By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE – Vanderbilt experienced its share of bumps and bruises in SEC play in 2018.
Now, Commodores head coach Tim Corbin says that brutal conference slate has his team poised for a postseason prize fight.
“You face good fighters, you’re ready for that heavyweight fight,” Corbin said. “You’ve got to get dinged up a little bit. Getting dinged up in the middle of it, it’s not going to feel good. But when you reflect upon it… you can understand the value of what it does and readying yourself for the end of the year.”
Vanderbilt has managed to put its up-and-down SEC campaign in the rearview mirror with a stellar start to the NCAA Tournament. Last weekend, the Commodores claimed the Clemson Regional title for the second-straight season, capping a 3-0 stay with a record-laden 19-6 win over the host Tigers on Sunday.
The reward? A date with another SEC team in a Super Regional. Mississippi State ventures to Hawkins Field on Friday in a rematch of both programs’ SEC openers. But Corbin said the slate is clean as conference foes clash with a trip to Omaha on the line.
“Mississippi State’s the same in name only,” Corbin said. “They’ve changed, just like we have. Their personality is completely different than when we played them in Starkville.”
Vanderbilt recorded a convincing sweep of Mississippi State back in March, outscoring the Bulldogs, 19-4, in three games. It was the program’s first sweep in Starkville since 2010. MSU went on to start 14-15 overall and 2-7 in SEC play, but the Bulldogs reversed course over the last two months. They finished the regular season on a 17-10 run and 13-8 run in SEC games. That stretch included a 6-1 record against Arkansas and Ole Miss in April and a 3-0 sweep over No. 1 Florida in May.
Mississippi State opened the Tallahassee Regional with a 20-10 loss to Oklahoma. It then reeled off four straight wins to clinch the regional, becoming the first team to lose a regional tournament opener before winning four straight to take the title in back-to-back seasons.
— Vanderbilt Baseball (@VandyBaseball) June 6, 2018
Vanderbilt likewise enjoyed a resurgent second half to the season. The Commodores dropped their sixth loss in a row on May 8 in a 6-4 loss to Tennessee Tech. In that moment, Vandy sat at 25-23 and in desperate need of a late-season surge. But Corbin said it was the previous weekend’s sweep at Auburn that ultimately defined their season.
“In the last month, we played more confident,” Corbin said. “I could see that coming. There was a time when we were at Auburn and lost that series. We’re looking at ourselves and we’re 25-22, 11-13 in the league. It was a decision that needed to be made, one where we’re going to move this thing forward. But the kids have to do it. They have got drive the car, they have to keep it between the white lines, and they have.”
Vanderbilt has now won nine of its last 11 games in clinching its seventh Super Regional berth in nine seasons. The Commodores say they stayed poised despite early setbacks in the year, which paid off at Clemson.
“Going through the season, you’re going to have a ton of ups and downs,” junior shortstop Connor Kaiser said. “You’ve just got to maintain positivity. You can’t get too low on yourselves. We just kept going, and we’re looking forward to this weekend.”
The NCAA Super Regionals have a distinct SEC flavor this season. For just the third time, six SEC teams advanced to Supers, tying the NCAA Tournament record for the most from any one conference. Vanderbilt’s league pedigree could come in handy later if it takes care of business against Mississippi State, which begins Friday at Hawkins Field (7 p.m. CT ESPN2).
For now, the Commodores feel they’re playing their best baseball of the season, all when it matters most.
“Once you feel confidence, you know what that feels like,” Corbin said. “You ride that wave as much as you can… We’re a team that has some confidence, for sure. You don’t get this far into it and play this deep if you don’t have confidence.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.