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VOL. 43 | NO. 22 | Friday, May 31, 2019

5 reasons why VU is on track for World Series

By Chip Cirillo

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Vanderbilt baseball is sitting pretty for the postseason, ranked No. 2 in the nation, coming off the SEC regular season and tournament championships and hosting one of the 16 NCAA regionals beginning Friday.

With a 49-10 record, the Commodores’ goal is to make – and win – the College World Series in Omaha. Expect UCLA, Mississippi State and Stanford to be among the teams with the same expectations and title-worthy talent.

This year’s Commodores appear to have all the right pieces to win the NCAA championship. Here’s five reasons why:

Explosive offense

The Commodores rank sixth nationally with 8.4 runs per game. Vanderbilt’s .317 team batting average is fourth-best in the NCAA.

Right fielder JJ Bleday leads the nation with 26 home runs, followed, oddly enough, by Austin Peay’s Parker Phillips (25) and Tennessee Tech’s Jason Hinchman (24). But the SEC Player of the Year realizes opposing pitchers will get tougher the rest of the way.

“You just stick to your same routines,” Bleday says. “You don’t let any other opponent or any other competitor get in the way of what you’ve been working for the whole year. You just stay in your mindset, stay confident and the rest really works itself out.”

With Bleday going deep so often, there’s a great sense of anticipation in the Commodores’ dugout every time the lefthanded hitter steps up to the plate.

“Everybody kind of holds their breath in our dugout,” Commodores utilityman Stephen Scott explains. “Every time he’s up there, we think he’s going to do some damage and he has. He’s done a lot of damage this year, so it’s been really fun to watch and be a part of it.”

Leadoff hitter Austin Martin has the sixth-highest batting average in the nation at .414 batting average. Scott (.335, 51 RBI, 11 homers) and shortstop Ethan Paul (.325, 67 RBI, nine homers) have also put up good numbers for the Commodores.

Solid pitching

As usual, Vanderbilt features a talented pitching staff. Friday-night starter Drake Fellows (11-0, 4.05 ERA, 108 strikeouts, 91 innings) leads the way. He outdueled SEC Pitcher of the Year Ethan Small of Mississippi State by throwing six scoreless innings in the SEC quarterfinals.

Freshman Kumar Rocker (8-5, 4.14 ERA) is a 6-foot-4 flamethrower with a 98-mph fastball. He was projected as a first-round draft choice last June, but chose Vanderbilt instead, passing up millions of dollars. His dad, Tracy, is a former Auburn football star who coaches Tennessee’s defensive line.

Patrick Raby (9-1, 2.90 ERA) is Vanderbilt’s career wins leader with 31. Mason Hickman (7-0, 2.20 ERA, 98 strikeouts, 73-2/3 innings) is Vanderbilt’s midweek starter, a 6-6 sophomore from Hendersonville’s Pope John Paul II.

“The tone has just been attacking with good pace on the mound, controlling the zone and making hitters uncomfortable,” says Hickman, who knows he’ll be facing tougher hitters the further Vanderbilt goes in the postseason. “Yea, it’s definitely a different energy that teams bring to the field now. These are the games that you look forward to at the start of the year.

“Hitters are going to be more focused, but same thing on the mound. It’s going to be fun for us. Our defense is going to be great behind us, so you’ve just got to trust that your stuff is going to work and do well.”

Tyler Brown (3-1, 2.01 ERA, 55 strikeouts, 40 1/3 innings) is a first-team SEC relief pitcher who is tied for sixth in the NCAA with 14 saves. The sophomore is one of 45 finalists for the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association’s Stopper of the Year Award.

“The team gathers a lot of confidence based on what is in the middle of the field,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin says. “And the person in the middle of the field oftentimes dictates where the game is going, so pitching is very important, but you’ve got to play defense. We like to score a few points, too.”

Strong defense

Vanderbilt boasts the nation’s No. 4 fielding percentage at .982. The Commodores have made only 38 errors. First baseman Julian Infante and third baseman Martin were both named to the SEC All-Defensive team. Infante hasn’t made an error in 373 chances this season. Martin has a .952 fielding percentage.

Great coach

Tim Corbin, in his 17th season with the Commodores, was named the SEC Coach of the Year for the third time. He led Vanderbilt to the SEC regular-season title with a 23-7 record and the SEC Tournament championship. He led the Commodores to their first national championship in 2014. Corbin has set a school record with over 700 career wins at Vanderbilt. He has led the Commodores to 14 straight NCAA Tournament berths, the longest streak in the SEC.

All-SEC catcher

Vanderbilt’s Philip Clarke, whose walk-off single defeated Ole Miss to win the SEC tournament, is an All-SEC first-team catcher. The former Christ Presbyterian Academy star is hitting .313 with 63 RBI and six homers.

Other title contenders

UCLA: The top-ranked Bruins (45-8) boast the NCAA’s lowest earned run average at 2.59. Righthander Jack Ralston (11-0, 2.43 ERA, 97 strikeouts, 89 innings) is one of the nation’s best pitchers. UCLA clinched the Pac-12 title with a 4-2 win over Oregon on May 24. Ryan Garcia (9-0, 1.42 ERA, 101 strikeouts 76 innings) and Nathan Hadley (8-1. 2.41 ERA, 46 strikeouts, 37-1/3 inning) are also having great years on the mound. Noah Cardenas (.407), Garrett Mitchell (.360) and Michael Toglia (.315, 56 RBI, 14 homers) are giving the Bruins’ pitchers plenty of run support. UCLA has one of the country’s best defenses with a .982 fielding percentage.

Mississippi State: The third-ranked Bulldogs (46-13) struggled in the SEC Tournament, scoring only four runs in their final 30 innings. They hit just .203 in their three games. “There’s no panic,” Bulldogs center fielder Jake Mangum told The Clarion-Ledger. “There’s no need for too much concern. We know what we have to do, and we’ll be better at it.”
Mangrum, who is the program’s career leader in hits, is batting a team-high .363 with 21 stolen bases. Mississippi State’s offensive woes are surprising considering it ranks ninth nationally with 8.2 runs per game. Ace Small is 8-2 with a 1.80 ERA. The 6-3 junior left-hander from Lexington, Tennessee, ranks second in the NCAA with 150 strikeouts in 90 innings.

Stanford: Fourth-ranked Stanford (41-11) took second in the Pac-12. Duke Kinamon leads the Cardinal with a .327 batting average. Teammate Andrew Daschbach has 16 homers and 44 RBI. Alex Williams (7-1, 2.48 ERA) and Erik Miller (7-2, 2.91 ERA) share the team lead in wins.

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