Vandy baseball’s Kemp could be in line for SEC MVP

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tony Kemp may not look the part, but the Vanderbilt junior sure can play it.

The numbers don’t lie, even to the point of defying his diminutive 5-foot-6 frame that barely carries 160 pounds. But in a season when Vanderbilt baseball has come up big in winning the Southeastern Conference regular-season title and carries a No. 1 national ranking heading into this week’s SEC Tournament at Hoover, Ala., Kemp has possibly come up the biggest.

“I think he is one of the best players in the league, if not the best player,” said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin, whose team opens tourney play at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday against the winner of Florida-Texas A&M (Tuesday).

But will Kemp, a local product of nearby Centennial High School, be named the SEC’s most valuable player when it is announced next week? Some of the toughest competition may come from some of his own teammates.

“It would be tough for me to say MVP because we have so many valuable players,” Corbin said. “He has just had a player of the year type season, though.”

After going 9 for 20 in the season finale against Alabama last weekend, when the Commodores won two out of three games, Kemp wrapped up the SEC batting crown (.408). He also finished first in the league in on-base percentage (.490), runs scored (58) and steals (27), while taking second in hits (89) and triples (six). His 21 career triples tied the league record.

“I definitely don’t want to get my hopes up,” Kemp said of possibly being named league MVP, “but I definitely know it can happen. I am just blessed to be a candidate and in that position just because there are so many other good players out there. But if I win the award, that will be something pretty cool.”

Other leading MVP candidates include Mississippi State’s Hunter Renfroe, the league leader in home runs (15) and slugging percentage (.691); and LSU’s Mason Katz, who led the league in RBI (64) and finished second in batting average (.388), home runs (14) and slugging percentage (.677).

Several Commodores are also considered MVP candidates: Senior center fielder Connor Harrell finished the regular season ranked second in RBI (61) and runs scored (52) and fifth in home runs (11) and slugging percentage (.565). Sophomore right-handed pitcher Tyler Beede went a league-leading 13-0 with a 2.28 earned run average, while junior lefty Kevin Ziomek went 10-2 and led the league in strikeouts (102).

“I definitely put (Kemp) up there as one of the finalists in the top three in the league,” said Commodores first baseman Conrad Gregor. “I think Tony has all the qualities and characteristics of being a most valuable player for our team and the league.”

Maybe that is what will help set Kemp apart from the other candidates. Corbin has never coached a player with Kemp’s approach to the game, especially one this size.

“Tony is a positive life force for us,” Corbin said of Kemp, who was twice named SEC Player of the Week this season and has had seven straight multi-hit games. “He is strong for a little kid. He improvises. He does whatever is necessary to make a play. He is a winning player.

“Everything he touches ends up winning. It’s his glove. It’s his bat. It’s his speed. It’s his personality. It’s his aggression of the game.”

Kemp learned how to play baseball mostly from older brother, Corey, who played collegiately at East Carolina. In fact, Kemp originally committed to join his brother on the ECU roster, but after being offered a scholarship by Corbin, he signed with the Commodores instead.

“I’m not a big, strong guy,” Kemp said. “In middle school, my brother told me that I was not always going to be the biggest, but you can definitely be the fastest, and you can definitely beat people by your mental capabilities.

“By having a good mental standpoint and a good mental capability when I step onto the field, you can beat anybody once you step on the field.”

That came through last season when Kemp was asked to leave his natural position playing center field for second base. Injury to previous second baseman Riley Reynolds caused the move, and Kemp was willing to oblige, although he had never played the position.

“When I was inserted into second base last year, it was kind of a rough road,” Kemp said. “I had never played infield in my life. Coach Corbin went in there and showed me the ropes. And we were making adjustments along the way. I said I would do whatever and I never looked back from there.”

Kemp and the Commodores continue to look forward this season. Regardless of what happens at the SEC tourney, the team is virtually guaranteed to host a NCAA Regional next week and, most likely, a Super Regional the following week, should it win the regional. And while the Commodores won a record 26 SEC games this season, they did not play two other highly ranked SEC teams — No. 2 LSU or No. 14 Arkansas.

In opposite brackets, Vanderbilt and LSU could meet for the first time this season in Sunday’s championship game, with the NCAA tourney’s No. 1 overall national seed on the line.

“I don’t know if we are the favorite,” Kemp said of the SEC tourney, “but we are a team with the capability of winning it all. It is the SEC and one of the best conferences in the nation. A team can get hot at any time in the season. You never know.”

The Commodores haven’t claimed the SEC tourney title since 2007. For 2011 and ’12, Vandy won its first three games but fell in the championship.

“We enjoy that tournament a great deal and enjoying playing it,” Corbin said. “… The only way you get good at playing in tournaments is by learning to win them. This is a double-elimination tournament and favorable to what we will be doing (in the future).

“Now, at the end of it, it’s not going to define our season. I think the kids know what they want to get at the end of the season.”

And that’s not only making the team’s first trip to the College World Series since 2011, but winning a national championship, as well.

“We never look in the future,” Kemp said “If you sat down at the beginning of the year and said that we would be 26-3 and break the SEC record for wins, it wasn’t going to happen. That’s too big of a picture. That’s too much to look at.”