Kemp is a puffy afro that coach Tim Corbin jokes boosted him over 6-feet.
The Centennial High School product hopes to get off to a fast start as the Commodores, ranked as high as third in some preseason polls, open the season on Friday at home with a three-game series against Long Beach State. Kemp was voted a preseason All-American for the second straight year, earning accolades from Collegiate Baseball and Baseball America.
The junior is one of eight position players returning for Vanderbilt, which went 35-28 last year and reached its seventh straight NCAA Regional a year after going to the program’s first College World Series.
The left-handed hitter was instrumental in the Commodores’ second-half surge with his play at second base, his base running and some timely hitting. His game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth capped off an unlikely five-run comeback against North Carolina State in the second game of the NCAA Regional.
But his start mirrored the team’s forgetful beginning. Vanderbilt’s leadoff hitter sputtered out of the gate and went 1-for-12 in a season-opening series at No. 1 Stanford. Corbin even temporarily moved him to the second spot in the lineup to provide a jolt.
Aside from stealing four more bases (21) than the year before, Kemp was hard pressed to match the impressive – and somewhat unexpected – numbers he posted as a freshman. His batting average dropped from .329 in 2011, along with hits, RBIs and on-base percentage while his strikeouts rose.
“You don’t even worry about last year. That’s last year,” said Kemp, who shares the school record with 15 career triples. “You worry about today. You worry about the next day. The past is the past. You don’t even look at it. I’m just ready for this team to get going.”
He is also ready for Act Two at second base.
A dynamic left fielder, Kemp moved to the dirt after second baseman Riley Reynolds got injured in the middle of the season. Kemp started 24 games at second, committing just three errors and posting the team’s third-highest fielding percentage at .983.
With Jack Lupo in left field, Kemp is expected to start at second again this season. He has embraced the position switch and honed his skills during the summer on the Cape Cod League.
“You’re more in the game,” Kemp said. “In the outfield, you kind of sit back and you’re not relaxed but you’re not into every pitch. But in the infield, you have to worry about pickoffs, catchers, run downs. ... I’m really comfortable out there. The transition was a little tough but I’m glad coach Corbin made it.”
Corbin, entering his 11th season at Vanderbilt, said he wasn’t surprised by Kemp’s flexibility, in terms of positions. Instead, he admired the way he bounced back from a tough start and adapted to a new position.
“He is a good athlete and he can improvise. There are not a lot of kids can do that,” Corbin said. “They key to him last year was leaving him alone. Even though you want to teach fundamentals with kids I think when he jumped into it mid-stream it is more getting him comfortable and letting him do some things he is capable of doing on his own. He never played timid.
“I like him, whether he gets off to a slow start or a good start, he is a player – a winning player. You’re going to get Tony’s best. He is a sparkplug. He gives you a lot from a presence standpoint.”