NASHVILLE, TN- When you look up and down the Vanderbilt lineup, no matter who is in the lineup on that particular day, you’re not going to see a single transcendent superstar who stands out above the others, the way you might have seen Dansby Swanson and Jeren Kendall in years past, at least not yet.
But with this lineup, that’s more of a feature than a bug, because it’s a lineup that gets production from top to bottom, giving Vanderbilt incredible depth that was on display throughout their weekend series win over the Duke Blue Devils.
Much of that depth is thanks to an infusion of offensive talent as part of the Commodores’ consensus number one recruiting class that arrived on campus in the fall.
Four freshmen, Pat DeMarco, Philip Clarke, Jayson Gonzalez, and Austin Martin, started one or more games throughout the weekend, and they’ve all had their moments.
DeMarco, who hit leadoff on Friday and Saturday before moving to the cleanup spot on Sunday, has been the most impressive of the bunch. He collected at least two hits in each game, including a 3-for-4 day in his first game at the DI level Friday, on the way to going a team-best 8-for-13 for the weekend.
For the freshman from Staten Island, New York, the competition of playing against high-level competition during practice helped prepare him for this type of success.
“As soon as we got here, we started competing and getting involved, and the juniors just embraced us as soon as we got here,” DeMarco said. “Them integrating us into the team is just unbelievable. That’s why the freshman did pretty well this week.”
They did pretty well to say the least, as DeMarco was far from the only first-year player to chip in against the Blue Devils.
Clarke wasn’t far behind in terms of production. He served as the DH on Friday and Sunday and caught the game on Saturday. He got things rolling by going 2-for-5 on Friday with three RBI, and after going 1-for-4 on Saturday, went 1-for-4 with three RBI on Sunday. His six RBI are good for best on the team at this early juncture.
He also leads the team in handstand style points. During one of Vanderbilt’s usual between-innings stretch circles in the outfield, Clarke stole the show by jumping up into a handstand, showing he’s much more athletic than the stereotypes about catchers would have you believe.
Through two games, Gonzalez had been relatively quiet, as he was 1-for-7, but he came alive a bit on Sunday to go 2-for-4.
And while Martin didn’t get the start in either of the first two games (although he did come on as a pinch-hitter on Saturday), he made up for lost time quickly by leading off the Sunday game with a monster solo homer to left that cleared the big wall with plenty of room to spare.
Vanderbilt is known for playing with a pretty deep bench and giving lots of different guys chances, and this particular team is known for their bumper crop of freshmen talent, so it’s very on-brand that a freshman who hadn’t started in the first two games of the series starts in the finale and parks a leadoff homer well over the wall for a home run for his first career hit.
“You’re always wondering how well they’ll play right out of the gates, but knowing their personalities, I would say that the kids that you saw are unaffected,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said of his freshmen. “They played at a high level in high school. I didn’t really feel like they would be intimidated, but you never know.”
It wasn’t all new faces who led the way, however. There’s also the group of returning players who suggested, with their performances over the weekend, that they’re ready to take steps forward.
Stephen Scott hit .227 a year ago in 38 games with four doubles and two home runs. In three games over the weekend, he went 6-for-12 with two doubles and a home run, already putting him halfway to career-high marks in both categories. Beyond the numbers, he stands out because the ball just absolutely jumps off his bat. His home run on Saturday was hit as hard as any ball all weekend, and with the team needing to replace a couple of power bats in Jeren Kendall and Will Toffey, Scott could be a huge piece of the puzzle moving forward.
Connor Kaiser struggled to a .222 average a season ago, but he’s off to a hot start as well, going 5-for-13 in three games. It’s the same story with Alonzo Jones, a toolsy player who hasn’t quite put it all together offensively yet. One series does not a season make, but he had an impressive weekend as well, going 4-for-11 with three stolen bases to begin his campaign, one year after hitting .221 in 95 at-bats. That’s to say nothing of Ethan Paul, who went 3-for-11 against Duke with four runs scored and five RBI.
And perhaps the best indication of how deep the Vanderbilt lineup runs is that they scored 22 runs in three games with Julian Infante, the most proven power hitter in the lineup, going 0-for-12 in the series. Once he turns it on, and it seems like only a matter of time until he does, the offense will become even more dangerous from top to bottom.
We didn’t really get a chance to see the Vanderbilt pitching staff go at full throttle over the weekend. Due to a minor foot injury, Patrick Raby didn’t make a start in the series, although he did come on in relief in Saturday’s game. None of the three starters in the series, Drake Fellows, Zach King, or Chandler Day, threw more than 4.1 innings, although that likely had as much to do with wanting to bring them along slowly at the start of the year rather than any sort of ineffectiveness, as none of them pitched particularly poorly.
The best pitching performances for Vandy were actually out of the bullpen, as Jackson Gillis threw 3.2 innings of scoreless relief on Friday night, and Mason Hickman threw five scoreless innings of relief on Sunday with seven strikeouts.
The talent is there on the pitching staff, and roles will be defined as the season goes on, but it’s just a matter of the team figuring out which pieces fit best in which roles.
What we do know is that, led by a group of freshman who have taken to Division I baseball like fish to water, the Commodores boast a lineup that won’t give pitchers any breaks one through nine.