Tuesday at the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament has traditionally been the day that teams get acclimated to Regions Park during practice and media sessions. That changed this season, with the addition of two more teams moving opening round games up from their normal Wednesday slot.
So when junior Drew VerHagen toes the rubber in Hoover for the first time Tuesday night, he will do so in front of a packed house for a televised game against Georgia.
With the tournament beginning a day earlier than normal, the Vanderbilt coaching staff chose to look outside their current weekend rotation in selecting VerHagen to start Tuesday's opener. For Vanderbilt Head Coach Tim Corbin, it was simply a matter of protecting arms after normal Friday starter sophomore T.J. Pecoraro threw a complete game shutout last Thursday.
VerHagen--one of five Commodores with at least six starting assignments this season--is no stranger to the spotlight. He currently ranks third on the team for appearances (22) and wins (5), and fourth for innings pitched (57.0).
"Drew is our freshest and most experienced person," Corbin said. "It's someone we have a lot of confidence in, and since [Georgia's] lineup is typically right-handed, we think he is the best guy in that ballpark. And he wanted the ball."
VerHagen has made 11 relief appearances since his last start 44 days ago against Mississippi State. He pitched in two games of the late March series between Vanderbilt and Georgia in Nashville, throwing a total of 6.1 innings while allowing only one run. But in moving back to a starting role, the Rockwall, Texas native says he doesn't need to alter his game plan.
"Honestly, I try to keep the same approach," VerHagen said. "Just come in, throw strikes, let my defense work and don't try to change too much. I'll just pitch to my strengths."
And the approach certainly has worked before. In just the third start of his VU career, VerHagen--who won the 2011 Junior College World Series as a member of the Navarro College Bulldogs--tossed eight shutout innings against Rhode Island.
According to Corbin, VerHagen's JuCo experience complements his confidence and positive attitude.
"I love his personality," Corbin said. "I've compared him to Casey Weathers in a lot of different ways because he's that one junior college kid that's very bright, that you know is going to be very good and that you can see pitching on TV years from now. He's very comfortable in his own skin, he's always got a smile on his face and he loves the kids and he loves the program."
VerHagen's bio credits him with a mid-90's fastball and a quality breaking pitch. It also notes that he rooms with his Tuesday battery mate, catcher Spencer Navin. That connection could prove valuable for the Commodores, who face a Georgia squad that may have some work to do to impress the NCAA selection committee.
Georgia will send their normal Friday ace, left-hander Alex Wood, to the mound. Wood earned SEC Pitcher the Week honors twice this season. The sophomore threw in 4.1 scoreless innings against the Commodores on March 23 before his night was ended by a fifth inning rain delay.
Moving past Tuesday's opener, the Commodores expect to return to their weekend rotation of Pecoraro, junior Sam Selman and sophomore Kevin Ziomek. Freshman Tyler Beede--the fifth 'Dore with at least six starts--also should be available after a weekend off during VU's regular season finale.
And if recent history is any indication, Vanderbilt will have every opportunity to show off its pitching depth this week. Corbin's Commodores have made four appearances in Sunday's championship game in the past six seasons.