Vandy baseball harboring title thoughts in stacked SEC

Zander Wiel (#43 -- batted .305 last season) and the Commodores hold a No. 10 preseason ranking (Baseball America) and project as the SEC East's second-best club (behind South Carolina).

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Hearing Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning yell Omaha at the line of scrimmage during the NFL playoffs, Vanderbilt pitching ace Tyler Beede had thoughts other than football.

Jokingly, Manning insisted that his now-famous yelp had multiple meanings. But for Beede and his fellow Commodores, it was a constant and singular reminder of a desired destination come June — the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

"When you hear Omaha," Beede said, "we were thinking of that field and that stadium and getting to that point, but no one else knew what it was."

Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s the goal of every college baseball team to make it to Omaha and compete in the CWS. That’s especially so for Vanderbilt, which has steadily grown into a perennial national-title contender under 12th-year coach Tim Corbin.

In fact, the Commodores hold a preseason national ranking of No. 10 overall (Baseball America) after spending much of last season ranked No. 1. But in 2013, Vandy fell one game short of a second visit to the CWS, losing to upstart Louisville in the NCAA Super Regional final.

"I wouldn’t read anything into that," Corbin said of the preseason rankings that also have his team tabbed for 2nd place in the SEC’s East Division (behind South Carolina). "We don’t. I know it’s out there, but I think it just goes with the territory.

"We’re comfortable with who we are. Whether we are ranked fifth, first, 25th, 30th, it wouldn’t change the mindset of the kids. The kids just know who they are and try to develop more of a personality with every game."

But last season — or, better yet, the way it ended — still sits in the collective craw of the Commodores, who open the season Friday with a three-game weekend series at Long Beach State. The first home game is Wednesday against Lipscomb University (Feb. 19).

In 2013, Vanderbilt matched the school record in victories with a 54-12 mark — including the best regular season in SEC baseball history (26-3), the school’s second conference title in three years. The Commodores won every SEC series last season, including nine series sweeps.

But Vanderbilt’s eighth straight NCAA tourney appearance and NCAA regional title didn’t translate into a second College World Series (along with 2011). Instead, the No. 2 national overall seed was left at the Omaha doorstep, on the outside looking in.

"It was tough for everyone," Beede said of not making the CWS. "Obviously, the season that we had and to end it that way, it wasn’t what we wanted. It does fuel us coming into this year and kind of provides a little of that hunger feeling as far as we were that close, and we want to get past that step.

"But at the same time, you can’t really think about it. We have a different team."

Indeed, the Commodores must replace six offensive starters, including SEC Player of the Year Tony Kemp. But the pitching staff — topped by Beede, a junior right-hander who led the nation with a school-record 14 wins — returns nearly intact.

Beede and closer Brian Miller, another junior right-hander who had a school-record 16 saves last season, were two of Vandy’s six All-Americans in 2013. Beede will start the opener against LBSU, followed by junior left-hander Jared Miller (2-1 last season) and sophomore righty Tyler Ferguson (3-1).

Pitching depth comes from sophomore righty Carson Fulmer (3-0), a freshman All-American, senior lefty Steven Rice (4-0) and sophomore Walker Buehler (4-3).

"It’s a deep staff. It’s a deep pen," Beede said of Vanderbilt’s pitching. " … We’re competitive in the zone. We throw a lot of strikes.

"We are filling up the zone and being competitive on pitching to contact, and that’s exactly what you want to see out of the pitching staff."

The left side of the infield returns with junior Vince Conde (batted .307 last season) and sophomore Xavier Turner (.324), a freshman All-American, at third base. Sophomore Zander Wiel (.305) gets the nod at first base, while junior Chris Harvey (.250) takes over at catcher.

While Kemp is gone from second base, the Commodores are excited about the return there of sophomore Dansby Swanson, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury.

"He’s a good player," Corbin said of Swanson, a 38th-round draft pick (Colorado Rockies) in the 2012 draft. "He can do a lot of different things. He’s a very skilled kid and he’s smart. He’s mature. I would say he is above his years.

" … In terms of his skill set, he can do a little bit of everything. He can hit. He’s got some strength. He can run. He can throw. He can play a position. But he’s savvy. He understands the game very well."

All three outfielders, including All-Americans Connor Harrell and Mike Yastrzemski — the grandson of legendary Carl Yastrzemski — were lost to graduation. The new core includes freshman Bryan Reynolds in left, freshman Nolan Rogers in center and junior John Norwood (.328) in right.

As a bonus, sophomore Rhett Wiseman (.289) will find a starting spot once he returns from injury.

"We are going to play some young guys, which is good to see," Corbin said. "We are going to stick them right out there right away and see what they are going to do. I look forward to this group playing. I think it’s a pretty good group of kids."

Preseason pick aside, Corbin understands that competing in the SEC will be difficult, per usual.

In the Baseball America preseason poll that had Virginia at No. 1, the SEC has eight teams — No. 7 South Carolina, No. 8 Mississippi State, No. 9 LSU, No. 10 Vanderbilt, No. 21 Alabama, No. 23 Florida, No. 24 Texas A&M and No. 25 Arkansas — ranked in the top 25, the most of any conference.

"It’s the SEC," said Corbin, last season’s conference coach of the year for a second time. "That is kind of what you are working with every year. It’s tough to look at from a standpoint of looking at it in a big dose, because it is overwhelming. Those are a lot of good teams."

Including the Commodores, who have their sights set on a CWS trip (in recent years) — although they don’t discuss it much.

"This is just a long trip," Corbin said. "And we just want to enjoy each mile and see at the end if we can be in the place that we want to be and reach a goal."