OMAHA, Neb. – Since advancing to their first College World Series in 2011, the Commodores have failed to make that coveted return trip to Omaha over the past two seasons. In 2012, the Commodores were unable to make their way out of the Raleigh Regional, falling to NC State in the regional final, while last season, Louisville upended the Commodores in two games in the Nashville Super Regional and advanced to the College World Series for the first time since 2007. This time around, Vanderbilt was able to make it out of super regionals, downing Stanford in three games.
However, Vanderbilt will attempt at turning in a better showing in Omaha against this year’s field of eight, as the Commodores came within one game of advancing to the championship series against South Carolina just three seasons ago, as the Florida Gators took a 6-4 victory over Nashville’s finest before handing the Gamecocks what would be their second straight national championship.
Coming into the 2014 season, a number of questions were posed namely in response to key departures, as staff ace Kevin Ziomek and five starting position players were lost to the 2013 MLB Draft. Nevertheless, key returners and underclassmen have stepped up both at the plate and on the mound, proving why they are one of just eight teams left in the country gunning for a national title.
Overall: 46-19 – Conference: 17-13
Head Coach: Tim Corbin (11th Year)
CWS Appearances: 2 (2011, 2014)
2014 College World Series -The Road to Omaha
After turning in some suspect performances prior to the start of postseason play – which may have cost them a shot at earning a national seed – the Commodores breezed through the competition at the Nashville Regional, albeit in dramatic fashion, as they walked off against Oregon in the regional final to become super regional hosts for the second straight year.
The Commodores opened super regional play against Stanford with quite the offensive attack, jumping out to an early 10-0 lead heading into the fourth inning. Although the Cardinal offense jumped on Tyler Beede, plating six runs across the fourth and fifth frames, Tyler Ferguson entered in relief and took over the game, putting water on the fire that was the Cardinal offense. All in all, it was another balanced attack for Vanderbilt, as each starter in the lineup collected at least one hit, while six drove in a run, led behind Reynolds’ 4-for-4 performance.
In Game 2, the Commodores were unable to put up comparable numbers to Friday’s victory, but were able to put runners in scoring position in five different innings and tied the game at 4-4 in the eighth. However, Stanford got their revenge and with one out in the bottom of the ninth, Wayne Taylor took an Adam Ravenelle heater over the wall in right for the walkoff 5-4 victory.
The Commodores opened the Nashville Super Regional final with a five-run first inning attack, but the Cardinal responded with four in the bottom of the third to get back into the game. After a fourth inning that saw both sides plate a single run, a turning point ensued. While the Vanderbilt offense would go on to tack on six more runs across the seventh and eighth, the Stanford lineup would face the dominance of Commodores’ reliever Hayden Stone, who held the Cardinal scoreless for six innings to cement the 12-5 victory and send the Commodores to Omaha for the second time in program history.
At the Plate
Vanderbilt’s offense is skilled from top to bottom and as such, they have the ability to attack early and often. They know how to get on base, turn in well-disciplined at-bats, provide solid gap power, speed on the basepaths, and can flash a bit of “small ball” when necessary. Ten different players have driven in 10 or more runs, while eight have swiped 10 or more bags and collected 55 or more hits on the season, lending credence to the balance of this offensive attack.
Freshman Bryan Reynolds has been an important cog in the success on offense, leading the way thus far in the postseason, while the seasoned sophomore bat of Dansby Swanson has served as a leader up the middle along with shortstop Vince Conde.
The middle of this lineup has been consistent and dangerous, as Xavier Turner and Zander Wiel know how to work a count and can strike with solid pop, while the likes of Rhett Wiseman and John Norwood, who has improved quite nicely in his sophomore campaign, follow with added depth and the ability to break out with big games on occasion.
Each of the aforementioned players are well-rounded in their respective skill sets and have the ability to turn in impressive showings, often feeding off one another’s successes. Opposing pitchers will have to get ahead in counts and get early outs, as this offense will take advantage whenever possible.
On the Mound
With the exception of Virginia, there may not be another team in this Omaha field with a pitching staff as deep as Vanderbilt’s. Typically speaking, pitching depth is not always of prime concern for teams in Omaha, as the spacing of games places less pressure on a team’s arms in comparison to the rapid-fire structure of play throughout regionals and super regionals. But then again, pitching depth is always a weapon regardless of the situation. When given the opportunity, you take the advantage.
The Commodores have the likes of Tyler Beede, Carson Fulmer, Tyler Ferguson, and Walker Buehler comprising the starting rotation, but more importantly, they have the safeguard of a reliable bullpen in the event that any of the above arms run intro trouble. With the spacing of games, the Commodores have the ability to utilize either Fulmer or Ferguson in long-relief, while on the flip side, Jared Miller and even Hayden Stone can be thrust into the rotation if the situation calls for such action.
After turning in a dominant outing against Xavier in regional play, Beede ran into command issues against Stanford in the Nashville Super Regional opener. Vanderbilt is counting on their ace to bounce back and take command of his advanced three-pitch mix, but as discussed above, the staff is ready in the event that he can’t find a groove.
Fulmer will follow and for good reason, as he has been the Commodores’ premier pitcher over the past month since joining the rotation. Ferguson has made just a single appearance in the postseason, but a key one at that, coming out of the bullpen in the Super Regional opener to neutralize Stanford’s offense.
Stone has a bright future and may be an all but necessary addition to the rotation next season, but for now he is a key fixture out of the bullpen and knows how to shut down an offense. The Miller duo, Adam Ravenelle, and TJ Pecoraro follow Stone in the bullpen and provide further stout relief options. All in all, three words that describe this staff are depth, depth, and depth. Louisville must attack early and often, as this staff can rebound from an early hit thanks in part to their quality registry of arms.
Key Player to Watch
Remember this name: Bryan Reynolds. The freshman outfielder has not only been the Commodores’ premier performer on offense throughout the postseason (13-for-25, 3 doubles, 6 runs, 8 RBI in six games), but also all season long, pacing the offense in batting (.343), hits (86), RBI (52), total bases (124), slugging (.494), and doubles (24).
This young hitter has been the catalyst on offense and brings a toolsy approach to the game, displaying impressive skills in the outfield and some speed on the basepaths. His bat has promising pop and he can surely hit the gaps with ease, which will bode well in the spacious gaps that characterize TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. In a balanced lineup, Reynolds is a key igniter and will be looked upon as such in Omaha.
What to Expect
Vanderbilt will be facing a quality opponent in Louisville to open the College World Series on Saturday. Like the Commodores, the Cardinals employ a well-balanced offensive attack that strikes early and often. Where Vanderbilt may have the advantage is on the mound, as Louisville does not have the depth that the Commodores command, despite boasting a solid 1-2 punch in Kyle Funkhouser and Anthony Kidston (who has been strong in Jared Ruxer’s absence) and a bullpen with the likes of Burdi, McGrath, and even Sturgeon.
The Cardinals have not dropped a single game in the NCAA Tournament and have the only recent Omaha experience in the field, which should make for a competitive matchup between a pair of teams both seeking their first national title. Game 1 will commence on Saturday at 7:00 p.m. (EST).