Baseball Carries Top-10 Ranking, National Championship Aspirations into 2007

Feb. 5, 2007

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Note: This is an extended version of an article that is currently featued in the February edition of Commodore Nation.

The Vanderbilt baseball team's new locker room is everything you would expect it to be after being part of $4.5 million worth of facility upgrades last spring that also resulted in the addition of 500 new seats to Hawkins Field and the construction of indoor batting cages and a baseball-only weight room.

Wooden lockers line the sides of the room, each distinguished by thin metal placards above them bearing the name and number of the player that occupies it. Inside, their contents are exactly what one might expect to find in lockers belonging to baseball players: several different practice jerseys hang neatly, a folded pair of baseball pants, a pair or two of cleats, an obviously well-used baseball glove, a couple of old baseballs, personal items of various sorts, a bag of chewing gum perhaps.

The rectangular room sports a black and grey checkered rug bearing a large gold V identical to that which appears on the team's game caps, a tip off that this locker room belongs to the home team. At the end of the room is a lounge with a couple of leather couches and a flat screen television mounted high on the wall. Around the corner is a bathroom with a long row of showers.

But spend some time exploring this new locker room a little bit and it will quickly become apparent that what sets this locker room apart from most any other in collegiate baseball is much more than its physical attributes.

Taped onto the inside of several of the lockers is a piece of paper bearing a photograph of the outside of Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska, the Mecca of collegiate baseball and the annual host of the College World Series. It is a place which no Vanderbilt team has ever managed to get to, and a place to which, save for the 2004 club that was unceremoniously swept out of a super regional by Texas, no Vanderbilt team has managed to get even close.

Yet despite the overwhelming reality of this history, there is a simple question written underneath the picture: What have you done today to get there?

And bolted to the wall are two recent additions to the locker room's décor, additions that clearly signal just how extraordinary this locker room really is. One is a large baseball with the word "Omaha" scripted across its front. The other is a sign that reads "Vanderbilt in the College World Series," underneath which are four black metal plates.

And while the plates today are blank, the mere fact that they even exist - fully expectant of being inscribed with the years that Vanderbilt manages to earn a berth in the College World Series - is a testament to both the heady dreams the 2007 edition of the Vanderbilt baseball team harbors as it readies for opening day and the vision of its fifth-year head coach Tim Corbin.

"You walk through our locker room now and there are things on the wall that have Omaha mentioned," Corbin said. "And so it is clear what our goals are. There is no question about it. And they are lofty goals. But as Herb Brooks said as the coach of the [1980 gold medal-winning] U.S. national [hockey] team, if you don't have lofty goals then what is the sense in competing?"

Almost stunningly for a program with little historical success to speak of, talk this spring of Omaha and the College World Series are more than just mere dreams.

The Commodores enter 2007 amid unprecedented national hype and armed with two preseason All-Americans in sophomore third baseman Pedro Alvarez and junior left-hander David Price.

On the heels of a summer which saw three of Vanderbilt's returning starters - including Price and Alvarez - play major roles in helping the USA Baseball national team defend its world championship in Cuba and Price be named Baseball America's college summer player of the year, the Commodores are a preseason favorite for one the eight berths in the College World Series.

They begin the year ranked eighth in the nation by Baseball America.

"There has been some talk, some expectations in terms of the media and what Baseball America has written about us," said Alvarez, who will be looking to build upon a freshman campaign that saw him hit .329 with a school record 22 home runs and 64 RBI's. "But our expectations for ourselves are even higher. We don't need the outside media to tell us that we could possibly reach a super regional or the College World Series. Those are goals that we have for ourselves regardless. All that ranking stuff is nice, but we try not to pay attention to it. We just need to do what we need to do which is come out and work hard to get better every day so that we can reach our full potential."

Attitude from the Top Down

The confidence the Vanderbilt team exudes as it goes through final preparations for the 2007 season and which courses throughout the entire program begins at the very top. Corbin knew what he was getting into when accepted the head coaching job in 2003 after nine years as an assistant coach at national power Clemson.

But where others might have seen little besides a middling program that hadn't even managed to reach the SEC tournament in a decade, Corbin believed Vanderbilt was ripe with potential and a place that shouldn't settle for anything other than the kind of success enjoyed only by the handful of elite teams that typically dominate the collegiate baseball landscape.

From the moment he first arrived on campus, Corbin set the bar higher than it had ever been set before. Losing of any kind and any under any circumstance would no longer be tolerated, an ethos that he has worked hard to instill in his players.

"I just don't think that as an athlete you should let yourself off the hook easily," Corbin said. "If you put time and effort into something, you want something from it. And if you don't then it doesn't mean enough to you. So then a loss is just a loss. And I know that I have been told many a time that you can't get caught up in losses so much that it destroys you. And I agree with that. But if you are not competing, and if you are not trying to win, and if a loss doesn't hurt, than you shouldn't be playing in this program and you shouldn't be playing in the SEC. Accepting mediocrity or being average just can't be acceptable. Losing is not okay and it never will be."

It is that kind of commitment to winning that has enabled Corbin to secure some of the nation's top recruiting classes during his tenure at Vanderbilt, and which has infused a fire within his players that leave them reaching for the very best.

"Corbin is a guy that makes you better every day and I think that is the most important thing that a coach can do," said sophomore shortstop Ryan Flaherty. "When you come out to the field every day, he is going to find a way to motivate you, to make you want to be better than you ever thought possible. He told me when he recruited me that they were building the program with that sort of approach and that it was going to be there. I had a lot of trust in him. And sure enough, in my second year into it things are already starting to happen."

Rome Wasn't Built in a Day

Corbin is not one to shy away from the preseason buzz his team has generated, and he embraces the team's preseason ranking as an acknowledgement of just how far the program has come since he arrived on the job.

Just as quickly, however, Corbin offers a caution. It is essential, he says, that his team be mindful of the reality that no team has ever won a national championship in February and that, as a result, preseason rankings have very little practical meaning.

"It is better to be ranked in the top 10 in America than not to be," Corbin said. "When we first took over here, we were 210. So there is a sense of being able to look back at the last four years and feel a sense of accomplishment from moving gradually up and up. But I always feel like we haven't accomplished enough. We have accomplished some things, but it is not enough. We went to a super regional and we went to a regional. But what did we do? We fell short twice. We've been in SEC championship games, but what have we done? We really haven't done anything yet. Being ranked in the top 10 is kind of a thank you for what you have done in the past and an acknowledgement that you have some guys coming back. That is all it is, though."

Corbin says his chore, now that he has assembled the kind of team that can legitimately contend for a national title, is to help his players balance the kind of confidence and refusal to accept losing that he expects with an understanding that the College World Series is still a long ways away.

Just as Corbin has had to exercise some level of patience in building the kind of program at Vanderbilt that he believes is possible, he says the Commodores must work hard to stay focused on the immediate task at hand and to not get too far ahead of themselves.

"This is going to be just like eating a giant whale," the New England-native Corbin said. "It is one bite at a time. We are not going to attack that thing with a mouthful. It is going to just be one small bite and then you just kind of plod along. It is just like anything else in life."

In an effort to drive home that point, Corbin designed the team's final running workout of fall practice in October to be patterned after the long haul that is the college baseball season. He had his team run a series of hills 20 times and, when they were done, told them it was the equivalent of finishing the season and earning a berth in the SEC tournament.

The team then ran 20 more hills in Nashville's Love Circle area and was told it was the equivalent of winning a regional. That was immediately followed by the running of still 20 more hills - the equivalent of winning a super regional.

"And then we ran this gigantic hill to the top where you were looking down at Nashville and basically that was a culmination," Corbin said. "We had a sign up at the top that said national championship. I painted that picture for them as a way of showing that things are done in small increments and not in large parts. And I said in order to get where we want to go, their minds need to be focused on the small parts right now. They can't worry about what Baseball America writes or what their parents think of them as a player. It is just what they can control."

Here to Stay

According to Corbin, all of the preseason hype surrounding his team has generated unprecedented excitement about the program on campus, within the city of Nashville and throughout Middle Tennessee.

When he approaches people in the community, he says, they eagerly talk to him about buying season tickets and about coming out to the team's games. Ticket sales are indeed at an all-time high, and there is hope that Hawkins Field might be sold out more often than not this coming year.

But as palpable as the excitement may be about Vanderbilt baseball right now, it was almost squashed before it was ever allowed to take root. Corbin received overtures this past summer from LSU - a program much more storied than Vanderbilt - about becoming its next head baseball coach. And Corbin admits to entertaining the possibility - at least initially.

"Every coach likes the fact that he can go to the yard and see seven or eight thousand people as interested in his program as he is," Corbin said. "That is the thing that is shocking when you go to a LSU. You look around and you say, `Oh my gosh, look how much fan interest there is.'"

Corbin had several conversations with his suitors from Baton Rouge, but says the idea of uprooting and heading further south never went much beyond the realm of fantasy.

"It got serious when I got the second phone call I guess," Corbin said. "And then at that point I said, `No, we're not going anywhere.'"

Corbin says he is confident the university is as committed as he is to continuing to build the program. And he says he just has too much invested in Vanderbilt to leave just when things are really beginning to get good.

"Look, LSU wasn't LSU right away," Corbin said. "We haven't reached that kind of pinnacle yet. But that is the direction we are moving. And it is a program that is ours. It is something that we started. And since this is something that we built, I have a hard time thinking about someone else coming in here and reaping the benefits of something that we have worked so hard to start and nurture with all these good kids that we have encouraged to come here. It is just one of those things that when it was all said and done, it was an easy decision. It wasn't difficult."

Fully Loaded

Corbin's decision had to have been made easier by the knowledge that this year's Vanderbilt club is as well positioned as any in the SEC - perhaps more so than even LSU - to win and win immediately.

Vanderbilt's ability to do so will be largely dependent upon its pitching as has typically been the case during Corbin's tenure. But pitching was an area that proved to be nothing if not exasperating at times in 2006.

"We have got to get stability in the pitching staff, there is no doubt about that," Corbin said. "I think pitching for us has always been the premium, it has always been the thing that we have been very, very good at. But we had some inconsistency throughout the year last year and some guys had some inconsistent performances."

Staff Ace Price will return to once again lead a starting corps that should be one of the SEC's best. But Corbin is quick to point out that Price must do better than the up and down trajectory that marked his 2006 season.

After a dominating, 17-strikeout performance against Arkansas April 7 last year left him at 5-2 overall with a 1.81 ERA, Price struggled through the grind of the rest of the SEC schedule, eventually being bumped from the team's Friday starter role after being roughed up by Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee consecutively.

But Price rebounded with three straight quality starts down the stretch last year, and his work this past summer with the U.S. national team suggests that he is on the verge of a breakout campaign.

In seven starts for the national team in Cuba, Price went 5-1 with an eye-popping 0.20 ERA and 61 strikeouts against just 7 walks in only 44 innings.

"I was just able to get out there and have fun again," Price said. The last half of last season wasn't a whole lot of fun for me. It felt like every game that I got into just sped up on me to the point where I couldn't slow it back down. One run would turn into two and two would turn into three and then four and then five. I just need to slow things down and stay within myself."

Alvarez, last year's consensus national freshman of the year, also starred for the national team this summer, leading the club with a .379 average and 43 RBI's.

And senior Casey Weathers, whose three saves tied for the Vanderbilt team lead in 2006, also played a key role for the national team after a successful summer league stint in Alaska.

"I think this past summer gave each of those kids a lot of confidence," Corbin said. "When you compete at the national level and then excel at the national level I think it is just commonplace that you gain more confidence in your game. And I think that when they bring that confidence back into our club, it just leaks onto everyone else and permeates the locker room. That's what you hope will happen. You hope that you have good enough players to the point where the confidence level of the group just keeps rising and rising and rising. I believe that is something that will happen. I can already see a different presence among this group."

After Price, Corbin said the competition will be fierce among as many as half a dozen players to round out Vanderbilt's starting rotation.

Among the frontrunners expected to garner serious consideration is junior left-hander Cody Crowell, who in 15 starts for Vanderbilt in 2006 went 6-2 with a 3.95 ERA.

Junior right-hander Ty Davis, who is coming off successful off season back surgery and who went 5-5 for the Commodores in nine starts with a 3.91 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 71.1 innings, is also expected to be in the mix.

And Corbin has high praise for the development of sophomore Nick Christiani, whose consistency with his assortment of off-speed pitches has pushed him toward the front of the list of contenders as well.

"Everything that he throws up there has some sort of waffle ball action on it," Corbin said of Christiani. "He throws strikes, comes after hitters, is aggressive and his pitches have a lot of life to them."

Weathers will serve as the team's primary closer.

"There is a real confidence, a real moxie and a real sense of poise among the whole staff right now," Corbin said. "The staff was young last year but they all have an extra year under their belts now so you hope that will provide more of a winning attitude."

Offensively, the 2007 Commodores will lose only starting catcher Brian Hernandez from a 2006 squad that was second in the SEC in hitting with a .308 team batting average.

"But you know, even though we were second in the SEC in hitting, I really felt that was a hollow figure," Corbin said. "Our production, other than Pedro's 22 homeruns, was less than average. So that needs to improve. We need to get better production out of every single one of our guys."

Alvarez will again be the main cog in a lineup that struggled at times hitting with runners in scoring position, the kind of situations Corbin says the team will need to be better in.

"That is definitely an area that we need to improve in," said Flaherty, who led the 2006 team with a .339 batting average and was second on the club with 19 doubles and 49 RBI's. "It is an area that can determine whether you win or lose a game. Last year we didn't do a great job. But this year, having guys that are confident is going to be key. We have guys that have been in the program for two or three years now so I think this year you will see guys come through situations as a result and come up with the big hits that we need that will help change the game."

Junior Shea Robin, who hit .327 in 2006, will replace Hernandez behind the plate. Junior Brad French, who hit .312 in 39 games last year, is slated to start at first base and junior Alex Fineberg, a .322 hitter in 2006 will start at second.

Juniors Dominic de la Osa - whose nine home runs were second on the team - David Macias and Ryan Davis, who all hit well over .300 last year, will comprise a veteran-laden outfield for Vanderbilt.

No matter what preseason prognosticators might say, nothing is a given in the SEC, arguably the nation's toughest baseball conference from top to bottom.

Vanderbilt's half of the conference alone sports a 2006 College World Series participant in Georgia, and a South Carolina team ranked third in the nation by Baseball America and that boasts a recruiting class that was named best in the country by Collegiate Baseball for the second year in a row.

Arkansas is ranked fourth in the nation by Baseball America.

"This is a conference where you are going to be playing at a high level every weekend," Corbin said. "And people are aware now that ours is a program that is just as good as anyone else in the conference. People are not going to come in here and take it easy."

As loaded as the team appears to be on paper, the Commodores will get an immediate gauge of just how realistic their national aspirations are when they open the season in Texas at the Houston Astros College Classic.

Vanderbilt will face Rice, the top ranked team in the country in their first game Feb. 9, and will follow that up with games against perennial national contenders Arizona State and Baylor.

"We will find out a lot about ourselves that first weekend," Flaherty said. "We will find out where we stand. We will see if we actually are who we are supposed to be."

And whether this might be the first team to fulfill the expectations of the as-of-yet blank sign hanging in the Vanderbilt locker room.



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