The Vanderbilt Commodores are participating in the College World Series for the second time in the past four years.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — While Louisville and Vanderbilt were trying to win their Super Regionals last weekend, the coaches at the two schools were exchanging text messages.
The messages were a reminder of the agreement between Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin and Louisville’s Dan McDonnell made during dinner one night last year while taking in the summer baseball league in Cape Cod, Mass. They agreed that the only way their teams would meet this year in the NCAA baseball tournament would be at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. That would certainly be different than facing each other along the way in either Regional or Super Regional rounds like they did three times in the previous five years.
Being included in that College World Series field at the same time is what the Vanderbilt and Louisville coaches envisioned last summer, although it means playing each other in the postseason for a fourth time in six years.
"After we lost (a game to Stanford in the Super Regional last Saturday), he sends me a text and he says, ‘Corbs, you know what we planned this summer?’ He goes, ‘You guys have got this,’" Corbin said of McDonell. "We weren’t going to beat each other up in a Regional or Super Regional, we were going to do it in Omaha. He goes, ‘You have to live up to your end of the bargain.’ He goes, ‘Win (Sunday), and I’ll see you out in Omaha.’ ”
And all this coming with both coaches knowing they would face each other in the CWS opener, should they get to there.
But Vanderbilt and Louisville playing each other isn’t anything new.
They’ve played a non-conference game every year since 2008, a game that has been called the "Battle of the Barrel," complete with a traveling trophy between the schools, since 2008. The Cardinals have won three in a row, including a meeting in Nashville early last month after beating No. 2 overall national seed and host Vanderbilt in the Super Regional last year.
The Commodores were sent to the Super Regional at Louisville in both 2009 and 2010, losing it to Louisville the first year, but getting the Cardinals back the next.
"I was texting Tim throughout the Super Regional (last weekend)," McDonnell said, "and you’re wishing that he can win. You’re encouraging him and trying to help him get through it. But you’re also trying to be, ‘Well, it’s not that I really want to play you. It’s just that I’m pulling for you to win. I don’t want you to think that I’m sitting here licking my chops.’ I was just really happy for Tim and how those guys fought."
The mutual admiration between Corbin and McDonnell dates back to the early 1990s when Corbin was head coach at Presbyterian College and McDonnell was a second baseman at The Citadel. One game between the schools, Corbin was coaching third base and McDonnell playing third, out of position. Their paths later crossed when McDonnell was coaching his alma mater and Corbin was an assistant at Clemson, and they struck up a friendship that has stayed the years.
So, when they got the opportunity to schedule each other during the regular season, the annual mid-week game between two national powers has become the non-conference highlight.
But when the NCAA kept placing Vanderbilt and Louisville in the same postseason paths, based most likely on proximity between the schools, both coaches cried foul, publicly and privately.
"It’s funny because Tim and I have always pleaded off the record or informally that, ‘Hey, man, we can’t keep playing in the NCAAs. We just keep beating each other up. Wouldn’t it be nice one year we could have different paths and both make it to Omaha?’" McConnell said.
So, here they are. Vanderbilt is making its second CWS appearance in four years. Louisville is the only returning team among the field and is making a third visit in eight years. Last year, the Cardinals lost both games, but McDonnell returned 19 players and feels last year’s experience should be a benefit.
"The only way we are going to play well here is if we get comfortable coming here," McDonnell said. "Just seeing their mindset this week, they’re pretty even-keeled. Their focus is getting better in practice. I’m really trying to lean on the older guys, ‘What did you like last year? What didn’t you like? And what should we do differently?’ … It’s the peace of knowing exactly what to expect now."
The Cardinals are led by a trio of All-Americans, including two pitchers. Junior first-teamer Nick Burdi (3-1, 18 saves) is one of the best closers in college baseball. He became the program’s highest drafted player last week when the Twins selected him in the second round (46th overall). Sophomore pitcher, Kyle Funkhouser (13-2), a second-team All-American, is the team’s starting ace. Senior outfielder Jeff Gardner, also second-team, leads the team in home runs (nine) and RBI (68).
Per usual, Vanderbilt counters with one of the most talented and deepest pitching staffs in the country. Junior Kyle Beede (8-7), a first-round draft pick (14th overall) last week of the Giants, will start Saturday. Other standout starters include Carson Fulmer (6-1), Walker Buehler (11-2) and Tyler Ferguson (8-7). Offensively, the Commodores are led by freshman All-American left fielder Brian Reynolds with a team-high .343 batting average. He went 8-for-12 at the plate in the Super Regional.
Then again, no Commodores on the current roster traveled with the team to the College World Series in 2011. But Corbin isn’t worried about his team being in awe. Every year since 2009, the Commodores have been in either a Regional or Super Regional final.
"It’s kind of the Hoosiers-type mentality," Corbin said of the movie, "where (actor) Gene Hackman brings the measuring stick out there and just measures everything and tell his kids it’s the same size. Everything’s the same."