Ascending to No. 1 in the five major polls is worth celebrating, but the Commodores have bigger plans.
By GREG POGUE FS Tennessee
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin likens this season to a road trip, even to the point of waxing philosophical while his team puts together a record season.
The destination is not only a return to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., next month, but a national championship as well. Sound grandiose?
How else should the Commodores be considered other than national championship contender? After all, they sit this week ranked unanimously as the No. 1 team in the country by five college baseball national polls.
Along the way, continual markers for seasonal success only bolster the national resume, but only get glancing nods by those achieving them.
“It’s a mark,” Corbin said of his team being ranked the consensus No. 1 this week for the first time since 2007 by
USA Today, Perfect Game and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.
“It’s a rest area,” Corbin said of each marker along the way. “You know, if you gotta destination to go to, then those are certain things that you can stop off and stretch your legs out and say, ‘OK, let’s get back onto the bus.’
“But right now, we can’t spend too much time admiring what we are doing.”
What the Commodores are doing this season is remarkable, including the 46-6 overall record that is accentuated by a 24-2 stance in Southeastern Conference play. That puts Vanderbilt within one game of tying and two games of breaking the league’s single-season wins record of 25 held by South Carolina. The record can fall when the Commodores play host to Alabama in the regular-season series finale here Thursday-Sunday at Hawkins Field.
And it’s hard to fathom Vanderbilt won’t do it, either, considering the SEC regular-season title was claimed by winning all nine league series, including seven sweeps. And that coming in a league that has five other teams -- No. 2 LSU, No. 11 Arkansas, No. 14 South Carolina, No. 23 Ole Miss and No. 24 Mississippi State -- currently ranked in
Baseball America’s Top 25 poll.
“It’s very difficult to do,” Corbin said of winning every SEC series this season. “It just talks about maturity and concentration and consistency. ... At this level, I don’t know that I would have guessed that.
“But at the same time, I’m not surprised. As the season has progressed, I can see the personality take shape a little bit. They very much take ownership of their performance every day. They are on it, and I appreciate that.”
Thus, the No. 1 national ranking, which came about partly because previous No. 1 North Carolina lost two out of three last weekend to Atlantic Coast Conference rival Georgia Tech.
“We thought that it is the kind of recognition that may come earlier in the year,” said Commodores senior center fielder Connor Harrell, who is batting. 316 and leading the team with 10 home runs and 57 RBI. He hit two home runs in the first game of the team’s sweep last weekend at Kentucky.
“But at the same time, it doesn’t matter too much to us now,” he added. “We just kind of acknowledge it and move forward.”
But being No. 1 does have meaning, especially when the Commodores show up next week at the SEC Tournament set for Wednesday-Sunday at Hoover, Ala. It is a given Vanderbilt will host a NCAA Regional round and, most likely, a Super Regional, should it advance. That means if the Commodores can take care of business this weekend and next, they would have the opportunity to never leave home turf to make the College World Series.
“We have had high expectations from the beginning,” senior junior first baseman Conrad Gregor, who is batting .299. He hit his third home run of the season and scored three runs Sunday in the SEC title clincher against Kentucky.
“... We have taken that day-by-day kind approach and not looked really too far in the future,” he added. “Every challenge that arises, we just try to take it on and conquer it to the best of our ability as a team.”
That ability has been on display in a variety of areas, especially pitching. The 1-2 pitching punch of junior left-hander Kevin Ziomek and sophomore right-hander Tyler Beede to open each series, respectively, has arguably been the most dominating in the country.
Beede, a first-round draft pick by Toronto in 2011 who became the only first-rounder that year not to sign professionally, has equaled his school-record of 13 straight wins without a defeat with a stingy 1.73 ERA. Ziomek, a 13th-round draft pick by Arizona in 2011, has won 10 straight games while going 10-2 with a 2.00 ERA.
Offensively, junior left fielder Tony Kemp, a leading candidate for SEC player of the year, gets the team going figuratively and literally. Just named the league’s player of the week for a second time, he currently leads the SEC in batting average (.414), on-base percentage (.498), runs scored (55) and stolen bases (27).
Yet, the offensive firepower runs one through nine through the Vanderbilt starting lineup, thus the team leading the SEC in batting average (.320), slugging percentage (.462), on-base percentage (.413), runs scored (377), RBI (346), doubles (106), triples (16), sacrifice flies (36) and stolen bases (113).
“We thought we were the target from day one because of the expectations we set as a team,” Gregor said of now being No. 1. “Just now, nothing has really changed. Our thought process, our mindset and day-to-day actions are still the same in our preparation, our training regimen. I think that has helped us be very consistent.”
Sort of sounds like his coach, huh?
“I recognize it because you get asked about it and obviously see it,” Corbin said of being No. 1. “But we are not paying any attention to it because I know it has no worth. What has worth, really, is production on the field and how we move forward. So, that is something that will not take presence over what we can do.
“Now, ask me that question in July, and I might have a different answer. If you are the top of the polls, that means you did something.”