HOOVER, AL --- If you are following the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament, chances are you have read or heard the various theories about why the regular season champion doesn't try as hard as it can to win this event. The 1996 Alabama team is the last regular season champ to win the tournament. Pundits reason that the top team has little incentive to win since it already is a lock for a coveted NCAA berth. Some coaches have as much as admitted this in the past; come to Birmingham, accept the regular season trophy, play a couple of games and go home to rest their starting pitching rotation.
There were the same hunches before and during the Commodores' opening round game against eighth seeded Tennessee. Why else, they wondered, would Coach Tim Corbin not open with the SEC Pitcher of the Year David Price?
For those who know Corbin, this notion is laughable. The SEC Coach of the Year is one of the most intense competitors I've ever been around. If there was a ping pong game, Corbin would be in it to win.
The reason Price didn't start is obvious. Putting the probable No. 1 pick in the upcoming Major League draft on the hill would mean a day's less rest on his talented left arm for the second straight week. If you recall, last week's regular season games were pushed up a day for this tournament. Price went 8 2/3 innings, throwing 130 pitches, in his sterling win over LSU. To open tonight would have meant a second early start in a row.
You say, "but why then did Tennessee go with their ace, James Adkins? Wouldn't he have a similar situation?"
Yes, to a degree. But Tennessee is playing for its NCAA life in this tournament and it couldn't afford an opening loss. The ace had to go.
Back to Price and Vanderbilt. The Commodore coaches are both proud and thankful that in their five years on West End, no Vanderbilt pitchers have required surgery to their throwing arms. That is due in large measure to great conditioning and also in how our pitchers are used - or not used.
In 2004, before most folks realized Corbin was something special, VU was a surprise championship game participant here. Many in the media expected Corbin to use Jeremy Sowers, who had opened the tournament with a splendid performance against Georgia, on just three days rest. But Corbin knew that would not be in Sowers' best long-term interests or, for that matter, Vanderbilt's. Sowers would become the No. 6 pick in the Major League draft and one reason among several was that scouts knew he did not have a tired arm.
From Vanderbilt's perspective, Corbin and talented pitching coach Derek Johnson, the 2004 National Pitching Coach of the Year, have established a justified reputation for not burning out young talent for selfish reasons. And that reputation helps them recruit future stars, who know they will be trained but not abused.
Not pitching our big southpaw wasn't the primary problem on this particular evening. It's hard to win when you don't get your first hit until the eighth inning. The fact that even when their backs were to the wall, these game `Dores rallied in the ninth to make it a contest.
Baseball is a peculiar game, one of many I suppose. When you run into a buzz-saw you are in trouble. Adkins - also regarded as a first round choice and perhaps throwing his finest game of a very good collegiate career - was certainly one Wednesday night. But for the Commodores, there is life after Game One. It begins Thursday at 1 p.m.