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VOL. 44 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 14, 2020

No. 1 VU baseball has ‘new team, new chapter,’ same ranking

By Chip Cirillo

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Then-freshman Kumar Rocker after his no-hitter against Duke in last year’s Super Regional. The College World Series Most Outstanding Player and three teammates are preseason All-America selections.

-- Photo Provided By Vanderbilt Athletics

There’s a sign underneath the Hawkins Field outfield scoreboard that reads, “National champions 2014 and 2019.” It’s a reminder of how high the bar is set for Vanderbilt under coach Tim Corbin, who was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January.

Looking forward, the defending national champions are ranked first in the Baseball America and USA Today national rankings heading into Friday’s season-opener against Michigan in the MLB4 Collegiate Baseball Tournament in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“Same mindset, nothing really changes for us,” Corbin says. “We go about what we’re doing in the same way. We don’t spend too much time talking about things outside of what we can do and that’s just we’ve got to get better. That’s all there is to it.”

No one was better than the VandyBoys last year when they won their second national title with an 8-2 win against Michigan at the College World Series in June in Omaha. The Commodores (59-12) broke the Southeastern Conference record for wins while sweeping the regular-season and postseason titles with a roster that included 13 draft picks – tying another SEC record.

Repeating will be difficult, considering only four teams have done it: Oregon State 2006-07, LSU 1996-97, Stanford 1987-88 and Southern California 1970-74.

The last time Vanderbilt defended its national title in 2015 it finished as runner-up to Virginia, the team it beat in the championship the previous year.

“It’s a new team, a new chapter,” Commodores outfielder Cooper Davis says. “This is a new team with new freshmen, new guys, a new team every year.

“So I think this group kind of comes together. We find ourselves and find our identity and we try to do our own thing. Every year is different and we’re just trying to figure what we can do to leave our mark.”

Davis, a junior from Canada, hit .331 last season but played in only three games after April 14 due to a lower-body injury. He says he’s pumped to be back on the field.

“It’s definitely exciting,” Davis acknowledges. “You get that fresh feel. When I broke my wrist my freshman year, the same kind of deal. Shut (down) in the fall, really excited. You get back in the cages, you’re all jacked up, ready to go.”

Four Commodores were named to DI Baseball’s preseason All-America team, including three first-teamers.

Ace pitcher Kumar Rocker, third baseman Austin Martin and relief pitcher Tyler Brown were first-team selections. Starting pitcher Mason Hickman, a former Pope John Paul II star, was named to the second team.

Rocker was the College World Series Most Outstanding Player and the Freshman of the Year by Baseball America and DI Baseball last year. The righthander went 12-5 with a 3.25 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 99-2/3 innings.

He kept Vanderbilt’s season alive with a 19-strikeout no-hitter against Duke in Game 2 of the Nashville Super Regional. Rocker kept the Commodores alive again when he earned the win in Game 2 against Michigan in the College World Series finals after the Wolverines had won the first game.

Martin hit .394 last season, the highest batting average for a Commodore since 2004. The junior boasted the SEC’s highest batting average and tied a school record by scoring 87 runs. Martin belted two home runs in his College World Series debut, a 3-1 win over Louisville in June.

“Austin is as competitive as any player we’ve ever had at Vanderbilt,” Corbin told the school website. “He loves and survives in the arena of competition and does not back down.”

Brown set a school record with 17 saves, including two in the College World Series, and was named All-SEC first team last year. The 6-foot-4 junior went 3-1 with a 2.19 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 49-1/3 innings in 2019.

Hickman earned the win in the championship game against Michigan when he struck out 10 and allowed only one run in six innings. The 6-6 junior went 9-0 with a team-best 2.09 ERA.

Commodores catcher Ty Duvall and second baseman Harrison Ray were named second-team All-SEC preseason picks.

Vanderbilt went 22-1 in Duvall’s 23 starts last year. Oakland drafted him in the 25th round last summer, but he returned for his senior year.

Ray led the Commodores with 21 steals in 24 attempts and he set an SEC championship game record with three doubles against Mississippi in 2019.

“Harry is the consummate team guy,” Corbin says. “He held down the second base position all of last year, but can play many positions on the field.”

Lefthander Jake Elder is trying to earn a spot on the Commodores’ weekend rotation. The 6-4 junior went 2-0 with a 2.97 ERA last year.

“All I can do is just improve every day and from start to start,” Elder points out. “So, however that shakes out, it shakes out. But my main focus is just to get the information from a previous outing and move on and try to better myself.”

Elder pitched the last three innings of Vanderbilt’s championship win versus Michigan, allowing just one run. “That was a great experience, obviously,” Elder says. “That was an experience that I may never get again.”

Elder gained a lot of confidence working on his stuff in the Cape Cod Baseball League last summer.

“I implemented a curveball as my main breaking ball,” Elder adds. “I’ve thrown a lot since halfway through the summer, and I was able to really develop that over the course of the middle of the summer on and into the fall.’’

He’s also improved his fastball command and added a changeup. His curveball has blossomed into a swing-and-miss pitch he can throw with confidence in any count.

There are 17 freshmen on the Commodore roster, including pitcher Jack Leiter.

“It was always a dream to come to Vanderbilt, especially after 2014 and 2015, some good teams, obviously, big-league guys coming out of Vanderbilt,” Leiter says. “I definitely wanted to go to a school that maybe I couldn’t get into academically if it weren’t for baseball, so the academics were a big part for me.”

Leiter’s father, Al, who pitched 19 major league seasons and had 162 wins, is now a baseball operations adviser for the New York Mets. His uncle, Mark, and cousin, Mark Jr., also pitched in the major leagues.

Leiter was the 2019 New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year at Delbarton School. The Yankees drafted him in the 20th round.

“My dad chose the other route,” Leiter explains. “He went (to the minor leagues) straight out of high school. Different financial circumstances. His family, it mattered more to get paid as soon as he possibly could. Honestly, I was just excited to get to school and compete in the SEC.”

Spencer Jones, a 6-7 utilityman from Encinitas, California, could make an impact as a freshman. He can play first base, outfield or pitch. The Angels drafted him in the 31st round out of La Costa Canyon where he hit .367 with a 4.0 grade point average.

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