After consecutive appearances in the College World Series championship round some might expect Vanderbilt’s baseball team to be focused on getting there again.
Not so, say coach Tim Corbin and his players.
The Commodores opened fall workouts Thursday with the pursuit of another national championship on their minds but not in their sights.
“We don’t think about that until it starts getting close,” sophomore outfielder Jeren Kendall said. “We’re just playing day by day, training session by training session. We’re just kind of staying in the moment with the team and having fun.”
Vanderbilt lost the 2015 best-of-three series to Virginia, the same team it beat to win its first national title a year earlier.
It was the third time the same teams met in the championship series in consecutive year and the first time those teams split. USC beat Arizona State in 1972 and 1973 and made it three straight in 1974. Arizona State, though, did not make it back to Omaha in 1974. Oregon State beat North Carolina in 2006 and 2007 but did not even earn an NCAA regional invitation in 2008. North Carolina, on the other hand, fell one game short of a third straight championship series appearance in 2008.
So there is no historical context to suggest what might happen for the Commodores next spring.
“The only thing that we will do as a group, and I think they will tell you this naturally, is to try to create the best experience for them,” Corbin said. “Whatever level they can get to, that’s the level we hope to get to as a group. Whether that’s topping out in the SEC, whether it’s being in the middle of the SEC, wither it’s getting to the College World Series no one knows but we just want to maximize the experience for them.”
The best way to do that, they say, is to focus on the camaraderie instead of the competition.
“We want to spend the maximum amount of time with each other,” pitcher John Kilichowski said. “We love the accomplishment but we want to spend as much time with each other as possible.
“… You don’t want it be like a business where you go to work together and then you split up, you scatter, you’re gone. We live together. We eat together. We do whatever. It’s a very personal relationship we have with each other. It’s very family-oriented.”
Want to know how to build one of the best college baseball teams in America?
It’s simple. Recruit the best players.
Vanderbilt’s 2014 national championship and return to the College World Series final this week did not happen by accident. According to Baseball America, Tim Corbin and his staff put together the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class in 2011 and 2012 — and many of the players from those two groups were central to the program’s unprecedented success these past two seasons.
“You can't put it into perspective right now how I feel about our group,” Corbin said after his team lost to Virginia in this year’s best-of-three national championship series. “And I won't do that. That will be for private time. But I don't know if I'll have another group like this again. This is going to be a tough, tough group to replicate.”
In particular, the 2012 class, of which Baseball America wrote, “No class can match the versatility and upside of Vanderbilt’s,” turned out to be as good as advertised.
Based on player ratings at the time, the top four recruits, in order, were pitcher Walker Buehler, pitcher Carson Fulmer, outfielder Rhett Wiseman and shortstop Dansby Swanson. All four were central figures to the team’s two-year run, and Swanson (pictured), Fulmer and Buehler all were first-round picks in the 2015 Major League draft.
Also among that year’s signees were third baseman Xavier Turner, pitcher Tyler Ferguson and infielder Tyler Campbell.
Here is some of what Baseball America wrote of the class before any of the signees ever played a college game:
For the second straight year, Vandy reeled in a power-armed righty who ranks as the nation's top recruit; like Tyler Beede before him, Buehler can reach the mid-90s with his fastball and has good command of his secondary pitches—a devastating power curveball and a sinking changeup. Fulmer gives this class a second marquee arm with a 92-95 mph fastball and a slider that flashes plus. Stephenson and Ferguson offer projection and electric arm strength, as both … In Swanson, Vandy has a quick-twitch, instinctive shortstop with smooth infield actions and a fundamentally sound swing. Wiseman and Turner offer serious athleticism, bat speed and power potential.
Beede, of course, was the prized recruit in the 2011 class that also included pitchers Philip Pfeifer and Adam Ravenelle, first baseman Zander Wiel and outfielder John Norwood, among others.
“I mean, when you're able to come together, 35 strong each year and basically have 34 new best friends every year, it's a special moment,” Swanson said Wednesday. “And that's what we create. We have a family. It's not just 35 players, it's 50, because we have all the staff and the coaches that put so much effort in. So it's a special thing. I've never been a part of something this amazing in my life.”
(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)
Tim Corbin tried.
The Vanderbilt coach made an abundance of moves in an attempt to win the decisive third game of the 2015 College World Series final and secure a second straight national championship. Even before the first pitch he adjusted his lineup. And he kept making changes all the way to the final out.
Some worked. Some did not. The result, though, was a 4-2 loss to Virginia and one national title apiece for the programs that have faced off for the crown each of the last two years.
“I just really want to congratulate Virginia. I mean, I think that's first and foremost,” Corbin said following the contest. “…You have to give them a lot of credit.”
A look at the most prominent decisions Corbin made and how successful they were on scale of 1 to 10 (1 = that didn’t work; 10 = inspired thinking).
• Designated hitter switch: A freshman out of Montgomery Bell Academy, Penn Murfee appeared in fewer than half the games this season and was a .243 hitter. Yet Corbin went with him over Ro Coleman, who was dominant in the regional and super regional but had been far less successful at Omaha.
Murfee had two of the Commodores’ five hits, including a double. Both of his hits gave his team a chance to get something going but he did not score a run. Success rating: 6.
• A quick hook: Starting pitcher Walker Buehler is a first-round draft pick and hardly was overworked during the NCAA Tournament. He held Virginia scoreless through the first three innings but then gave up a two-run home run and a walk to start the fourth and Corbin went to the bullpen. From there he used four different pitchers over the final six innings.
Collin Snider and Ben Bowden needed just three pitches combined to get the final two outs of the fifth inning. John Kilichowski didn’t allow a hit in 1 1/3 innings but the one batter he walked scored what turned out to be the game-winning run. Success rating: 5.
• Change at the top: Connected to the decision to go with Murfree at designated hitter was the choice to move Bryan Reynolds from fifth in the lineup to the leadoff spot.
Reynolds had been one of the Commodores’ most consistent hitters throughout the CWS. In this one, he did not have a hit but led off the game with a walk and scored the first run in the top of the first. Success rating: 4.
• Counting on a miracle: After Murfee’s two-out single in the bottom of the ninth, Corbin called on Kyle Smith to pinch hit. It was an obvious attempt to tie the game with one swing given that Smith is a player who has the size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) but not the stats (one hit in 15 at-bats for the season) to suggest he could do it.
Smith fouled off one two-strike pitch but allowed the game to end on a called third strike. Success rating: 1.
(Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt athletics)
If anyone in Vanderbilt’s bullpen is tired, it might be Ben Bowden.
The sophomore lefthander (pictured) is the only Commodores pitcher who has appeared in each of the first two games of the 2015 College World Series final. He needed just six pitches to get one out on Monday and threw 22 in an inning and third on Tuesday.
That, though, is not enough to remove him from consideration for Wednesday’s decisive Game 3 (7 p.m., ESPN).
“I think you get to this point in the tournament and everyone's on go,” coach Tim Corbin said.
For the second year in a row, Vanderbilt and Virginia will go the distance in the best-of-three CWS championship series.
A year ago the Commodores used only three pitchers in their 3-2 clinching victory after having used four in each of the first two games. This time they used three in each of the first two contests. That after their starters went at least six innings in each of the three games of pool play.
If they need to go to the bullpen early and often this time, they certainly are prepared to do so. Walker Buehler, a first-round pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers in this month’s MLB draft, will be the starter.
A look at how much Vanderbilt’s relief pitchers have been used at the 2015 College World Series:
Kyle Wright – 3 games, 3.2 innings
John Kilichowski – 2 games, 4.2 innings
Ben Bowden – 2 games, 1.2 innings
Jordan Sheffield – 1 game, 1 inning
By comparison, Virginia’s Josh Sborz threw four innings (77 pitches) on Tuesday alone.
“You will not see Josh Sborz (Wednesday) night,” coach Brian O’Connor said. “… Brandon Waddell will start. Past that, I'm not sure what we'll do. But this was kind of how we had mapped it out when we had looked at this about a week ago on what was going to give us the best chance to put our team in a chance to win a championship. And here we are, and Waddell is going to get the ball. But we'll see where we go from there.”
Waddell, a junior left-hander, was a fifth-round pick by Pittsburgh in the 2015 MLB Draft.
The only pitchers Corbin ruled out were Carson Fuller and Philip Pfeifer, his starters in each of the first two games, although even he conceded that there probably would be some debate on that front.
“You know (Fulmer) will be fighting to grab the ball in a situation that was worthy,” Corbin said. “But I think the bullpen is all ready to go.”
(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)
Either way, Vanderbilt’s season will end Wednesday.
It would help their chances for a second straight national championship if the Commodores could get off to a good start.
Tuesday they didn’t score at all and fell 3-0 to Virginia in Game 2 of the final series. That forced a winner-take-all third contest Wednesday (7 p.m., ESPN).
“I think you have to, you have to just wipe the slate clean,” first baseman Zander Wiel said. “You can't carry the game with you. Obviously we struggled (Tuesday) night offensively. But we just have to have a clear mind going into (Wednesday) and do what we do every day, and that's trust our preparation and trust our (batting practice), and we'll be ready to go.”
Simply put: Most of runs the Vanderbilt has produced at Omaha have come in the later half of games.
The Commodores have scored 17 times in their five CWS games thus far but only three in their first three innings of those contests. They scored that many in the ninth of their opener, when they rallied to defeat Cal State Fullerton. A day later scored the only run they needed in the seventh inning against TCU.
A breakdown of when Vanderbilt has scored runs during the 2015 College World Series:
Innings 1-3: 3
Innings: 4-6: 7
Innings: 7-9: 7
Three of the last four games have been scoreless ties at least through five innings. Tuesday’s contest turned in the bottom of the sixth, when Virginia scored three times – all with two outs and all unearned.
“They got the timely hit,” coach Tim Corbin said. “They got the timely hit that we didn't. So you have to credit them.”
Vanderbilt has now played 16 all-time games at the CWS. Tuesday was just the second time it failed to score a run, also the second time in 70 games this season. At last season’s CWS, the Commodores bounced back from a 4-0 loss to Texas and won 4-3 in 10 innings, which clinched a spot in the championship series. They closed out the 2015 regular season with a 1-0 loss to Alabama then defeated Missouri 7-6 in 10 innings in their first game at the SEC Tournament.
In last year’s CWS final, Vanderbilt scored the decisive run on John Norwood’s solo home run in the eighth inning of Game 3. However, it started that contest with one run in the first and never trailed.
“They're trying. They're kids,” Corbin said. “They want to hit, too. … And I thought even during the middle of (Tuesday’s) game, even at the end of it I thought they were very positive. I thought we were going to crack it open at some point and always do. It just didn't happen.”
(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)
Everybody had fun last year.
So once again, with its baseball team in position to win a national championship, Vanderbilt will open its football stadium to anyone who wants to watch Tuesday’s College World Series Game. The contest, Game 2 of the CWS final between the Commodores and Virginia, will be shown on the stadium’s primary video board.
Admission and parking are free and gates open at 6 p.m., one hour before the start of the game. Fans may sit on the field (blankets upon which to sit are encouraged) or in the stands.
Concessions will be available but fans also will be permitted to bring their own food and drink. Alcohol of any kind is prohibited.
Vanderbilt won the best-of-three championship series opener 5-1 on Monday. With one more victory the team will win its second straight national championship, Vanderbilt’s third in a 13-month span and fourth all-time.
The women’s tennis team won the NCAA championship last month. The women’s bowling team won the school’s first national title in 2007.
A large crowd gathered to watch last year’s championship-clinching contest, a 3-2 victory over Virginia on June 26, 2014.
If the Commodores lose Tuesday, the stadium will be open again for Wednesday’s decisive contest.
If you’re going to win the College World Series for a second straight year, you might as well do so emphatically.
That’s what South Carolina did. After winning it all in 2010, the Gamecocks came back in 2011 and went undefeated at Omaha.
That’s what Oregon State did. The Beavers won the national title in 2006 then did it again in 2007, their encore performance a string of five straight triumphs without a defeat.
Following a 5-1 victory over Virginia in Game 1 of the 2015 final series, Vanderbilt is in position to become the third team in the last decade to repeat as CWS champions – and the third to go undefeated in the CWS the second time around.
The Commodores’ opportunity comes in Game 2 on Tuesday (7 p.m., ESPN). If they fail to sweep, the decisive Game 3 will be Wednesday.
“I think the thing that we've been preaching the past couple of years is just staying in the moment, worrying about what we can control right now,” shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “That's what we're going to do. We're going to worry about (Tuesday) when it gets here and our preparation when it's time for that, and then the game when it gets here. Just like we do, try to win innings frame by frame.”
A look at Vanderbilt’s results at the 2015 College World Series:
Vanderbilt 4, Cal State Fullerton 3
Vanderbilt 1, TCU 0
Vanderbilt 7, TCU 3
Vanderbilt 5, Virginia 1
Winning championships is never easy. There is reason to believe, though, that it does get a little easier the second time around.
A year ago Vanderbilt faced elimination twice before it hoisted the trophy. This time it has not trailed in any of its last three games.
South Carolina lost its CWS opener in 2010 then won six straight for its first title. Oregon lost its 2006 opener and then dropped Game 1 of the finals en route to that first championship.
It is not like the Commodores have dominated every step of the way since they got to Omaha this year. A rain delay that suspended play overnight was a big factor in the opening victory over Cal State Fullerton. They then were no-hit for more than six innings in the first game against TCU before Zander Wiel’s home run provided all the scoring.
“It's a game of baseball. You never know what to expect,” pitcher Carson Fulmer said Sunday. “And every time you go out there things could go your way or not. But at the end of the day we stuck to our routine and we stuck to what we do on a daily basis. And we're lucky to be here and get a chance to do it again.”
At this point, they have a chance to do it exactly the way the two most recent repeat champions did it.
(Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt athletics)
Carson Fulmer did not go the distance.
The junior right-hander was not knocked out of Game 1 of the College World Series final on Monday, though. Far from it.
Fulmer capped one of the finest seasons ever by a Vanderbilt pitcher with 7 2/3 shutout innings during which he struck out eight, walked two and allowed two hits. When coach Tim Corbin went to get him after 118 pitches, the Commodores were well on their way to a 5-1 victory over Virginia, which left them one win shy of a second straight national championship.
“Obviously, I mean, when I see (Corbin) walking out, I know that's it,” Fulmer, the eighth overall choice in this year’s Major League draft, said. “And you have to put all frustration aside. And what made it big for me was not only did I have Coach there but I had the whole infield. And I consider those guys my best friends, and along with the other guys on my team. And for me being able to spend that moment with them and just look back on the brotherhood that we created, and I'm on top of it with a win at the end of the game.
“So it's definitely a moment I'll remember for the rest of my life, and I couldn't have asked for it to happen any better.”
It’s tough to imagine anyone could have pitched any better either than Fulmer did this season.
He was good enough in his biggest game of the year that he actually improved many of what already were gaudy stats. He became the fourth pitcher in SEC history (the first from Vanderbilt) to lead the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts in the same season. His numbers in those areas also rank among the best in program history for a single season.
TOP OF THE LIST
A look at Vanderbilt’s single-season leaders in wins, innings pitches and strikeouts:
Carson Fulmer (2015) – 14
Tyler Beede (2013) – 14
Grayson Garvin (2011) – 13
David Price (2007) – 133.1
Carson Fulmer (2015) 127.2
Sonny Gray (2011) – 126.0
David Price (2007) – 194
Carson Fulmer (2015) – 167
David Price (2006) – 155
A relief pitcher for the first half of his three seasons with the Commodores, Fulmer is the only player in Vanderbilt history to rank among the top five in career wins (24, tied for fourth) and saves (14, fifth).
He joined Jeff Peeples as the only ones ever to finish with an ERA of better than 2.00 more than once. Peeples did it three straight seasons (1971-73). Fulmer had a 1.83 this season after a 1.98 in 2014.
“I've used Joe Frazier, the fighter, as an analogy because he keeps coming and he keeps throwing punches and he's just looking for your jaw, he's not trying to maneuver around you,” Corbin said. “As a kid, we just haven't had many like him. He's one of the most special kids that we've ever had on our campus.
“… He's a special, special competitor, and he'll go down as one of the greatest pitchers to ever pitch at Vanderbilt.”
(Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt athletics)
One year later nothing has changed.
Yet one year seemingly has made a huge difference in the burgeoning baseball rivalry between Vanderbilt and Virginia.
Just as they did last year, the schools will meet in the College World Series final, which begins Monday (7 p.m., ESPN) and will strengthen their reputations as two of the nation’s most prominent programs. Each has consistently risen to this point over the last 10-plus years and in each case the impetus for the climb was a change at the top.
Tim Corbin became Vanderbilt’s baseball coach in 2003, a year earlier than Brian O’Connor took over at Virginia – and the Cavaliers have been a step behind (maybe less, at times) the Commodores ever since. At least that has been the case when the two have gone toe-to-toe.
Their first meeting was in an NCAA Regional in 2004. It was Corbin’s second year in charge and O’Connor’s first. And what a difference a year made then.
The Cavaliers hosted the regional but the Commodores, the No. 2 seed, clearly were the class of that four-team field. They cruised to three straight victories, the last 7-3 over the host school in the first modern era meeting between the programs.
The teams then went their separate ways for a decade but continued to move in the same direction. They took some lumps along the way. Vanderbilt, for example, was routed by Texas in the 2004 Super Regional and didn’t make it to the College World Series until 2011. Virginia needed six tries to get out of the regional.
O’Connor and his group got a leg up when they made the College World Series in 2009, two years before Corbin finally got the Commodores there.
Yet when Vanderbilt and Virginia finally played again a decade after their first encounter – this time to determine the best team in the country – it was the Commodores that once again got the better of things, although the difference between the two had shrunk to a razor thin margin. The best-of-three 2014 CWS final series went the distance and Vanderbilt’s victories both were by a single run.
Vanderbilt has spent the last year basking in the glow of a national championship, the school’s first in a major sport. Players and coaches have talked about the value (and the burden) of that experience as they have worked to try to do it all again.
Virginia has spent the last year wondering what it could have changed or done better or whether it ever would get another opportunity to win it all.
Still, this past year is not what distinguishes one of these programs from the other. For that, you have to go back to 2003 when Corbin began to lay the foundation for success upon which his program currently stands – a year before O’Connor did the same at Virginia.
Maybe enough time has passed so that year no longer matters. Or maybe it makes all the difference.
After all, these things take time and Corbin has been at it just a little bit longer (one year, to be exact) than O’Connor.
Vanderbilt and Virginia will meet in the College World Series final for the second straight year.
It is a rare occurrence that bodes well for the Commodores’ chances to successfully defend their 2014 national championship.
Only twice previously has the championship series been a rematch. Each of the first two times the result was a repeat for the school that won the first time. Most recently (2006-2007) Oregon State and North Carolina went the full three games the first time around but the Beavers swept the championship series in the rematch.
Vanderbilt and Virginia do it all again beginning with Game 1 on Monday (7 p.m., ESPN).
“It was a great series last year,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “It really was. It was as competitive as it gets. It was a lot of fun. It really was. ... We'll see what happens. It's going to be a tall order. The Vanderbilt club is talented.”
DO IT AGAIN
A look at the times the same teams reached the College World Series final in consecutive years:
USC vs. ARIZONA STATE
USC 3, Arizona State 1
USC 1, Arizona State 0
USC 4, Arizona State 3
(championship was decided with one game)
OREGON STATE vs. NORTH CAROLINA
North Carolina 4, Oregon State 3
Oregon State 11, North Carolina 7
Oregon State 3, north Carolina 2
Oregon State 11, North Carolina 4
Oregon State 9, North Carolina 3
VANDERBILT vs. VIRGINIA
Vanderbilt 9, Virginia 8
Virginia 7, Vanderbilt 2
Vanderbilt 3, Virginia 2
“I mean, there's just got to be a lot that has to go right,” Vanderbilt shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “You both have to be on opposite sides [of the bracket] and play successful baseball in the postseason. It's never an easy road getting here and it's never and easy road getting back to the finals, so credit to Virginia for playing as well as they have.”
Virginia (42-23) is 8-1 since the start of the NCAA Tournament, has come from behind for six of those victories and the last five have been by one or two runs. The Cavaliers faced elimination Saturday but defeated Florida 5-4.
“The majority of our games in this postseason, we found a way to win the game from the seventh inning on,” O’Connor said. “We certainly haven't walked away from any games and run away from anybody. We've just done enough.”
Vanderbilt (50-19) is a perfect 8-0 since the SEC Tournament and has outscored the opposition 12-4 at Omaha, 65-11 since the start of the NCAA Tournament. It has three shutouts in its last six games.
The Commodores’ last two victories were against TCU, the only team other than them and Virginia that made it to the CWS last year and this one.
“I think the biggest thing for anyone who comes here is … to be comfortable,” Vanderbilt pitcher Carson Fulmer said. “And obviously with the people that are in the stands and the pressure that's on the line, if you want to call it that, it's definitely … I mean, some people aren't used to it.
“I feel like last year really helped us become comfortable especially in this tournament so far and we'll definitely keep that mindset going forward.”
In this case, even the opponent is nothing new.
(Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt athletics)
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