Nashville, TN — After experiencing a seesaw season, the Vanderbilt baseball team now finds itself sitting squarely on the fulcrum.
Postseason expectations — which are usually quite lofty for Tim Corbin’s teams — are a little muddled right now as the Commodores head into their final three games of the regular season.
On one hand, it’s not far-fetched to believe that the Commodores could catch fire over the next few weeks, put together a massive postseason surge, and ultimately play their way to Omaha for the College World Series.
On the other hand, no one would get carried away in a straight jacket for saying it’s possible that the Commodores could miss out on the NCAA Tournament entirely.
So, which one is the more accurate picture? Well, the truth is, it’s nearly impossible to classify these Commodores, who have endured a season that has played out like wedding vows — it’s had good times and bad, sickness and health, richness and poorness.
Although Vanderbilt suffered through a midseason slump, losing nine of 11 games from April 19 to May 8, the Commodores have also compiled some impressive series victories, including a three-game road sweep of No. 19 Mississippi State in mid-March, along with series wins against No. 5-ranked Ole Miss, No. 16 Georgia and No. 19 LSU.
All of which leads us back to the question: What do we make of the Commodores?
Corbin, one of the nation’s most respected coaches, says his team — which closes out the regular season this weekend with a three-game home series against Kentucky — is simply taking things day by day.
“The only motivation right now is just playing well and trying to gain as much confidence as we possibly can,” said Corbin. “(We) just keep growing, just keep trying to get better as much as possible.”
Vanderbilt has history on its side, given the Commodores recent run of postseason success. Cobin’s team won the NCAA championship in 2014, finished as the national runner-up in 2015, and made the Super Regionals last season.
“We’ve tended to play well this time of year,” said Corbin. “This is when it gets fun. And it gets fun because you have a lot of great opportunities in front of you. We’ve got a great weekend (coming up) with Kentucky, and really that’s all I can think about. But if you play well, you give yourself further opportunities down the line.”
Vanderbilt jumped out to a hot start to the season, posting a 9-1 record in February. Since then, though, the Commodores have compiled some pedestrian — and very un-Vanderbilt-like — numbers.
They went 8-9 in March, 8-8 in April, and then struggled through early May, losing their first five games of the month and putting their postseason hopes in peril.
As it stands now, the Commodores have seemingly steadied the ship by winning three of their past four games, including an explosive 21-4 win over Middle Tennessee on Wednesday night. (Sidenote: Vanderbilt showcased its firepower in the victory by scoring 14 runs in the third inning. The Commodores also showed their patience, setting a program record by drawing 19 walks in the win.)
Vanderbilt outfielder Stephen Scott, who went 3-for-5 with a homer and five RBIs against MTSU, said the recent surge by the Commodores could be a gateway to future success.
“I think it’s huge,” said Smith, who has 10 homers this season. “Right now is the time that we want to be getting hot, and we want to carry that on into the postseason.”
Corbin agreed, saying that the win over MTSU — coupled with a series win over rival Tennessee the previous weekend — served as a B-12 shot for the Commodores.
“We needed to see some success, needed to win,” said Corbin. “We need some momentum, as much as we can get. We’ve played decently well over the past two weeks — or the last week and a half, anyway — and that was needed.”
Based on record alone, Vanderbilt could be in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. However, if you dig a little deeper, the Commodores’ resumè has many impressive elements.
Vanderbilt has played the nation’s fourth-toughest schedule, which certainly makes the Commodores more appealing to the NCAA committee. The Commodores have played 30 games vs. Top 50 RPI opponents (going 14-16 in those games), and they entered the final week of the regular season sitting at No. 38 in the RPI.
So, when looking at Vanderbilt’s entire body of work, there are some major selling points. Is it enough to get the Commodores into the Big Dance? It’s just too close to call.
It really boils down to the upcoming series against Kentucky, followed by the SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala., where the Commodores are likely to be a middle-of-the-pack seed.
In other words, the Commodores still need to hatch some eggs before any chickens can be counted.
“Once you get out of this conference, you take a deep breath, and hopefully you get an opportunity to move on,” said Corbin. “But we’ve still got a lot of baseball to play before we can even think about opportunities like that.”
If the Commodores do get into the NCAA tournament, this much is for sure: Nobody is going to be doing any cartwheels if they draw Vanderbilt as a first-round opponent.
With a talent-packed roster, the Commodores are clearly capable of going deep. First, though, they have to make it to the water.