Freshman quartet cuts learning curve, contributes early for Commodores

Monday, May 9, 2011 at 7:09pm

When Tim Corbin receives a fresh batch of freshmen every year, the Vanderbilt baseball coach does not expect an immediate impact from his newcomers — especially position players.

He has had some like Pedro Alvarez and Ryan Flaherty — now in the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs organizations, respectively — along with current players like Jason Esposito, Anthony Gomez and Riley Reynolds, who have had breakout freshman seasons.

Still, even in those cases, the expectations for that first year weren’t extremely high.

“It takes some time to develop in this program,” Corbin said. “When they come in as freshmen, during that first [fall] semester, I don’t think there is any part of me or the staff that thinks they are going to jump in right away. That is earned and developed and certainly doesn’t happen the first two, three, four weeks. I couldn’t have told you that about ... Alvarez or Flaherty.

"It just takes a comfort level in which a kid can settle down, mentally and physically, and go back to playing at the level that he has been used to playing at. I would say that usually takes a little bit of time.”

Thus, the fact that the Commodores have four freshmen this year who have played big roles is rare.

“Especially on this team, because we have a lot of older kids,” Corbin said.

But age doesn’t seem to be a hindrance for Tony Kemp, Conrad Gregor, T.J. Pecoraro and Kevin Ziomek.

The freshman quartet has made significant contributions for No. 1 Vanderbilt, which took two out of three from Kentucky over the weekend. The Commodores (40-6) lead the Southeastern Conference with a 19-5 record and travel to Louisville for a non-conference battle at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Kemp and Gregor have both solidified themselves in the starting lineup, while Pecoraro and Ziomek have dug in on the pitching mound.

Kemp and Gregor have hit a combined .344 (94-for-273) with 62 runs scored, 17 extra-base hits and 40 RBI. They have the two best averages on the team in SEC games, .414 and .394 respectively. Pecoraro and Ziomek have a combined 71 strikeouts in 61 innings and seven wins.

“It just feels like you are on the team with your family. These guys are my brothers,” Kemp said. “It is tough to leave the field because I just love being around these guys so much that when I leave the field, I just want to come back the next day so I can be around my family.”

Vanderbilt gladly will have Kemp on the field any day.

The Centennial grad and Franklin native has arguably made the biggest impact among the freshmen. Though he is just 5-foot-6, he leads off and is hitting .339. He went 9-for-14 over the weekend against Kentucky and now has 20 multiple-hit games. In the outfield, he has started every game but one — primarily in the left field — and has yet to commit an error.

“There is nothing about him that you’d think 'freshman' — from his personality, from his everyday effort, to his mentality, to this physicality,” Corbin said. “He plays like a kid who has already been a member of our program for years.”

Kemp dislocated his finger while sliding into home plate on Sunday and is questionable for Tuesday’s game. Corbin said he’ll be back in time for this weekend’s home series against No. 6 Florida.

Gregor was an All-American out of Carmel (Ind.) High School and was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 40th round of last year’s draft. He has the ability to play at first base or in the outfield, but his niche this season has been as the designated hitter. He has made 27 starts there and is third on the team with a .354 batting average — with most of his 99 at-bats coming out of the bottom third of the lineup. He had three hits on Saturday and drove in four runs on one swing — knocking out a grand slam for his third career home run.

The left-handed hitter prefers to emphasize the team more than himself, and perhaps that is why Corbin calls Gregor “one of the best concentrating kids I have ever seen.”

“He is always in the moment,” Corbin said. “He has tremendous mental discipline. His ability to compete is very, very high. So that is what allows him to play. Not everything comes too easy for Conrad but he concentrates so well he rarely is ever out of a moment.”

In the case of Pecoraro and Ziomek, Corbin hoped he could throw them into the mix this season. Pecoraro wasn’t so sure.

“Coming in, it is such a good school, I was like ‘Jeez, am I going to be able to play at all?’” Pecoraro said. “Then [Corbin] gave me a couple chances so I tried to show him what I can do and then the team started to trust me. As we kept going, there was more and more trust, and I just kept getting out there.”

Pecoraro, a right-hander from Dix Hills, N.Y., has excelled as Vanderbilt’s midweek starter. He is 6-0 — behind only weekend starters Grayson Garvin (10-1) and Sonny Gray (9-3) for the most wins on the team. Plus, he has a 1.53 ERA in 29 innings pitched in 13 appearances.

Corbin believed Pecoraro possessed such potential, but wasn’t sure he would see the results this soon.

“Sometimes when academics come hard and they become accelerated, it stunts your baseball growth for a time, and he was really concentrating on the academics the first fall,” Corbin said. “He did so well in the spring and has grown so much in the past five months that he has gone from what we thought he could be to maybe that pitcher in our program at a little bit quicker rate. ... I was thinking maybe year two, not so much year one.

“But I think the thing that is unique about T.J. is he is the same all the time. He doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low. He handles himself well, never gets shook. He has a very consistent heartbeat. It always stays the same.”

Ziomek started four games early in this season, but has settled into a relief role. The lefty from Amherst, Mass., is 1-0 with a 2.27 ERA in 18 appearances. His 40 strikeouts are the fourth most on the team.

“Ziomek is mature,” Corbin said. “He comes from a very strong family, with high values. He is going to be a successful young man. He is successful academically. He is successful on the baseball field. He is very serious.”

And all four have been serious contributors to Vanderbilt’s success.

“If there were four commonalities among all those kids — consistency, consistency in their personality,” Corbin said. “Those kids have certainly been impactful in our program right away — on an older team.”