May 31, 2013
SEC champions. No. 2 national seed. NCAA Regional home opener. Capacity crowd. National television.
The ingredients were there for the Commodores to have a few butterflies Friday night as they began their NCAA Tournament run.
But the Commodores - an inherently loose collection of players - extinguished any concerns of nerves or added pressure very quickly with their bats. Vanderbilt scored five runs on six singles, while sending all nine batters to the plate in the first inning against East Tennessee State right-handed starter Jimmy Nesselt.
ETSU never recovered from the early deficit and Vanderbilt advanced to the winner's bracket of the Nashville Regional where it will play Illinois at 7 p.m. CT Saturday at Hawkins Field.
"Our worst fears came true to tonight," ETSU Head Coach Tony Skole said. "We preached and really wanted to get off to a good start this evening, and giving up that five spot in the first inning allowed Vanderbilt, I thought, to play very relaxed the rest of the game."
The presence of Nesselt, alone, on the mound could have been enough to temporarily silence Vanderbilt's offense, which had prepared all week to face ETSU right-handed ace Kerry Doane, who was a late scratch due to strep throat. Doane is 13-1 on the season with a 1.99 ERA and was coming off a complete game in the championship game of the Atlantic Sun Tournament.
Even with a pitcher they did not prepare for on the mound, Vanderbilt feasted in the first inning. For Vanderbilt's offense, it was exactly what the doctor ordered.
"After having a week off, to be able to get five runs right away was good for us, especially for our confidence going forward," Vanderbilt senior outfielder Connor Harrell said.
Jumping on opponents early is important in postseason play, and there are few teams that are better at lighting up the scoreboard in the first inning than the Commodores.
After scoring five runs Friday, Vanderbilt has now plated 39 runs in the first inning at home this season. The only inning in which the Commodores have scored more runs this season is the sixth inning where they have 46 runs. Vanderbilt also improved to 36-3 when scoring first this season.
"That first inning when we pushed across five runs was big, Vanderbilt Head Coach Tim Corbin said, "especially in the first game of a tournament because they are not easy, regardless of whether you've been there or not."
The absence of Doane on the mound was a surprise to the Commodores. In fact, Corbin did not find out about the change in starting pitchers until 45 minutes before the game when he saw Nesselt warming up.
"I'm putting the lineup out and all of a sudden I see (Nesselt) out and I go, 'well, it is not a shocker because the kid just pitched a complete game Sunday and came off three days rest.' But it doesn't matter. It's a right-hander and we had a right-handed attack in mind anyway, so it didn't really change anything."
ETSU made the decision to start Nesselt Friday morning, but had prepared him all week as if he were going to start for Doane, who first started feeling ill Sunday.
"We prepared both of those young men to start all week," Skole said. "It wasn't like Jimmy woke up this morning and we told him you are going to start and he hadn't been prepared to start. We prepared him to start from the get go. We just weren't sure with Kerry's illness if he was going to be fresh enough."
Instead of Vanderbilt battling any early nerves, it was Nesselt and the fourth-seeded Bucs that admitted to feeling the extra pressure playing in their first NCAA Regional in three decades.
"In the first inning, I was just a little adrenalized and I was leaving the ball up a little bit and they just put the ball in play and made our defense work," Nesselt said. "It was tough, the game was moving pretty fast there."
With Vanderbilt's offense opening up a big lead, the Commodores were nearly unbeatable behind starter Kevin Ziomek, who scattered three hits in 7.0 innings, allowing just one unearned run and striking out five.
For ETSU, an early deficit was exactly what they were trying to avoid in their quest to upset the Commodores. Not only were they facing A pitcher with a microscopic ERA, but they also prevented the Commodores from having any added nerves creep in.
"They flipped the tables on us," Skole said. "We wanted to apply pressure to them by (staying) in the game and making it interesting late. By getting down early 5-0, it allowed their ball club to relax and when they play relaxed, they are pretty good."
There is always uncertainty with teams once they reach NCAA postseason play, no mater the sport and no matter a team's resume during the regular season. Postseason play is just different. The crowds are bigger and louder. The lights are brighter (extra lights were brought in by ESPN for the games). National television cameras capture every moment. Given the added elements, there is no telling how players that are creatures of habit throughout the regular season will react.
On Friday, Vanderbilt reacted exactly how Commodore Nation had hoped.
"You take some time off and you wonder how you are going to energize the first couple of innings, but that first inning was what we needed," Corbin said. "It was a spike offensively that we needed to get the game going."