Immediately after a gut-wrenching, season-ending loss, Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin passed on putting the Commodores’ season into perspective.
Seventy-two hours later Corbin still struggled to evaluate the 2012 season. But he took his best hack at it.
“It was a remarkable feat, really, to start out the way we did both mentally and physically and reach a level of baseball that was, in my opinion, championship level,” Corbin said last week after his 10th season at Vanderbilt ended. “We were at a tipping point [at 7-15 on March 23] and we could have tipped over.”
Instead, the Commodores stayed afloat, won their last four SEC series, strung together several remarkable rallies and charged into their seventh straight NCAA Regional. Although shaking off the sting of last week's loss to North Carolina State will take a while for Corbin and Vanderbilt, the Commodores enter the offseason with tons of momentum.
A majority of a young pitching staff that recorded big outs in April and May returns. Corbin expects to lose all three pitchers taken in last week’s MLB draft — left-handed starter Sam Selman (second round) and right-handers Drew VerHagen (fourth) and Will Clinard (18th), who was a redshirt-junior but graduated in May.
Even so, the entire weekend starting rotation will be back. Left-hander T.J. Pecoraro was steady with a 3.40 ERA and the team’s only two complete games in 12 appearances after returning in March from Tommy John surgery. Fellow former Freshman All-American Kevin Ziomek is also back after a 5-6 record and a team-high 79 strikeouts. Plus, 2011 first-round pick Tyler Beede headlines six sophomores who had on-the-job training as freshmen.
“The fact that we’ve got experience and so much growth potential with these freshmen I think will help us next year,” Corbin said. “There are some kids who are very capable of doing some special things. We just haven’t seen much of them yet.”
Corbin doesn’t expect to see Anthony Gomez back in a Vanderbilt uniform. Corbin said Gomez intends on signing with the Miami Marlins, who drafted him in the sixth round. That leaves a big hole near the top of the lineup after the shortstop batted .353 in three years and totaled 265 hits — fifth-most in school history.
The rest of the starting lineup, however, should be intact for a new hitting coach after Josh Holliday took the head coaching job at his alma mater, Oklahoma State, on Friday.
All signs point to right fielder Mike Yastrzemski (30th round) and center fielder Connor Harrell (31st) returning for their senior seasons. Their 12 combined home runs accounted for nearly half of the team total (26). They’ll be the power in a lineup that hit just .267 but was second in the SEC in stolen bases (92) and tied for third in sacrifice bunts (57).
“We didn’t have that brute force guy in the middle of our lineup,” Corbin said. “But that’s OK. We can work around it. Yaz’s power will develop. Connor Harrell just has to access it more. Conrad Gregor is a power type guy eventually. Spencer Navin showed glimpses of it.
“I think with experience and age we’re going to have more power next year.”
Small ball could be a huge weapon though, especially on Vanderbilt’s new playing surface.
After high school baseball camps conclude in July, the grass at Hawkins Field will be ripped up in place of field turf. Corbin made the decision a couple months ago after a year of touring stadiums with turf surfaces such as Wichita State, Ohio State and Wake Forest.
Upkeep will be cheaper. The Commodores won’t have to worry about the field thawing during the winter months and losing practices. Plus, too much or too little rain won’t affect the appearance of the field, which Corbin says can be hindrance in recruiting.
“Three long, anxious years went into that decision,” Corbin said. “I love grass and I’m not a turf guy. But I think turf is a whole lot different now than it was five years ago. This comes with a lot of investigation. ... It is one of those things that I felt it suits Vanderbilt. It might not suit other people but it does Vanderbilt. But it came with a lot of anxiety, I can tell you that.”
Restless nights thinking about an abrupt end to a magical season figure to be in Corbin’s immediate future.
In the next couple months leading up to the first fall practice in August, the veteran coach will have plenty of time to reflect on an improbable run that will go down in school history.
“I’ll be excited. I’ll be really fired up in August. I just can’t get there now,” he said. “It’s tough for me. It’s like a great vacation and then someone said, ‘OK, we’ve got to go home.’ I don’t like that part at all. That really, really crushes me. I don’t know how to work through it and I never have. I can’t really put things into perspective until I’ve had time to go through it.”