VOL. 42 | NO. 24 | Friday, June 15, 2018
VU’s late turnaround sets stage for next year
By John Glennon
The history of Vanderbilt baseball since coach Tim Corbin took over in 2003 is tremendous.
In 16 seasons, the Commodores have produced nearly 700 victories, advanced to eight NCAA super regionals and played in three College World Series – winning one.
The program has both attracted and developed some of the nation’s best talent over the years, piecing together baseball’s best recruiting class five times and molding 22 All-Americans.
But with such storied success over the years also comes the pressure of expectations, which may have contributed to Vanderbilt’s season coming to an end over the weekend in an epic Super Regional showdown against Mississippi State.
Living up to the standards of the past – not to mention the praise heaped on one Vandy baseball recruiting class after another – are the kinds of challenges Corbin says he has to confront every season.
In the series against Mississippi State, the Commodores at times looked like a team trying just a bit too hard as they sought to advance to the College World Series for the fourth time in the past eight years.
That’s not to say Vanderbilt didn’t come up with its share of spectacular plays – like J.J. Bleday’s winning home run in Game 2, Ethan Paul’s game-tying, ninth-inning blast in Game 3 and a series of leather-flashing defensive plays that kept the Commodores in Game 3 until the final out.
But the Commodores also stranded 35 base-runners in three contests, including 17 in the decisive Game 3, the most ever by Vanderbilt in a super regional game. There were times, too, when Vanderbilt pitchers felt the pressure, surrendering walks and hitting batters – leading to baserunners that scored key runs in Game 3.
“When you play a game like this, you get to the edge and you can feel it,” Corbin said in the moments after the Commodores’ season ended. “Sometimes when you feel it, you squeeze a little bit too hard.
“I think what they will do as they reflect on that is they will understand how routines and breathing and controlling adrenaline is so important in sport when you play a tight game. And that was kind of the case tonight. We did in certain circumstances. In other circumstances, we did not.”
Pressure of the past
Take a video stroll through the Commodores’ baseball facility at Hawkins Field and you start to get a sense of the program’s immense prosperity over the past decade and a half.
Retired jerseys and picture-splashed walls in the Baseball Hall of Champions recall the many highlights of previous Commodores teams, detailing a Vanderbilt program that’s now advanced to the Super Regional in seven of the past nine years.
Vanderbilt’s nearly two dozen All-Americans during Corbin’s tenure include the likes of pitchers David Price and Sonny Gray, infielder Pedro Alvarez and shortstop Dansby Swanson.
There’s no doubt that some of the best high-school prospects come to Vanderbilt to be part of such a tradition, as well as to play for Corbin in the best baseball conference in the country.
Baseball America has ranked Vanderbilt’s recruiting class No. 1 in the nation four times since 2011, including in 2015 and 2017.
But the newcomers also feel a responsibility – to live up both to Vanderbilt’s proud past and to their own scouting reports.
The day before Vandy opened its series against Mississippi State, Corbin said he often deals with the topic of high expectations.
“Very much so – and I think those expectations can sometimes be paralyzing, too,” Corbin added. “We don’t talk about trying to be last year’s team or the team of 2014. But the kids – you go through our facilities and you’ve got it splattered all over the walls.
“So, if you come up short, they’re thinking, `Well, we’re not that team.’ Well, they don’t have to be that team. They can do it a different way. I think this team has found a way to do it with their own personality and their own trademark. For that, I’m really proud of them.”
Building them back up
One of Corbin’s assets is he’s an excellent amateur psychologist, meaning he can help allay pressure when it gets too great.
That was evident just over a month ago, when Vanderbilt – after suffering a three-game sweep at Auburn – found itself with a 25-22 overall record, its postseason future in doubt after the Commodores suffered a 14-0 pasting in the final game.
Instead of tearing into his players after losing for the eighth time in 10 games, however, Corbin chose the opposite tack.
“He just comes in and says, `This (isn’t) going to last forever,’” Vanderbilt pitcher Chandler Day explains. “Then he kind of summed it up. He said, `I love you guys and we’re going to walk out of here with our heads held high and we’re going to flip this thing around.’
“It was a different approach, I guess, than what you would normally think after getting swept. Yelling usually occurs. If you check Twitter, you get yelled at for getting swept. But it was just kind of heartfelt … it was kind of a turning point.”
Sure enough, Vanderbilt won nine of its next 12 games, belting host Clemson 19-6 in a regional clincher to reach the Super Regional for the seventh time in the last nine years.
What, Corbin was asked, made him take the approach he did that day?
“I just recognized at that time that their spirit was broken,” Corbin recalls. “In the short duration I had from getting out of the dugout and taking a shower, I just knew my talk to them was going to be very positive and encouraging because in that time right there, I gotta put myself in their shoes.
“I felt when I went into that locker room and they were waiting for me, there were 27 kids looking at the floor. And that was tough to see because at that point right there, I knew they were a little bit broken.
“And I knew that I couldn’t go in there with a hammer and a shovel. I had to kind of build them back up again. I did, or tried to do my best.”
That’s the ‘try-hard’
A hardened Vanderbilt team showed resiliency in the super regional against Mississippi State, never more so than in Game 3 when the Commodores scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to send that contest into extra innings.
“I mean from Day 1, before the season even started, we had a feeling that we were a mentally tough team,” Paul says.
“We just didn’t think we’d ever go down this way, so we just believed in ourselves.”
But more often, Mississippi State was the team that got the big out – or the big hit with runners on base – while Vanderbilt fell short in similar situations.
“I think that’s the try-hard on the team,” Corbin acknowledges.
“You just get guys on base and you want to get the hit, and you come up a little short.
“They’re trying to compete. They’re trying to finish. Sometimes the try-to gets in the way of the ability to do it. That’s part of sport. That’s part of being 18, 19, 20 years old. That’s part of the environment. That’s part of learning.”
The good news for the Commodores is that the team will likely bring back a large chunk of its core next season.
In addition, Vanderbilt’s recruiting class has already been listed by Baseball America as among the best in the country, with the chance it could rise to No. 1 in the fall.
With the experience gained and the influx of talent, however, will once again come that familiar high bar of success. Better to have it than not, but the Commodores will still need to find a way to deal with the pressure.
“I think Vanderbilt has definitely carried on a legacy with high expectations,” Vanderbilt pitcher Drake Fellows said prior to the super regional. “But us players don’t really worry about that. We were all picked to go here for a reason. We just go out there, play and have fun.”
The more the Commodores can keep fun in mind, the more likely it is that success will follow.
Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.