Sports, Thrill of Victory

Getting back to the Promised Land: Can Vanderbilt bust out of its slump?

For a team expecting to compete for a Southeastern Conference championship, this wasn’t how Vanderbilt wanted to start its second half in league play.

The Commodores, who two weekends ago were ranked No. 1 in three of the five national polls, have fallen on hard times. Six losses in eight games, including two lost weekend series to Ole Miss and South Carolina, dealt a blow to the ‘Dores’ SEC title hopes and will likely knock VU out of the top 10 when the polls are released later on Monday.

What Vanderbilt fans are now wondering is a two-part question, with the answers intertwined with each other: What’s gone wrong during the skid, and what does it mean for what’s ahead? Here’s a look at that, and more.

Tough times

Vanderbilt right-hander Carson Fulmer has been untouchable lately. PHOTO COURTESY VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

Vanderbilt right-hander Carson Fulmer has been untouchable lately. PHOTO COURTESY VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

It’s a surprise to see the Commodores, the defending national champs, lose six of eight games to anyone. It’s even more stunning to see it happen when five of the eight games have been at home, all coming to teams that are far from certain to make an NCAA regional. Certainly, some concerns on both sides of the diamond have surfaced that threaten VU’s hopes to defend its national title, and perhaps even to keep it from getting to the eight-team College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

Had you watched Vandy’s offense the first eight weeks of the season, you’d find that what you saw the last two weeks was virtually unrecognizable. The most frustrating part for VU is that again, it wasn’t facing elite pitching; give credit where credit is due; pitchers like Lipscomb’s Brady Puckett (5.85 ERA in 40 innings pitches), Belmont’s Patrick McGrath (5.32 in 44) beat Vanderbilt with career days, as did South Carolina’s Jack Wynkoop (3.04 in 68, but it was his first career complete game).

The common denominators in each outing: Each got ahead in the count and threw strikes. It allowed each pitcher to expand his repertoire and throw their preferred pitches in certain counts. All three beat VU with an assortment of off-speed and breaking stuff, which is an effective way to pitch a squad that can generally hit the living daylights out of fastballs.

The struggles have been nearly everywhere in the lineup. Cleanup hitter Zander Wiel, a Murfreesboro native, had the worst series of his career this weekend and has struggled to make contact. Right-fielder Rhett Wiseman’s been in a funk, though he seemed to snap out of it this weekend. Brentwood’s Bryan Reynolds had a tough couple of weeks, but he ended the weekend on a better note. Meanwhile, the bottom couple of hitters in the order have struggled to provide much punch recently.

Meanwhile, the inability to do the things that are causing VU’s hitters some issues is why the pitching staff is struggling right now. Coach Tim Corbin yanked freshman Jordan Sheffield from the rotation this weekend because the freshman’s been all over the place. Generally, that’s meant walks, but Sheffield missed with a big pitch in the zone against Belmont last Tuesday, which led to a game-winning home run. Sheffield faced a couple of batters in a key situation in Game 3 of the Carolina series, and the same struggles led to an early exit there, too.

Murfreesboro's Zander Wiel struggled with breaking pitches against South Carolina. PHOTO COURTESY VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

Murfreesboro’s Zander Wiel struggled with breaking pitches against South Carolina. PHOTO COURTESY VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

But Sheffield is hardly alone in that regard. Veteran lefty Phil Pfeifer had three straight games during which he entered in high-leverage situations and couldn’t get outs. Closer Ben Bowden, though largely effective, has been erratic at key times. John Kilichowski could be a late-inning answer, but VU used him to start Game 3 this weekend.

These things wouldn’t be so problematic if it weren’t for three huge things plaguing the team.

First, the team was already short on right-handers after losing a pair of outstanding relievers in Adam Ravenelle (he’s the guy who got the last outs of the College World Series) and Franklin’s Brian Miller. VU thought it had reinforcements coming in high school stars Touki Toussaint, Dylan Cease and Cody Reed, but in an unprecedented stroke of fortune—Vanderbilt has typically had extraordinarily good luck in getting its recruits to bypass the professional ranks—all three took the large contracts offered them.

To add insult to injury, so lefty Justus Sheffield, Jordan’s brother, taken No. 31 overall in the ’14 draft.

Still, the situation seemed manageable. Vanderbilt brought back Columbia’s Hayden Stone (1.71 ERA in 58 innings in 2014), who was debatably the best returning closer in America. It also had junior right-hander Tyler Ferguson (2.69 in 77), a versatile player who’s had success as both a starter and a reliever.

But Stone’s elbow wasn’t right going into the season. The sophomore tried to fight through it but after a 9.64 ERA in 4 2/3 innings, it was obvious he wasn’t the same guy. His season is done; VU hopes to have him back by this time next year.

Ferguson has always had moderate control struggles, but nothing like we’ve seen so far (24 walks in 10 2/3 innings), and that’s effectively taken him out of the mix.

The bottom line is that this is a team badly in need of figuring things out on both ends at the moment.

A better foundation

Dansby Swanson may be America's best player. PHOTO COURTESY VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

Dansby Swanson may be America’s best player. PHOTO COURTESY VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

For at least 90 percent of America’s programs, it’s a season killer.

Vanderbilt, though, is not most programs.

If not for the losing streak, the headlines around VU baseball are that it may have the best player and best pitcher in the country in shortstop Dansby Swanson (.360/.460/.640) and right-hander Carson Fulmer.

Swanson has an argument as both the SEC’s best hitter and best defender. On the first, his numbers speak for themselves. As to the second, he makes all the routine plays, turns in a couple of highlight-reel plays every weekend, and is as intelligent a college player as you’ll find.

Fulmer (1.69 in 64 innings pitched) has been downright un-hittable (90 strikeouts, .185 average against). His fastball generally sits 94-96, but his breaking ball is making good hitters look awful.

There’s a reason both players may see their names called in the top 10 selections of the upcoming draft. Walker Buehler (2.68 ERA in 43 2/3 innings pitched) may join them. He and Fulmer have both been pitching deep into games, so even if the offense comes around just a little bit, the ‘Dores may have what they need to win two games on almost any weekend, thus sparing the bullpen a bit.

There will be plenty of help from teammates. Wiel has had a consistent career and was one of the league’s top hitters until the recent slump. Reynolds was a preseason first team All-American and has been consistent until the last couple of weeks, even if he hasn’t gotten red-hot as he’s capable of doing.

Other supporting players have come forward. Ro Coleman (.420 on-base percentage, 22 walks to 23 strikeouts) has become an excellent leadoff man. Freshman third baseman Will Toffey has flashed recent power.

Then, there are two wild cards offensively. The first is freshman left fielder Jeren Kendall, who missed three weeks with arthroscopic knee surgery. Kendall came back with a bang this weekend, absolutely crushing a home run and narrowly missing another. The Wisconsin native is one of the more talented hitting recruits that VU has ever signed.

Then, there’s junior Xavier Turner, last year’s starting third baseman, who was suspended at the end of last season. Turner has recently been taking batting practice with the team, perhaps a sign that an appeal to restore his eligibility—he was originally suspended for the season—could be granted.

And then, there’s the defense. Even in the slump, the ‘Dores have mostly locked it down in that regard. The team is super-strong up the middle, and Kendall (now in left with Reynolds playing so well), Wiseman (right), Karl Ellison (catcher) and Toffey (third) have shown signs of becoming premium defenders.

As for the pitching, Ferguson has looked good in two of his last three appearances over the last two weeks, so perhaps some right-handed help is on the way.

One can even find optimism in the losing streak. The team hasn’t played well, and yet has out-scored teams by eight runs over the eight-game stretch. Four have been one-run losses. Baseball’s a game of high variance, and the truth is, though the ‘Dores have not played well, they’ve been extraordinarily unfortunate, too.

Getting back to the Promised Land

Vanderbilt players, including Vince Conde (left), John Norwood (airborne) and Franklin’s Brian Miller (33) dogpile on the pitcher’s mound at T.D. Ameritrade Park after VU defeated Virginia in the national title game. PHOTO COURTESY OF VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY

Vanderbilt players celebrating last year’s NCAA Championship at the College World Series. PHOTO COURTESY OF VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY

There are plenty of questions to be answered. The good news is that the ‘Dores still have enough talent and an outstanding coaching staff that’s ushered the team through tremendous success.

Nothing’s a given, but the hitting should come around. Even if the slump is more than a hiccup, Fulmer and Buehler can alone be enough to get VU through some tough weekends. Pfeifer had a better outing his last time out, and there are several freshmen pitchers, including Kyle Wright, Ryan Johnson and Murfreesboro’s Collin Snider who could get extended looks. Each have had pockets of success, offering hope for better things to come.

If VU fans want to find further consolation, they only need look to last year when the ‘Dores weren’t playing particularly well about this time of the year, and they ended the regular season by dropping two games to Carolina, plus, a bad showing in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. “Momentum” may be the most overrated concept in sports, and VU’s 2014 season proved it.

And despite the skid, VU remains tied for the lead in the SEC’s Eastern Division, just a half-game behind LSU and Texas A&M for the conference’s overall lead.

Still, there are concerns. What if VU can’t learn to handle a steady diet of strikes and breaking balls? What if more right-handers don’t emerge? What if the ‘Dores sustain an injury to either Fulmer or Buehler?

Furthermore, if the Commodores don’t start winning soon, they’ll face the prospect of a postseason playing on someone else’s home field, something that was completely unexpected coming in.

Buckle up. It’s sure to be a fun, interesting ride down the stretch.