Road to Omaha just as sweet second time around

June 8, 2014

By Jerome Boettcher

The faces may change but the preseason expectations never do for the Vanderbilt baseball team.

Every August, when the squad convenes to begin fall ball, reaching the College World Series remains the ultimate goal.

However, the path to Omaha, Neb., is never direct. Twists and turns, roadblocks and obstacles litter the road map.

But, for the second time in four years, Vanderbilt is Omaha bound. And this time a whole new cast took a different route to reach the Mecca of college baseball.

As in 2011, the Commodores celebrated advancing to the CWS in front of a soldout crowd of 3,626 at Hawkins Field on Sunday with a 12-5 win over pesky Stanford. Vanderbilt took the best-of-three Super Regional series in three games to clinch the program’s second CWS berth and first since 2011.

“It's like Christmas Day,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “It's like when your kids come down and they get under the Christmas tree and start opening the presents, that's what it feels like. I don't have to be a part of that. All I need to do is get in the dugout and watch the kids celebrate.”

The entire 27-player postseason roster will be making its first trip to the CWS. Only two players remain from that 2011 squad – and neither went to Omaha.

And, fittingly, this team went about punching their ticket in an entirely different way.

In 2011 the Commodores steamrolled to their first CWS appearance. Dripping with strong arms and power bats, they won a share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship, racked up a school-record tying 54 wins and blew threw the NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals.

A No. 6 national seed, Vanderbilt never trailed in its first five postseason games and outscored its opponents 46-7, needing the minimum five games to reach Omaha. After getting within a win of the CWS in 2010, a roster filled with a school-record 12 drafted players, headlined by current Oakland A’s ace Sonny Gray, the 2011 team looked built for Omaha before the season began.

The 2014 team isn’t short on talent either.

Right-hander Tyler Beede, who was drafted in the first round on Thursday by the San Francisco Giants, headlines a deep pitching staff. Carson Fulmer and Walker Buehler round out the rotation. But the ‘Dores go deep into the pen with Adam Ravenelle and Brian Miller – two more weekend draftees – and freshman Hayden Stone, who shined on Sunday.

And the lineup features budding stars such as Freshman All-American Bryan Reynolds, stellar leadoff hitter Dansby Swanson and consistent Vince Conde, who was also drafted over the weekend.

Even so, losing six position players and two starting pitchers, the Commodores endured their highs and lows during the regular season. They lost five SEC series after they had won 23 straight regular-season series dating back to 2012. The starting pitching went through makeovers and the offense suffered droughts.

Vanderbilt headed into the SEC Tournament as a No. 6 seed. After eliminating rival Tennessee, the Commodores quickly went 0-2 in double elimination, failing to reach the title game for the first time in four years.

"Struggles can help you,” Corbin said. “I think it's tough to be perfect. We were perfect for a long period of time last year, but it's not like you can tell your team to lose on the weekend so we can struggle. I don't really know how to get through that. The kids have developed an identity.”

That identity, just like the rest of Corbin’s teams, is built on strong pitching and a resilient attitude.

Last week, the starting pitching carried the load as Beede, Fulmer and Buehler pitched 25 of the 27 innings. This weekend, the bullpen stepped up. Tyler Ferguson and Brian Miller helped thwart the Stanford attack on Friday. Freshman Hayden Stone retired his final eight batters and allowed just one run in six innings in the series-clinching win on Sunday.

Unlike in 2011, the Commodores faced adversity in the postseason. They’ve trailed twice. A walk-off single by freshman Ro Coleman sent them past Oregon and into a Super Regional. On Saturday, they were forced into a third game against Stanford when Wayne Taylor hit a walk-off home run.

On Sunday, Vanderbilt staked a five-run lead in the first inning and then held on as the Cardinal wouldn’t go away. The Commodores pulled away in the late innings and began to manufacture offense. They forced Stanford into three errors, stole four bases and collected 15 hits, including several that didn’t get out of the infield.

“They are a tough matchup for anybody. They just keep coming at you,” Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. “They put the ball in play. They ran some hit and runs and did a lot of stealing to put some pressure on us. They have a little bit of everything pitching, defense, they can swing the bat. So congratulations to them, they beat us every which way they could today.”

All 27 players on Vanderbilt’s postseason roster will be making their first trip to the College World Series.

Senior relief pitchers Steven Rice and T.J. Pecoraro remain as the only two players from the 2011 team. But neither made it to Omaha. Rice, then a freshman, was sent off to get a head start on summer ball. Pecoraro was in on the Super Regional dogpile against Oregon State when the Commodores clinched their CWS spot. But the Freshman All-American started rehab after he suffered a season-ending elbow injury in the SEC Tournament.

Corbin is the lone holdover on the coaching staff. Pitching coach Scott Brown and hitting coach Travis Jewett are in their second seasons with the Commodores, though Jewett was on the Arizona State coaching staff that reached the 2010 CWS. Director of operations and VU grad Drew Fann is making his second trip after going as a player in 2011.

“We’re a lot younger. That's for sure,” Corbin said when asked about the differences between 2011 and 2014. “That was the toughest thing we had to navigate with Stanford. We were playing a brutal lineup, one that just put a lot of pressure on you. They were different than Oregon with their bats. If you look at three of the key components today: (Jason) Delay behind the plate, (Hayden) Stone on the mound, you started a sophomore (Walker Buehler) and then you've got Bryan Reynolds. These kids don't act like freshmen. They haven't been here long but they fit in nicely.”

Two weeks ago, the Commodores weren’t sure they would be hosting a Regional. Fourteen days later, they’re headed back to Omaha – and they charted their own path.

"We have so much faith in one another that we knew things were going to click,” Swanson said. “We kind of looked at the positives of the SEC Tournament. Like we have a couple of days to catch our breath, and get back on our feet. It definitely helped out because we cracked down in practice, and got really focused and in tune with one another. It has really showed up in the last couple weeks."



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