April 9, 2008
Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin is well aware of the numbers.
20-10 overall. 5-6 in the Southeastern Conference. Three straight losses to Ole Miss. No. 19 in the polls. .302 batting average and 4.57 ERA.
Awful? Hardly. But after finishing 54-13 overall, including 22-8 in league play, en route to an SEC regular season and tournament championship and No. 1 national ranking a year ago, they're certainly unexpected.
Yet, if you're looking for Corbin to start worrying, don't bother. He's actually having fun.
"There's probably some panic, but in the end, these are good times," he said. "In a weird way, it's fun to coach a team like this because it isn't as easy maybe as we thought it was last year."
The 2007 Commodores were a special group, perhaps unlike any other that Corbin will ever coach. They had an uncanny knack for winning close games and an insatiable desire to get better every day. With all of their success, however, came an enormous amount of pressure, something that the 2008 squad doesn't have to deal with.
"The pressure kept mounting last year because you kept winning," Corbin said, "and every time you kept winning, the expectation level is 'well, these guys are good, they can't lose.'"
Except that they did, falling to Michigan in the Regional, which is why, despite their early struggles this season, players are more concerned with how they finish.
"It's better for us to be at our peak at the end than the beginning like we were last year," said sophomore ace Mike Minor. "Last year we were just unstoppable at the beginning, and at the end we just fell short. Right now, a lot of us are just thinking, 'Well, OK, we still need to be good right now to get into the tournament, but be at our peak at the end.'"
Pitching coach Derek Johnson agreed, stressing that last year's team was an aberration.
"We didn't have hiccups last year," he said. "We were 20-3 at this time and nothing was wrong. There aren't many baseball seasons that go that way. Most seasons will have an up and down or peak or valley, and you've got to find out what kids are going to be like and what they're going to do when that happens."
Corbin is finding that out now.
"I told the kids, 'We didn't go through this last year,'" Corbin said. "Maybe we should have. Maybe it would've helped us. Now we're going through some tougher times that I think if we can withstand them, will make us a much better ballclub."
Vanderbilt will not have as many victories or All-Americans as it did a year ago, nor will it finish as high in the rankings. But, in a sport that depends so much on being hot at the right time, it will still have a chance to accomplish the only goal that matters - winning the national championship - as long as it continues to get better.
Don't believe it's possible? Just ask Oregon State.
"What happened to Oregon State last year is they were the returning national champions but they just barely got into the tournament and they almost become the underdog (before winning the title again)," Corbin said. "Now, I'm not scripting out that's how it's going to happen for us.
"You can't just snap your fingers and say 'well they did it, so it's going to happen to us,' but I just think part of that is the fact is that is does take the pressure off the kids a little bit. OK, we're not at the top anymore so let's just fight our way through it, and in the end we'll be the team that we want to be."
-Jarred Amato is a junior at Vanderbilt University and also writes for "The Sports VU" at sportsvu.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.