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VOL. 45 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 18, 2021

‘This is why you come to Vanderbilt'

Commodores ‘back to normal’ with delayed CWS title defense

By Tom Wood

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Omaha bound! Those inch-high words – inscribed on front of the black-and-white baseball caps that Vanderbilt players donned minutes after winning the NCAA Super Regional – tell only part of the story of the Commodores’ odyssey-like quest to reach the June 19-30 College World Series in Nebraska.

There wasn’t room for more words on those VandyBoys caps (resilience, determination and consistency all come to mind). But one word definitely belonged there – AGAIN!

That 4-1 Super Regional victory over East Carolina propelled the Commodores to their fifth CWS trip and a second consecutive for the defending national champions, who defeated Michigan 8-2 in the finale of 2019’s best-of-three 2019 championship series.

Vanderbilt won its first national title in 2014, finished runner-up in 2015 and earned third place in 2011.

“When you come to Vanderbilt, there’s no surprise when you get to a stage like this,” says talented freshman center fielder Enrique Bradfield Jr., the team’s second-leading hitter with a .356 average. “We’ve been there before with teams (in the) past. We know how hard it is, and we know everything that we’ve gone through as a team. But this is normal for us. This is what we’re here to do.”

721 days

Vandy certainly made the most of previous trips to Omaha, but the 2021 journey stands apart from the others. It has been a remarkable two-year journey for the Commodores to get back to the mecca of college baseball, one that included significant injuries, numerous roster changes over two seasons, a challenging schedule and, oh yeah, the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Jack Leiter carries a 10-3 record and a 2.16 ERA into the College World Series, his last road trip with the Commodores. The sophomore is expected to be a first-round pick in July’s MLB draft.

-- Vanderbilt Athletics

That meant no fans for the first part of this season, then partial re-opening and finally 100% capacity the last few weeks. Sellout home crowds were back for the stretch run.

“It’s an amazing feeling, and this is why you come to Vanderbilt, for moments like this,” says sophomore right-handed pitcher Jack Leiter (10-3, 2.16 ERA). “And, honestly, the season would have just felt incomplete if we didn’t make it this far. So I’m just happy for the team and I can’t wait to celebrate with them.”

A span of 103 weeks – that’s 721 days – will have passed since the Commodores’ last game in Omaha. For Coach Tim Corbin (798–374–1 in 19 years at Vanderbilt, 904-512-1 overall), it was a soul-searching odyssey that he never again wants to experience.

Kumar Rocker and Leiter gave up a combined five hits and one run in the two Super Regional games against East Carolina last weekend.

-- Vanderbilt Athletics

“It feels like you got your life back,” Corbin says of Vandy’s navigating their way through the waters of the treacherous pandemic. “I’m not trying to be too dramatic about it, but I just remember exactly where I was at this point last year – sitting here thinking about just an open field, I’m the only one in the damn office and, yeah, I’m thinking, ‘will we ever get back to a regular life again?’ It was just incredible.”

Following the Super Regional, Corbin expounded on how a season without college baseball felt like a gut punch. Hard decisions that had to be made weren’t his to make.

“Somber, very somber. It was tough, it was really tough,” Corbin says when asked to describe his feelings during that period.

“I just didn’t know if we were going to get back to normal again. I mean everyone’s going through a difficult time, but I was sitting in that office by myself and I was hoping that the kids would get back to school. I figured if we got back to school we have a chance to do something. But as I told them, it wasn’t given.”

With no opportunity to play ball, the student-athletes went back to their homes. Several tested positive for the virus, some after they returned to campus. But as he always does, Corbin gritted his teeth, dealt with each situation that came along and kept his team focused on the big picture.

VU, UT rematch?

Looking for a Vanderbilt-Tennessee rematch in the College World Series? If it comes, it would be for the championship. Both teams would have to win their brackets for that to happen.

Vanderbilt is in Bracket 1 with Arizona, Stanford and North Carolina State. The Vols are in Bracket 2 with Virginia, Texas and Mississippi State.

Play begins Saturday in Omaha. Vanderbilt (45-15) opens with Arizona (45-16) at 6 p.m. (ESPN), while Tennessee (50-16) plays Virginia (34-24) at 1 p.m. Sunday (ESPN2).

“Even though we were operating in the fall, there were several times that these guys were removed from the training environment because of being in close contact. There’s a level of frustration that’s associated with it. They go home … a bunch of them got the virus. It was a real thing,” Corbin recalls.

“And the fact that we could withstand that and then gain some momentum and just kind of put some things together – get our classroom back together again. And then, because I knew we were playing well, I felt like if the NCAA would grant just 100% capacity, then I felt like it would give us a good chance to gain some momentum once we started playing at home, because we did.

“I’m just so appreciative of the fans showing up and being present for this and in supporting these kids. It means so much to these kids and it means so much to our staff.”

Excitement, sellout crowds

College World Series Quick Hits

Double feature
This is only the seventh time that one state has had two teams or more in the College World Series:
• 2021: Vanderbilt, Tennessee
• 2016: TCU, Texas Tech
• 2014: TCU, Texas, Texas Tech (Vandy champ)
• 2008: Florida State, Miami
• 2005: Baylor, Texas
• 1997: Alabama, Auburn
• 1988: California, Stanford

Back-to-back champs
Vanderbilt hopes to become the seventh school to win consecutive CWS crowns.
• South Carolina (2010-2011)
• Oregon State (2006-2007)
• LSU (1996-1997)
• Stanford (1987-1988)
• Southern Cal (1970-1974) … five!
• Texas (1949-1950)

Vanderbilt’s CWS finishes
• 2011: Third
• 2014: Champion
• 2015: Runner-up
• 2019 Champion
• 2021 ?

Allowing fans back into the stadium was like flipping a light switch. The surge of an electrified fan base was felt by the players, says junior first baseman Dominic Keegan.

“Definitely, we haven’t really had a lot of fans here. Throughout the year, it’s just kind of been family and friends,” says Keegan, who leads the Commodores with a .356 batting average and second in home runs, sandwiched between Carter Noland’s 15 blasts and Isaiah Thomas’s 13 dingers.

“But these past couple of weekends, with full capacity of all the fans here, it’s been awesome. It really gives us a little extra boost and it makes the game more entertaining. Having not been in that environment, it just makes it more fun for everybody involved. So it’s been really special and we really appreciate it.”

When the Vandy home season began Feb. 22, only 178 people saw the Commodores take a pair from Wright State. By mid-April, the turnstile count was up to 527 and 637 for SEC games against South Carolina and Georgia, respectively.

A three-game series against Mississippi State in late April drew 1,300-plus fans, each game followed by a pair of half-capacity games of 1,500-plus fans. The final SEC home series in late May against Kentucky was the first deemed sellouts with crowds near or topping 3,000.

Hawkins Field was a ghost town this time last year during a season lost to COVID-19. All seems right now with a full house witnessing Vanderbilt’s Super Regional sweep of East Carolina.

-- Vanderbilt Athletics

The three Regional games were in the 3,200 range, and the final Super Regional drew a season-high 3,573 cheering their VandyBoys on to Omaha.

Sophomore catcher CJ Rodriguez says the super-charged home atmosphere helped the Commodores down the stretch.

“Beginning of the year, there was barely anybody in the stands, and it felt like a like a bad high school game or something. We tried to create our own energy when we didn’t have any fans,” Rodriguez says.

“But now that these last few weeks have been sellout crowds and … it’s been awesome because we feed off the crowd energy and we try to give them as much energy as we can so they can get it back to us. And we’ve just got to feed off that to keep going. So it’s been a lot of fun.”

Corbin says those sellout crowds helped his team regain their focus for the Road to Omaha after being eliminated early in the SEC tourney in Hoover, Alabama.

“Would it be great to win the SEC tournament? Of course. It’s great. But the reality is that it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t,” Corbin points out. “You have to reset immediately after the season and after the (SEC) tournament because you know that the level of baseball that you’ve played during the course of the year is going to set yourself up for an opportunity to play deep (in the CWS) if you play well.

“And the guys know that. The guys knew that they were playing tough baseball all year and they gained some confidence by doing that. But I thought they did a great job of resetting. We reset as a team and then we just attacked the Regional. The Regional helped us in (the Super Regional) because it was a tough regional. Yeah, I think one situation has helped the other, Kentucky helped the Regional, the Regional helped the Super Regional.

“And then you hope that within our experiences, they help us in Omaha. And the guys need to enjoy themselves right now at a mature level and enjoy what they’ve done, and then we’ll get back together tomorrow and kind of reset ourselves again and get ready for the next big one.”

Youth on Vandy’s side

That maturity of which Corbin speaks is in short supply this season, at least age- and experience-wise.

The 2021 edition of the Commodores are the youngest team in the Southeastern Conference and almost certainly among the youngest in the nation with only eight juniors and three seniors on the talented roster.

“(I’m) so happy, just so happy for the kids. Just happy that they get this opportunity because it’s so difficult to do,” Corbin says.

“We’ve gotten there, and even (wife) Maggie said, ‘This is tough to do.’ But you have to have some guys that have gone there before in order to go there again. I really credit some of our older kids who have been there and probably created those types of centering points for the kids in order to move to this stage.

“I’m just happy for the team. We’re a completely different team, so just to be able to gain some experience throughout the year, play a tough SEC schedule, play well on the road.

“To go through a tough Regional and then another Super Regional … I mean, this road was not easy by any stretch. We had a lot of kids who were on the field for the first time. You had some kids that were with the 2019 team - but never on the field. So to do it with this group is special.”

The young players understand that this season is a little different from the others.

“This journey’s been special for everybody in the organization – players, staff and everybody associated with us – because we face so much adversity as a team,” freshman Bradfield says.

“One thing remains the same, is that we’ve been able to lean on each other and we always find our way back to each other. And that has helped us get through the rough patches, the injuries, whatever it may be. And we’re still standing. We’re still here.”

Super-soph Leiter echoes that sentiment.

“Again, that’s why you come to Vanderbilt. And you have to get through a really difficult season in the SEC. And then really good teams in the Regional and Super Regional,” he adds. “So it’s definitely not easy to do and we’re not going to take that for granted. But I’m really just happy for all of us, for the team.”

Powerful pitching leads

Much of the credit for Vandy’s success goes to their dynamite pitching staff led by junior right-hander Kumar Rocker (13-3, 2.46 ERA), along with Leiter. Both are expected to be among the top picks for July’s MLB Draft.

Rocker, the 2019 national Freshman of the Year and CWS Most Outstanding Player, sparkled in his Super Regional start, a 2-0 victory against East Carolina. Rocker scattered three hits and recorded 11 strikeouts in that victory, which was almost certainly his final game at Hawkins Field.

An athlete who quietly and carefully answers press conference questions, Rocker opened up at little in the Super Regional session, recalling a late-inning conversation with teammate Cooper Davis.

“I was just happy to be out there. I think Cooper … said ‘How’s it feel to be your last time pitching there?’ And that’s when it kind of set in. I’m glad I didn’t take it for granted, and I’m glad we’ve got one more to play to get to Omaha,” says Rocker, who tossed Vandy’s first no-hitter since 1971 during the 2019 Super Regionals against Duke.

Leiter’s name also is attached to that 1971 no-no. Leiter’s historic no-hitter came in March of this year and is the school’s first regular-season no-hitter in 40 years.

Corbin has plenty of plaudits to spare for his co-aces.

“Once again, (I’ve) just enjoyed watching him pitch for the last two and a half years. To get a front seat to watch this kid compete has been special. I’ve never taken it for granted. He gives us everything he’s got,” Corbin says of Rocker.

“There hasn’t been a day when he’s been here at Vanderbilt where he hasn’t done that. He feels these situations, he loves the arena of competition and that’s what separates him in so many different ways.”

Leiter, too, has been special for the Commodores in this quest for another national championship.

“We needed a very good pitching performance (in the Super Regional clincher against East Carolina) and it’s very difficult sometimes to follow one great pitching performance (Rocker) because of the resistance that you’re going to find from the other team,” Corbin says. “And Jack has done that throughout the year. He’s as good as it gets.

“He’s a competitive, competitive kid with good stuff and he, too, loves the arena of competition. That was primary.”

One last mission

So now the Commodores return to Omaha, their interrupted odyssey nearly complete. The ending to this epic journey is yet to be written, one quest still to be fulfilled.

Can Vanderbilt complete its mission and win a second straight College World Series championship? Seven other powerful foes stand between the Commodores and that lofty goal.

The next 10 days will provide an answer. And if that outcome is “yes,” Vanderbilt’s accomplishment will be unlike any other in the history of the College World Series. A magnificent, legendary feat akin to those immortalized in words and song through the ages.

Leiter puts Vandy’s odyssey into perspective.

“For us, going into the season, there was obviously some uncertainty on what the team was going to look like because we didn’t even have a season last year and some of the older guys from last year left. So, I mean, to see the journey, the way it played out, has been really special.”

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