The week ahead is a mystery for Vanderbilt.
The Commodores head to Hoover, Ala., for the Southeastern Conference Tournament knowing they’ll play at least two games and as many as five. Add in that the No. 1 seed begins play on a Wednesday — a short turnaround from last weekend’s final regular-season series — and the handling of pitching, from starters to middle relief to closer Brian Miller, becomes an art form.
“You want to use arms wisely,” coach Tim Corbin said. “You certainly don’t want to hurt anyone. You know you have innings ahead of you down the road. You know you have innings in [the SEC Tournament]. What I think it does is maybe establish a young kid you maybe haven’t seen as much and I think that is a good thing.”
Corbin speaks from experience. In 2007, he called on two sparingly used arms to help the Commodores win their first SEC Tournament crown since 1980.
In the championship game, he asked Tyler Rhoden to make his first start of the season. The fifth-year senior scattered seven hits over six-plus innings and kept the Arkansas bats in bay long enough for a 7-4 win. Rhoden also got the start and pitched four innings the following weekend in the final game of the NCAA Regional.
But the Commodores, equipped with future first-round picks David Price, Mike Minor and Casey Weathers, might not have reached the SEC Tournament final if it wasn’t for the pitching of a walk-on. Jason Cunningham entered the second inning with Ole Miss leading 3-2 and made sure the lead didn’t widen by the time he exited the game. He chewed up a season-high 4.2 innings, working around two hits and three walks. The Commodores rallied twice to edge the Rebels in 10 innings.
“He was highly celebrated after the game and it was such a good moment for him,” Corbin said. “I think the opportunity to get a chance to pitch is very visible in this tournament.”
Corbin has not announced his starter for Wednesday against No.9 Texas A&M (4:30 p.m., CSS), which defeated Florida on Tuesday. He has narrowed his decision to midweek starter Walker Buehler, a freshman, or either Philip Pfeifer or T.J. Pecoraro, who have both started on Sundays this season.
Kevin Ziomek (10-2) is set to start on Thursday and Tyler Beede (13-0) will get the nod in a possible third game.
After practice on Monday, Ziomek said he believed Buehler (4-1, 2.29 ERA) would get the start Wednesday.
Last week, Buehler allowed just one earned run in a career-high seven innings against Alabama while making his first SEC start. The 18-year-old from Lexington, Ky., ranks fourth on the staff in innings pitched (51.0).
So while the right-hander will be new to the SEC Tournament, his teammates believe he is more than ready for the big stage.
“Absolutely. He has been great all year,” Ziomek said. “I think his performance this past weekend really showed he has come into his own down the stretch. He is going to bring a lot of confidence with him.”
But Vanderbilt will take an all arms-on-deck approach if need be.
In the 2011 SEC Tournament, the Commodores used nine pitchers in five games. Last year, they leaned on 10 to reach the championship game for the second straight year and third time in four years.
Vanderbilt (48-7), ranked No. 1 in all five national polls for the second straight week, has used 14 pitchers this season. Ten have thrown more than 20 innings and six have made starts. A staff ERA of 2.70 ranks 12th in the country and third in the SEC behind Arkansas and LSU.
“We’re pretty confident in our staff,” Ziomek said. “The way we’ve been throwing all year it is hard not to be. We got a lot of talent there. Without that bullpen, I don’t where we’d be. They’ve been picking us up all year and it is pretty awesome to have guys like that behind you.”