Rather than take a step back, Jason Esposito decided to walk away.
A first-team All-American in 2011 (American Baseball Coaches Association) and a key member of Vanderbilt’s first College World Series team, the 24-year-old called it a career last week after a three-plus seasons of professional baseball during which he never advanced beyond Class AA.
He started this season with Bowie, the AA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, but was reassigned last week to Class A Frederick, where he spent the last two seasons, when the Orioles promoted another player.
After 47 games, he was batting .190 with three homers, 16 RBIs and an OPS of .512. So this past Tuesday when the Orioles promoted third baseman Drew Dosch from Frederick to Bowie, they sent Esposito back to Frederick. But the 24-year-old right-handed hitter never reported to the Keys and has chosen to retire.
Like so many others, Esposito appeared to have enhanced his professional prospects by playing at Vanderbilt. He elected to attend college after the Kansas City Royals selected him in the seventh round in 2008. In 2011, the Orioles drafted him in the second round.
He was a minor league Gold Glove winner in 2014 but his career average in 397 career minor league games was .230. He had 21 home runs and 158 RBIs but struck out 390 times, an average once every 3.8 at-bats.
Vanderbilt certainly looks like a team that could win a second straight College World Series.
If it happens, though, it would be inaccurate to say the Commodores repeated.
“We did it a different way last year,” coach Tim Corbin said. “We had to beat Texas in the second game. So this is new and different for us. But we'll make decent use of the two days that we have leading up to Monday.”
Corbin and his players have a little time to rest because they beat TCU 7-1 on Friday night to sweep their bracket and earn a spot in the CWS championship series.
They have won eight straight games beginning with the NCAA regional they hosted two weeks ago. They have not had to go outside their three primary starting pitchers and – at times – have made it look easy. They have had three shutouts and won three times by eight runs or more.
A year ago, the Commodores faced elimination in the Super Regional against Stanford, in CWS pool play against Texas and in the final series.
Fifteen players from that team are back to try and do it again.
“It's so special,” outfielder Rhett Wiseman said. “I mean, when you look at it, I guess I find so much excitement out of it because the guys that weren't here last year, especially the guys that were on the team that were redshirted. That's where I get even kind of choked up talking about it like just for them to be able to get back here after hearing about what it was like last year.”
Vanderbilt’s second straight CWS final appearance makes it eight straight years that at least one Southeastern Conference team has gotten there.
In the last 40 years only four schools have won back-to-back College World Series titles. The last to do it was South Carolina in 2010 and 2011.
“I think anytime you get back to the series that we're about to go into it's pretty exciting, and it's your goal coming into the year first to come to Omaha and when you get here it's to get to that series,” pitcher Walker Buehler said. “No, I don't think there's any damper on it since we were here last year.”
The best-of-three final begins Monday and is guaranteed to enhance the feeling of familiarity. Vanderbilt will face either Virginia – the team it beat in the 2014 CWS final – or Florida – the team that beat the Commodores twice in their first CWS appearances in 2011 and in this years SEC Tournament championship.
The Cavaliers and Gators play an elimination game Saturday to decide which team advances.
“I think when you have an older group, they understand what the coaching staff wants and they implement it themselves and I've said all along I do feel like a parent that's in the back seat letting your kids drive the car because you trust them. And when you trust a group of kids, it's the greatest feeling a parent can have. And that's how I feel. I told them three weeks ago, complete peace with them. I am. They do things right. They take care of one another. They take care of people. They engage with other people. They do the small things well.
“And because of that they see success. But a lot of the success they see is deserved and has nothing to do with baseball. But it comes full circle around to help them in baseball.”
Now they’re right back where they were a year ago, albeit via a different path.
(Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt athletics)
Rhett Wiseman was a pain in the neck for TCU.
That made things even.
The junior right fielder was hit in the throat by a pitch during his first at-bat Friday but stayed in the game and went 2-for-4 with two runs scored and two RBIs. His two-run home run in the fifth inning was the big blow as Vanderbilt advanced to the College World Series final for the second straight year with a 7-1 victory over TCU.
“Obviously after he took the ball to the neck, hitting the home run and just staying in the game was such a big moment for him and our team,” coach Tim Corbin said.
Wiseman received treatment throughout the contest and his neck showed the effects of the high and inside pitch as he tried to bunt against TCU’s Tyler Alexander but remained a factor throughout.
His leadoff single in the third inning led to two runs that made it 3-0. His home run made it 5-0 and got things rolling again after a fourth-inning rally was cut short when umpires ruled Zander Wiel left third base early on an apparent sacrifice fly. Rather than score, Wiel was called out, the third out of the inning.
“It was just a 1-0 slider that was a little bit up in the zone,” Wiseman said of his home run. “Didn't break the way he wanted it to. And runner on second base. That was in our game plan there – runner on second, looking for some off-speed pitches and fortunate enough to get one up in the zone. Just put a good swing on it.”
Wiseman was one of three Commodores with multiple hits in the game. He also had a hit in each of this year’s first two CWS games – and he was not about to let getting hit by a pitch stop him from getting a couple more in the latest.
“College World Series, baby,” Wiseman said. “Would have to kill me to take me out of that game. I think that's probably what I said. … ‘I'm not coming out of this game,’ especially that early in the game. … By the third inning I had forgotten about the neck and was back in the game.”
(Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt athletics)
The secret to postseason success for Vanderbilt is to have a freshman pitcher willing and able to handle the most challenging moments.
When the Commodores won the 2014 College World Series it was Hayden Stone who stepped in and delivered a string of memorable performances.
Vanderbilt is one win away from a return to the CWS championship series, a state of affairs in which Kyle Wright has been a significant factor.
The 6-foot-4 right-hander out of Huntsville, Ala. is 1-0 with three saves in four appearances since the start of the NCAA Tournament. He pitched the final two innings in Tuesday’s 1-0 victory over TCU. In the Super Regional clincher against Illinois, he came on with the bases loaded and one out in the top of the eighth and got out of the jam without a run allowed. In between he got the win in the CWS opener against Cal State Fullerton.
"Pitching here is just a different kind of experience," Vanderbilt pitcher Walker Buehler said. "Kyle threw his tail off (Tuesday). And I think it was good for him to get an inning against Fullerton in order to settle in (against TCU) for what he had to do."
Basically, he has become Stone, who in 2014 was the winning pitcher in the Super Regional and CWS clinchers as a true freshman. An arm injury caused the 6-foot right-hander out of Columbia, Tenn. to miss most of this season. Stone, who was 3-0 in the NCAA Tournament, also got the win in the game that sent the Commodores into the CWS championship series.
KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
A comparison of the NCAA Tournament statistics for Hayden Stone in 2014 and Kyle Wright through 2015:
Appearances: Stone 4; Wright 4
Innings pitched: Stone 14 2/3; Wright 5 1/3
Hits: Stone 10; Wright 3
Walks: Stone 4; Wright 1
Strikeouts: Stone 20; Wright 9
Runs: Stone 5; Wright 2
Earned runs: Stone 3; Wright 2
Vanderbilt looks to continue its current CWS run when it faces TCU on Friday (7 p.m., ESPN). A victory in that one puts the Commodores in the championship series. A loss, and those teams will play against Saturday in an elimination game.
(Photo: John Peterson/Vanderbilt athletics)
Vanderbilt continues to accomplish big things at the College World Series.
The Commodores are not, however, living large. Not in terms of results, at least.
Going back to last year Vanderbilt has won five of its last CWS contests – and all five victories have been by one run. So far this year Zander Wiel’s solo home run Tuesday provided all the offense in a 1-0 victory over TCU and a three-run ninth-inning rally produced a 4-3 victory Cal State Fullerton.
“It felt like a championship-style game in every way,” coach Tim Corbin said following Tuesday’s game. “I think once we got through the third or fourth, you felt like one run could possibly make the difference. And that's the way it shaped up.”
EVERY RUN COUNTS
A look at Vanderbilt’s all-time College World Series results:
Vanderbilt 1, TCU 0
Vanderbilt 4, Cal State Fullerton 3
Vanderbilt 3, Virginia 2
Virginia 7, Vanderbilt 2
Vanderbilt 9, Virginia 8
Vanderbilt 4, Texas 3 (10)
Texas 4, Vanderbilt 0
Vanderbilt 6, Cal Irvine 4
Vanderbilt 5, Louisville 3
Florida 6, Vanderbilt 4
Vanderbilt 5, North Carolina 1
Florida 3, Vanderbilt 1
Vanderbilt 7, North Carolina 3
“You know, from a competitive side you want that 1-0 ballgame,” Tuesday’s starting pitcher Philip Pfeifer said. "And (TCU) gave it to us. They really did. That's a very strong team.”
As are all the others, which is why there probably will be a few more close games before the Commodores are done.
John Norwood can’t help Vanderbilt win another College World Series.
Even so, it seems he can’t help but be productive at this time of year.
The hero of the Commodores’ 2014 national championship hit two home runs, including his first professional grand slam, and drove in six runs for the Greensboro Grasshoppers on Tuesday, the same night Vanderbilt won its second straight game at the 2015 College World Series.
“I never really look at the numbers,” Norwood said, according to MILB.com. "I've been hitting the ball hard all year. I try to come to the field every day and put in the effort to get the team a win. People outside of baseball might look at the numbers and make judgments. I mean, the numbers are always going to be there, but it's not always worth the battle."
Coming into the game he had just three home runs and 17 RBIs in 51 games for the Miami Marlins’ Class A affiliate. He has six hits in his last five games, which as raised his average to .223.
Of course, he had only two home runs in 67 games for Vanderbilt last season before he hit a fastball out of TD Ameritrade Park in the decisive contest of the 2014 CWS championship series.
“Approach-wise, I'm just trying to work the fastball,” he said. “I've been taking a lot of them and I've been trying to get after those fastballs rather than letting them go. It's been feeling good the last couple days.
“… I think for sure, this is the best I've played.”
Zander Wiel was the one who got it started Monday.
On Tuesday, Vanderbilt’s offense began and ended with the junior first baseman. His solo home run in the seventh inning broke up a no-hitter and lifted Vanderbilt to a 1-0 victory over TCU at the 2015 College World Series.
The Commodores’ defense of their 2014 championship now includes a pair of one-run victories in as many games. Their next contest is 7 p.m. Friday against either LSU or TCU.
Wiel struck out in his other three at-bats but drove a change-up over the left field fence off TCU pitcher Alex Young, who struck out 12 and allowed three hits in 7.2 innings. It was his 15th home run of the season, which tied him with Dansby Swanson for the team lead.
“(Young) would throw them low and we were going after them,” Wiel said. “So he was just really able to keep us off balance. And in that at-bat, I was just … he threw me a changeup and it had been higher than the rest of the ones he had thrown. It still wasn't a terrible pitch. But it was hit-able. And I just put a good swing on it.”
A day earlier Wiel’s sixth-inning double drove in Vanderbilt’s first run when its CWS opener against Cal State Fullerton resumed after having been suspended Sunday night because of weather. He doubled again to start a three-run, ninth-inning rally that lifted the Commodores to a 4-3 victory.
Through two games he is 3-for-8 with two runs scored and two RBIs.
“Last year it really helped because you kind of get, I don't want to say overwhelmed when it's your first time experiencing it, but seeing it the second time, it puts you a lot more at ease in this venue,” he said. “I'm just trying to go up and compete every time and put a good swing on a ball and hit it hard somewhere. I've been able to do that the last couple of days.”
(Photo: John Peterson/Vanderbilt athletics)
Philip Pfeifer was not the best pitcher on the field at TD Ameritrade Park on Tuesday.
Vanderbilt’s senior left-hander did not make the worst mistake, though.
“I was just trying to soak in every minute of it that I could while I was out there on the mound,” he said. “I've been looking forward for this moment for a long time and playing it over and over in my head and I feel like taking advantage of (Tuesday’s) game was kind of what kept me at peace.”
Pfeifer pitched seven innings in his first College World Series appearance and none of the four hits or three walks he allowed led to a run. After seven shutout innings and 111 pitches he turned it over to freshman Kyle Wright, who closed out the Commodores’ 1-0 victory, their second one-run triumph in as many days.
It was Vanderbilt’s first shutout in 13 all-time CWS contests.
“He was very tranquil on the mound, he was at peace with himself and he was executing his pitches,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said of Pfeifer. “And I don't think that there was anyone here that enjoys being in Omaha, the moment more than he does.”
TCU’s Alex Young was even better – most of the time, at least. The junior left-hander struck out 11 and did not allow a hit through the first six innings but then gave up a solo home run to Zander Wiel on a changeup that accounted for all the scoring.
"It was just one mistake and his bat just ran into the ball," Young said. "Every other pitch I was throwing for a strike. And it's bad luck."
It wasn’t just this one day. though. Young looked better than Pfeifer throughout most of the season -- in their respective stat lines and in the eyes of professional scouts.
Pfeifer entered the game with a 5-4 record and a 4.09 ERA and opponents hit .221 against him. He was a third-round choice (101st overall) in last week’s Major League draft.
Young was 9-2 with a 2.31 ERA and opponents hit .217 against him. The Arizona Diamondbacks drafted him in the second round (43rd overall) last week.
“I thought Young was obviously very, very effective,” Corbin said. “And I credit him, because once he found that we were going to make moves to pitches below the strike zone he kept forcing that. And he pitched very, very well.
"One ball made the difference. And that's the one Zander hit out."
(Photo: John Peterson/Vanderbilt athletics)
Tony Kemp and Conrad Gregor just seem to go together.
The two were teammates for three years at Vanderbilt and then got drafted by the Houston Astros two rounds apart in 2013. Now they’re members of the same All-Star team.
Kemp, a second baseman, and Gregor (pictured), a first baseman, were named Texas League All-Stars on Monday. They were among nine Corpus Christi Hooks players selected, the most of any team. Corpus Christi is the Class AA affiliate of the Houston Astros.
Each was selected as a starter.
Kemp currently is in Class AAA following a recent promotion and a replacement was named for him. He led the Texas League in batting average (.358) and on-base percentage (.457) at the time he was reassigned.
Gregor is batting .262 with two home runs and 29 RBIs. His RBI total ranks third on the team.
The Texas League All-Star Game is scheduled for June 30 at Corpus Christi.
Any fears that Vanderbilt fans might have about the possibility for Tim Corbin to return to Clemson should be eased at this point.
The Greenville News reported late last week that three candidates have interviewed to replace legendary coach Jack Leggett, who was fired earlier this month, and that the process continues to move forward – without the Vanderbilt coach.
Corbin is one of several notable college had coaches who worked under Leggett, who guided that program for 22 years and six College World Series appearances. Corbin was an assistant under Leggett from 1994 through 2002, including associate head coach for the final two seasons.
From The Greenville News:
Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan and Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin also have been rumored to be potential candidates early in the process after Leggett was fired on June 4, but neither is expected to jump at the opportunity to replace their former mentor.
O'Sullivan's and Corbin's teams are (at) the College World Series, and both coaches may be reluctant to leave, given not only their close association with Leggett but also because both are immersed in thriving Southeastern Conference programs that have become NCAA Tournament and College World Series fixtures.
The report said College of Charleston head coach Monte Lee, Maryland head coach John Szefc and Virginia assistant Kevin McMullan have interviewed.
Had Leggett ben fired several years ago, Corbin might have considered the move as an attempt to continue the legacy of one of his mentors. Currently at the College World Series for the third time in five years (this time as defending champion), however, Corbin has established Vanderbilt as his own program, one that is among the nation’s elite. Thus, there is no need for him to think he might want to be anywhere else.
(Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt athletics)
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