June 1, 2014
It seemed like déjà vu.
For the second night in a row, Vanderbilt was buoyed by a masterful pitching performance, and an offense that supplied more than enough runs to all but eliminate any late-inning drama, as the Commodores dispatched Oregon to the loser's bracket.
On Friday, it was Tyler Beede, who left Xavier bewildered and swinging wildly and mostly at air on the way to 14 strikeouts in eight shutout innings. On Saturday, it was Carson Fulmer's turn. The flame throwing right-hander also went eight innings, while striking out five and allowing just two earned runs. The strikeout numbers were not the same, but he was almost just as dominant.
Two games up and two games down, and Vanderbilt finds itself in the driver's seat with all the momentum and a chance to punch its ticket to the NCAA Super Regionals for the second year in a row.
"Somebody asked me a question yesterday about momentum," Oregon Head Coach George Horton said after Saturday's game, "and I hate to be a prophet, but one of my quotes was: `In baseball, the momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher.' And Carson Fulmer, as advertised, was a handful for us."
After watching Oregon bludgeon Clemson's pitching staff for 18 runs on a season-high 20 hits on Friday, Fulmer silenced the Ducks with his arm and slick fielding.
"I knew coming out the gate (Oregon) was going to jump on first pitch fastballs and try to get theirs early in the count," Fulmer said. "Early on, I was able to make my secondary stuff work and later in the game, I just had to pitch to contact and let my defense work."
His arm did much of the damage, but it was his fielding that set the tone in the first inning when he fielded a push bunt by Aaron Payne and tagged him out just before he got to first. The play may have seemed minor at the time, but it sent a message to Oregon, which builds its offense around bunting and stealing bases.
"I take pride in fielding my position," Fulmer said. "I feel like that is one of the key things to really making a good presence of yourself out there and just being that ninth defender."
Fulmer kept Oregon's offense at bay for most of the night. Outside of two triples, the Ducks posed very few threats, and did not get on the scoreboard until Vanderbilt had already opened a 6-0 lead in the fifth inning.
"Similar to last night, I think it starts on the mound," Vanderbilt Head Coach Tim Corbin said. "I think Carson certainly did that. He came out and established his pitches, he got ahead and was very aggressive as always."
Fulmer's performance was just the latest in what has been a seamless transition from the back of the bullpen to the starting rotation in one month. Sunday was only his sixth start, but he has already established a reputation as being one of the game's best starting pitchers.
"(Fulmer) looked like Sonny Gray to me," Horton said. "And (Gray) happens to be doing pretty good in the big leagues, right?
"I thought our guys walked up and took possession of the box and felt like it was a great opportunity to hit against one of America's finest pitchers, and unless I am crazy, I think that kid is going to be pitching in the big leagues."
The combination of Fulmer's outing with Beede's has enabled Vanderbilt to use only four pitchers in two games. In doing so, the Commodores' pitching staff couldn't be in better shape than it currently is.
"When you haven't utilized a lot of pitchers, you stand to be in good shape," Corbin said of his pitching staff. "We have pitching; it doesn't mean that you are going to be successful because obviously there are very good teams left in this tournament. We'll just have to do our jobs when we get back on the field."
The bullpen is almost entirely fresh, and the rotation is setup perfectly with two proven starters available to go Sunday or Monday, if necessary. Corbin did not announce who would start Sunday, but did say the staff was leaning toward Walker Buehler.
At Vanderbilt's current pace, it may not matter who gets the call. Every game is a laser show with pitchers routinely hitting 95-plus on the radar gun. It's an embarrassment of riches in terms of power arms, and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight with young arms waiting in the wings for their opportunity to come.
Against Xavier and Oregon, it hasn't just been the power that has made the difference. Beede and Fulmer used a variety of pitches to keep the opposition guessing, and so far no one has come close to figuring them out. Even in just two innings of work, Vanderbilt's bullpen has been just as unhittable. T.J. Pecoraro threw a spotless inning Friday and Adam Ravenelle needed just five pitches to dispatch Oregon in the ninth on Saturday.
In two games and 18 innings, Vanderbilt's pitchers have allowed just seven hits and two earned runs, while striking out 20 batters.
The staff has been absurdly good. Each out only breeds confidence in a staff and also fuels the next pitcher on the mound to equal or better the performance of his teammates.
"You hope you get that type of inner-team competition among each other," Corbin said. "I think that is what good staffs can do. Not that they try to outdo each other, but someone sets a tone. Beede set a very good tone last night and Carson did again tonight."