Tim Corbin’s Vanderbilt program poised to reach new heights

Tim Corbin and the Vanderbilt Commodores are one win away from the final best-of-three series in the 2014 College World Series.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tim Corbin has been to the College World Series plenty of times, but it was his final visit as a spectator while still one of the nation’s top assistant coaches at Clemson that still resonates.

He was sitting in the stands watching a game at venerable Rosenblatt Stadium, where the CWS was played in Omaha, Neb., since 1950 before moving to a new venue in 2011. The day before, he had arrived from Fresno State, where he had been offered the head coaching position. A day later, he would be offered and soon accept the same position at Vanderbilt, the program he has led to the Final Four of this year’s College World Series.

"I remember an SEC school coach sitting in the stands with me prior to making the decision to come to Vanderbilt and before Vanderbilt offered me the situation," Corbin said of his 2002 visit to Rosenblatt. "They said Vanderbilt was a dead-end job. ‘The program will never be good.’ He was saying that, maybe there was some meaning behind it, or he was saying it because he didn’t want me (at Vanderbilt). I don’t know, but I never looked at it that way."

At the time, it was easy think that way about lowly Vanderbilt, which long had little to no commitment to the baseball program and offered facilities inferior to many area high schools. Before his arrival in Nashville, it was unimaginable to conceive the Commodores even making the NCAA Tournament, much less be just three wins away from a national championship. Prior to Corbin arriving in 2003, the Commodores had been to only three NCAA tournaments and zero Super Regionals.

But yes, Vanderbilt (48-19) plays Texas (45-20) on Friday, and if the Commodores win they’ll advance to a best-of-three championship series. If not, they’ll still have another crack at the Longhorns on Saturday with the same prize on the line.

Vanderbilt’s sharp ascent into one of the nation’s premier baseball programs and a producer of major-league talent, especially pitching, has directly corresponded with Corbin’s arrival and a subsequent dramatic upgrade in facilities. The Commodores have played in nine straight NCAA tournaments and made the Super Regional round four of the past five years.

After hosting and winning a regional and then beating Oregon at home in the Super Regional round, Vanderbilt is making its second College World Series visit in four years. Last year, the Commodores were ranked No. 1 in the nation for much of the season and entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 2 overall seed, but lost at home in the Super Regional to Louisville.

Indeed, Vanderbilt has been building for this opportunity for more than a decade. Corbin has produced 112 Major League Baseball draft picks at Vanderbilt, including big league stars in Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price, Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez, Oakland A’s pitcher Sonny Gray and Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Minor.

But while trying to win the school’s second team national championship — Vanderbilt won the NCAA bowling title in 2007 — Corbin has tried to lessen the magnitude of the moment on his players.

"I told them this wasn’t a business trip," Corbin said. "A lot of coaches put that tag on it. And I said, ‘Business to me means going to a building with a shirt and a tie and a jacket and sitting in an office.’

"I said, ‘This is a championship trip. This is all about winning a championship. And if you’re going to win a championship, you so much have to stay in the moment.’ So, the kids have done a nice job thus far."

It also helps to have a team deep in pitching talent and getting hot offensively at the right time. Then again, the No. 20 Commodores were ranked in the Baseball America top 25 poll every week of the regular season, so it’s not a surprise the team has advanced this far.

"Absolutely not," sophomore All-American second baseman Dansby Swanson said of being surprised the team made it to Omaha. "Even though we went through some ups and downs through the year, we all had faith in each other. It was just a matter of when are we going to click, and it’s starting to come around."

Pitching is always a given for the Commodores, although ace Tyler Beede (8-7) — a recent first-round draft pick of the Giants two weeks ago — was relieved early in Monday’s win over Cal-Irvine. Sophomore Walker Buehler (12-2), the team leader in wins, came in and didn’t allow a hit or run in the final 5 1/3 innings. The Commodores are expected to start sophomore Tyler Ferguson (8-3) on Friday against Texas, although CWS Game 1 starter Carson Fulmer (7-1) is available on five days’ rest. But it appears Fulmer will start Saturday, if necessary, or be the Monday starter if not.

It’s the offense that has made the most strides in the postseason. In eight NCAA tourney games, the Commodores are averaging 7.37 runs per game. That’s nearly two runs per game better than their regular-season average (5.52).

"The biggest thing is just their plate discipline," Corbin said of the improved hitting. "They are really taking ownership of commanding the strike zone and laying off of pitches that fall below and pitches that just fall above (the strike zone). Maybe, it’s taken 250 at bats (this season) to get to that point. It does take a lot of repetitions in order to gain that skill as a hitter."

Corbin credits the team’s approach at the plate in particular and overall in general as the reason why the Commodores have advanced the furthest they’ve ever been.

"I told them, ‘When we get into this thing, there is no posturing. Don’t come out of your personality as a person, just because you are here or don’t do something different because you’re here. Just be yourself, and let’s play hard ball and stick to the things that have gotten us to this point to begin with,’" Corbin said. "I just want them to be mature, but I want them to have fun, too."