May 20, 2011
Over the past nine years under Head Coach Tim Corbin, Vanderbilt baseball has become one of the top programs in the nation.
One needs to look only 60 feet, six inches away from home plate to see a major contributing factor to Vanderbilt's success--an impressive stable of pitchers. Corbin and his staff have relied heavily on homegrown talent to reach these new heights.
Two of the three Commodore hurlers that have been taken in the first round of the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft since 2007 came up in the Middle Tennessee area before making their mark on West End--Murfreesboro's David Price (2009) and Chapel Hill's Mike Minor (2007).
This year's staff also includes a number of standout pitchers from the surrounding area. Weekend starters Sonny Gray (Smyrna) and Taylor Hill (Old Hickory), and relievers Will Clinard (Cross Plains) and Navery Moore (Franklin) all grew up in Vanderbilt's backyard.
Pitching coach Derek Johnson believes there has been a snowball effect that has helped Vanderbilt continue to recruit local talent.
"The number one thing is that now kids are starting to grow up wanting to come to Vanderbilt to play baseball," Johnson said. "For the local kid, maybe coming to Vanderbilt means a little bit more. I think there's something to coming to a school that you're proud of, that you're a fan of; that's what we're trying to build with the local talent. And quite honestly, the local talent in the last five or six years has been really good. We're just trying to keep those guys from going elsewhere."
Navery Moore was not planning on going elsewhere. Playing at Franklin's Battle Ground Academy, Moore was an early commitment to Vanderbilt. But in his junior year of high school, the 6-2 right-hander was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery, a procedure that replaces a failing tendon in the throwing elbow.
Vanderbilt's commitment to Moore never wavered.
"He had already committed to us and then blew out [his elbow]," Johnson said. "Our commitment to him was unfazed by that. He had a really good arm in high school. He was still unpolished somewhat, but we just felt like he was a guy that was going to come in and make a contribution. He's a local guy, too. We kind of took a chance, but at the same time, we were committed to him all along."
Tommy John surgery is not a death sentence for a pitcher's career, but the road back to the mound can be long.
"They say, physically, you're back in about a year where you can throw and compete again," Moore said. "But as far as getting the feel for pitching and the confidence you had before the surgery, it probably takes two years to get back in the rhythm and the feel of pitching."
While working his way back into top form, Moore had another setback during the fall of his sophomore year at Vanderbilt: knee surgery. Last season, the Franklin native made only 10 appearances, including one midweek start against Wofford.
Moore finally started to hit his stride last summer. He pitched in the Prospect League for the Nashville Outlaws, whose home games were played at Vanderbilt's Charles Hawkins Field.
"It was great, because no matter what my previous outings were, I was in a good situation with Coach [Brian] Ryman, and he was throwing me out there every time," Moore said. "The biggest thing for me was just getting innings and getting confidence pitching again. I was just having fun and going back to the good old days of playing baseball like a little kid again."
Moore boasted a 3.94 earned run average in 45 innings of work, starting seven of the nine games he appeared in. Finally healthy, Moore was named the league's top prospect by Baseball America.
Back on campus, the coaching staff was excited to have a revitalized Moore as part of the Commodores' arsenal. But three pitchers who had started at least 16 games last season were returning for 2011, and finding a place for another arm in the starting rotation proved difficult.
Coach Johnson wanted to ensure that Moore continued his upward trend. In order to maximize Moore's innings, the move was made during the fall to bring him out of the bullpen as the team's closer.
"We felt coming into this year that he needed to touch the ball as much as possible, just for repetitions' sake," Johnson said. "You look at our rotation and see he's probably not in a position to overtake one of our established starters, but he has a good arm and you want to be able to maximize his use. He felt good doing it, and he got better as a result. It just fit, and by the end of the fall that's exactly what role he wanted to be in."
The move was no shock to Moore, who exemplifies the team-first attitude that Coach Corbin's squads are known for.
"Coming into this year, I knew that we'd have all of our weekend starters returning," Moore said. "Talking to the coaches this fall, that's the role they saw me in. I embraced that, and it's been working out so far."
For a player who came into the season just "trying to fit in anywhere on the team where I can contribute," Moore's numbers have been off the charts.
At the midway point of the 2011 Southeastern Conference season, Moore has contributed 20.2 innings pitched while allowing only one earned run for an ERA of 0.44. He has made eight saves to help the Commodores to a top-five national ranking.
Moore also continues to find other ways to contribute to VU's success--a lesson he learned during the days when he watched many more games than he pitched in. During pregame, Moore often wields a fungo bat to help warmup infielders.
His calm demeanor belies the 95- to 97-mile-per-hour fastball that is his bread and butter on the mound. In fact, Moore's even disposition on the mound goes against the "typical" way that a closer carries himself. Closers are expected to enter in the late innings of a tight game to maximum fanfare, swagger onto the mound and exude brash confidence. But that's not Moore's approach, externally at least.
"I come at it from more of a relaxed standpoint," Moore said. "A lot of the guys you see are more of the hyped-up, energetic guys. I think on the inside you do have to have that kind of intensity, but I like to stay on an even keel and play out the game in a relaxed manner so I don't get too high or too low."
His transition from starter to reliever has been quite successful this season. With the close of his third season at Vanderbilt approaching, Moore will be draft-eligible this summer (he was selected by the Boston Red Sox out of high school before opting to attend college) and has his sights set on a professional career. But before he is finished wearing the Black and Gold, Moore knows the team has unfinished business this season.
"You always want to play professional baseball and make it to the big leagues," Moore said. "But right now, it's all about making it to the [College] World Series, winning one game at a time. Our goal is to win the College World Series. Right now that's all we're focused on. We have to stay on track and take it one day at a time."