NCAA tournament baseball is intense, with entire seasons hanging on every at-bat and every inning. But for the Commodores to advance to their first Super Regional in five years, they think they just need to chill.
With a young line-up in which many of the hitters will be seeing their first NCAA action in the Louisville Regional, that's the mindset that Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin wants to see, the same mindset that propelled his team into the SEC championship game.
"I thought they were loose and relaxed. Part of that comes from a little bit of success early," Corbin said. "When things are going well, that's usually what athletes say, they feel relaxed. I think that's probably going to have to happen in order for us to be successful."
The third-seeded Commodores open play Friday against second-seeded Middle Tennessee, and stepping on the turf of Jim Patterson Stadium with a calm mentality is the focus for a team that has had a roller-coaster season and wants to stay on the upswing.
"I think you have to treat it like it's just any other game. The circumstances are different just because it's a regional in the NCAA Tournament," said sophomore first baseman Curt Casali. "You start pressing and that's when bad things happen. Our team happens to play well when we're loose."
Six of Vanderbilt's nine starters in the line-up are playing in the NCAAs for the first time. The Commodores are starting three true freshmen in third baseman Jason Esposito, left fielder Joe Loftus and second baseman Riley Reynolds. Casali did not see action in last year's regional, and neither did redshirt freshman designated hitter Aaron Westlake nor junior shortstop Brian Harris. Freshman starting pitcher Sonny Gray will also be seeing his first Regional action.
But Corbin doesn't expect nerves to be a factor, not for a team that's already played 59 games.
"We've got enough older kids who can help the younger kids along. But the younger kids, they're no longer young," he said. "Yeah, it's their first regional, but this was their first SEC Tournament too and they played okay in it."
Casali hit two home runs during the tournament, and Reynolds, Esposio and Lofus provided a spark at the bottom of the line-up in the 11-1 semifinal win over Arkansas with a combined four runs and two RBIs. Gray threw seven strong innings in his start against South Carolina, striking out 11 in an eventual 5-4 victory, and Westlake, batting a team-leading .377, homered in that game as well.
"We've been in some pretty tough situations this year, we've played in front of some big crowds and some big situations," Casali said. "We know what it's like to play in the spotlight."
And that's where they have thrived. The Commodores have uncharacteristically struggled at Hawkins Field but have been generally successful away from home this year, both during the regular season where they won two of their last three road conference series, and in Hoover, Ala. during the SEC tournament, where the team went 3-0 to reach the title game before falling to LSU.
"When we were going in, everyone doubted that we were going to do what we did," Westlake said. "Doing how we did really boosted our confidence. We played well, so I believe playing like we did is going to help us toward this regional and even further."
That run came after a four-game losing streak to close the regular season, including a three-game sweep by Tennessee when Vanderbilt needed just one victory in the final two games to clinch a tournament spot. The Commodores got in, but it was thanks to Kentucky losing two games in the final weekend.
The team learned from that frustrating experience, where all three losses to the Volunteers were by two runs or less, and let it all hang out for tournament play.
It showed. The starting pitching was strong (the starters posted a 3.00 ERA in 27 innings, with junior Mike Minor and sophomore Caleb Cotham hurling complete games), and the defense was excellent (Vanderbilt committed just two errors in 34 innings). The Commodores exhibited more patience at the plate as well, personified in senior center fielder Jonathan White's memorable ninth-inning, bases-loaded, nine-pitch walk to drive in the winning run against the Gamecocks.
"We played a lot more relaxed. We had a little chip on our shoulder and I think it helped everybody play a lot better," Loftus said. "We weren't as tight as before. I thought everybody was a little more anxious to just try to win a game (against Tennessee) instead of just playing the way we can play.
"When we play the best, we have fun and that's the way we look at it in that tournament, like we're the underdog."
The Commodores certainly seemed to be having fun in their last practice Wednesday at Hawkins Field before heading to Louisville. The entire team was lively and chattering, throwing friendly smack talk around and simply enjoying being out on the diamond.
"There is a level of intensity that you guys may not see but we're playing hard," Casali said. "But in between pitches, we'll be yelling at each other, just making fun of each other. That's just the nature of our team."