Sports, Thrill of Victory

Vanderbilt reaches CWS final to defend National Championship

Vanderbilt will get to defend its title as one of the last two teams standing in the College World Series, and it could be joined by one other Southeastern Conference team. Chris Lee takes a look at that in today’s SEC baseball snapshot with the baseball season less than a week from ending.

Commodores outfielder Jeren Kendall rounds third after hitting the game winning home run against Cal State Fullerton. PHOTO BY STEVEN BRANSCOMB, COURTESY VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

Commodores outfielder Jeren Kendall rounds third after hitting the game winning home run against Cal State Fullerton. PHOTO BY STEVEN BRANSCOMB, COURTESY VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

So, how’s this for an encore? Vanderbilt, one year after winning its first College World Series in school history, is two games away from doing it again. That’s something you might have had a tough time convincing Commodore fans was possible back in early-to-mid-April, when the team struggled to six losses in eight games and had some serious issues in the bullpen.

Look at them now.

Vanderbilt is 8-0 in the NCAA Tournament, though the record would belie how easy it’s been at times. The Commodores needed a walk-off win on Jeren Kendall’s bomb into the right-field bullpen in TD Ameritrade Park to win their first game in Omaha by a 4-3 score over Cal State Fullerton, then, got perhaps the performance of his lifetime from Phil Pfeifer as the lefty threw seven shutout innings in VU’s 1-0 win over TCU.

With some of the pressure off—Vanderbilt needed to beat TCU just once in two games to advance to the title round—the Commodores disposed of the Horned Frogs in a 7-1 fashion on Saturday after jumping out to a seven-run lead in the first five innings.

Simply put, the Commodores lack nothing heading into the title game.

Fifteen men on the current roster (16, if you count the injured Hayden Stone) saw game action a year ago, and so there’s no question this bunch is positioned for big-stage success. Coach Tim Corbin is one of the game’s best. The team has big-time power: Dansby Swanson, Zander Wiel and Rhett Wiseman all have 15 homers, and Kendall may be as much a power threat as any of them right now. There’s plenty of speed—VU has stolen 106 bases after last night—and the team’s .382 on-base percentage is excellent. The defense is both solid (.978 fielding percentage) and the starting pitching trio of Walker Buehler, Carson Fulmer and Phil Pfeifer may be the most gifted in the country.

Vanderbilt's Bryan Reynolds points to the sky after the Brentwood native tripled in Friday's College World Series game against TCU. PHOTO BY JOE HOWELL, COURTESY VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

Vanderbilt’s Bryan Reynolds points to the sky after the Brentwood native tripled in Friday’s College World Series game against TCU. PHOTO BY JOE HOWELL, COURTESY VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

Oh, and about that bullpen: in 21 1/3 innings in this tournament, it has struck out 21, walked four and given up nine hits. More importantly, it has given up no runs, earned or otherwise. In the absence of Stone, VU has found an answer at closer in freshman Kyle Wright, who, as Corbin would say, has “the right heartbeat’ for end-game situations.

Is this a team you want a piece of right now?

Ironically, the two teams that may want a piece of the ‘Dores more than anyone play an elimination game on Saturday to determine who gets to do that. That starts with Virginia, the favorite in Omaha this time a year ago before it dropped two of three against VU in the title series.

However, it’s not the same Virginia team. The Cavaliers lost a number of players off the 2014 squad and their best player, pitcher Nathan Kirby, showed that he wasn’t 100 percent after an abbreviated Friday start in UVA’s loss to Florida. The Cavs would probably bristle at the “just lucky to be here” tag, but that doesn’t make it any less true for a team that a month ago, wasn’t even a sure bet to make the NCAA Tournament’s 64-team field.

That makes Florida the heavy favorite today. In fact, the Gators might insist that anything Vanderbilt can do, they can do better, and while that may or may not be true, it’s a scary bunch.

Florida's Buddy Reed is a lock-down defender in center. PHOTO COURTESY FLORIDA ATHLETICS

Florida’s Buddy Reed is a lock-down defender in center. PHOTO COURTESY FLORIDA ATHLETICS

Perhaps no lineup in the country hits one-to-nine like the Gators do. Freshman star J.J. Schwarz leads the team with 18 homers, and Harrison Bader (16) isn’t far behind, plus, other Gators like shortstop Richie Martin and first baseman Peter Alonso have bashed homers in an Omaha yard that’s tough to leave. UF’s .382 on-base percentage is identical to VU’s and yes, the Gators (79 steals) can run, too, if that’s needed.

They might be even better on the hill. Starting pitcher Logan Shore is a potential first-round pick in next year’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, while gigantic lefty A.J. Puk might not only join him, he could go first overall. Dane Dunning, a freshman who may start today, has impressed of late. So has freshman Alex Faedo, the team’s normal third starter. And if you need bullpen arms, perhaps nobody has as many as the Gators, who feature Taylor Lewis (1.20 ERA), Bobby Poyner (2.56) and Kirby Snead (2.91) and a number of viable options after that.

Plus, nobody defends like the Gators (.984), who have speed and athleticism at just about every position.
The Gators also have this going for them, should they advance today: in four games against Vanderbilt this year, they own a 3-1 edge and a 23-15 advantage in runs scored.

Whatever happens next week will be fun. But if the finale in Omaha is between Florida and VU—two teams that genuinely seem to hate each other on the field—it could be one of the most epic CWS finals between two of the most talented teams in Omaha’s storied history.