June 1, 2007
Road to Omaha Starts Friday for Vanderbilt
Preview By Will Matthews
NASHVILLE - It is no secret by now that since the very first day of fall practice last October the Vanderbilt baseball team's sights have been set squarely on earning the program's first-ever trip to the College World Series.
And after a season in which the Commodores have won a running school record 51 games and captured the Southeastern Conference's regular season and tournament championships - the first SEC team in more than a decade to do so in the same year - it is clear the goal set by Vanderbilt Head Coach Tim Corbin was not unreasonably lofty.
But for all the spoils the Commodores have reaped to this point, the team spent its final day of practice before Friday's first NCAA regional game against Austin Peay talking about how none of it matters.
"It is a brand new season and the only thing that matters right now is Austin Peay," sophomore shortstop Ryan Flaherty said. "If we don't come out and play well, then everything that has gone on before won't really mean all that much."
By virtue of the best regular season in school history, Vanderbilt earned the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 overall seed and the chance to host this weekend's regional at Hawkins Field, a place it is intimately familiar with and comfortable in and which will be jammed with more than 3,700 Commodore faithful Friday night.
But the Austin Peay, Memphis and Michigan teams that arrived in Nashville this week are not content to simply have earned a berth in the regionals. They will be looking to steal the national spotlight by knocking off the No. 1-ranked and heavily favored Commodores and advance to next weekend's Super Regionals.
"There is no question that we are here to win," Memphis Head Coach Daron Schoenrock said Thursday afternoon after watching his club go through its final practice before taking on Michigan Friday at 2 p.m. "When you get into the postseason, you basically have got to play two really good three-game series. I've talked to our team about how if you look back at our season you can see when we played back-to-back weekends and played very well. We swept Southern Mississippi, we beat Tulane two out of three and if you put two weekends together like that against those kinds of teams than anything can happen."
Third-seeded Memphis will be making its first appearance in a regional in 13 years, a reality that Schoenrock hopes will be offset by the fact that he brings with him a veteran-laden team that will likely start as many as six seniors.
"It has been a long time since the program has been in one of these so the fact that we have so many seniors is very important," Schoenrock said. "We have got some younger guys that do play some roles on this team, and the older guys provide some comfort for them. But this is a team, I think, that because of its age, does not get overwhelmed. We went on the road and played at Clemson and weren't overwhelmed, we played in Starkville, Miss., and we played in Oxford, Miss. So we have been in some pretty good environments."
Memphis lugs into Nashville with it a 5.68 team ERA, and will start on Friday against Michigan sophomore Scott McGregor who went 5-3 with a 6.45 ERA in 14 appearances this year.
Schoenrock says pitching and defense will be a key for his club against second-seeded Michigan, a team that is loaded offensively, which brings a .336 team batting average with it to Nashville and which is making its third consecutive appearance in an NCAA regional and the 20th regional appearance in its history.
"We have got to defend the field," Schoenrock said. "Every time that we have defended well, we have been in games. We are not a strikeout pitching staff, and so we get balls put in play. So we have got to play defense. We don't get a lot of strikeouts, we don't get a lot of free outs. We have to get three outs most innings with balls being put in play."
Michigan won its second consecutive Big-10 regular season championship in 2007, but will be looking to rebound from a forgettable Big-10 Tournament last week in which it was bounced after losing two straight games.
The Wolverines boast four all-conference players entering the Nashville Regional, led by two sophomore pitchers: lefty Mike Wilson, who made 11 starts for Michigan on the year and compiled a 7-0 record and a 3.00 ERA, and right-hander Zach Putnam, who was 7-4 with a 3.78 ERA in 12 appearances and nine starts.
Austin Peay, the regional's No. 4 seed and Vanderbilt's first game opponent, enters the weekend as the decided underdog. But by virtue of its Ohio Valley Conference regular season and tournament championships this year, the Governors believe they deserved a higher seed and will be playing with somewhat of a chip on its shoulder.
"I felt like we didn't get a fair shake, I felt like we were better this year than the No. 4 seed against the No. 1 seed in the whole tournament," Austin Peay Head Coach Gary McClure. "But I think that is something that we can draw some motivation from. You hope your kids take it that way and that it is one more little thing that will drive them to want to show people out there what they are capable of doing."
Austin Peay is led by senior right-hander Shawn Kelley, who will make the start Friday against Vanderbilt after going 11-3 on the year with a 2.52 ERA, and who this week was named a second-team selection on the American Baseball Coaches All-South Region squad, the only Ohio Valley Conference player picked.
Vanderbilt touched him up for four runs on six hits in just 2.1 innings in its 8-0 defeat of Austin Peay in Nashville Feb. 27, but McClure said Kelley has improved dramatically as a pitcher since then.
"He was a different guy then," McClure said. "It was real early in the year and he wasn't throwing as well yet, he wasn't as sharp and his velocity wasn't up to where it is now. Quite frankly, I think he is a whole different pitcher right now. But he is going to have to move the ball around. He is going to have to work up-down and in-out and he is going to have to throw his slider and changeup where he wants to and keep guys off balance. But he has been doing that so I think if he comes out and pitches his ballgame the way he has been pitching, he has got a chance to have some success against these guys."
Vanderbilt will counter Friday with ace David Price, named Wednesday as the Co-Player of the Year by Collegiate Baseball.
If Thursday's practice is any indication, Vanderbilt's squad, despite being the team that everyone will be gunning to take down, is as loose as it has been all year and is focused on the task at hand.
The Commodores will be making their second consecutive appearance in a regional and its third appearance in the last four years - experience the Commodores say will play a significant factor in their ability to have success.
"Almost everyone on the team was here last year," Vanderbilt catcher Shea Robin said. "We played in a regional last year, we played in some big games last year and so there is no nervousness. Right now we are not thinking about Omaha. You can't get to Omaha if you don't win a regional so right now all we are concentrated on is this regional and right now it is Austin Peay."
Will Matthews spent three years as an investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Newspaper Group in Southern California. He earned his Master of Divinity degree in 2007 from Vanderbilt Divinity School. To email Will your feedback, Click Here