Harrell's home run, hot streak come at right time — again — for Vanderbilt

Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 10:01pm

Connor Harrell and 'midseason slump' are on the verge of becoming synonymous.

Then again, the same is true of the Vanderbilt outfielder and a dramatic turnaround.

One year to the day since he smashed a two-run, pinch-hit home run against Tennessee that ended a lengthy drought, Harrell took a major step toward erasing this season's early offensive woes.

His first career grand slam broke open a one-run game in the eighth inning and lifted the Commodores to a 6-1 victory over No. 3 Kentucky on Sunday at Hawkins Field. Vanderbilt picked up its second straight victory over the Wildcats (36-9, 14-7), who lost their first series of the season. The Commodores also won 4-3 on Saturday after a 5-2 defeat in Friday's series opener.

“Someone else actually mentioned that to me [Sunday] morning,” Harrell said of his timing. “I wish there was a science to it. I wish there was some sort of formula for hitting and not hitting, but I don’t know what to say. As bad as it gets, I guess it gets better. That’s a good way to look at it.”

Harrell struggled to stay in the starting lineup as his batting average dipped to .202 just eight days ago. Since then, he batted in the game-winning run against Alabama last Sunday and has gone 7-for-15 with two home runs and eight RBIs.

He went through a similar stretch last year, during which his average dropped 100 points — from .332 to .232. He snaped out of it with two pinch-hit home runs in a sweep of the Volunteers — also in the seventh SEC series — and stayed hot all the way to the College World Series, where he was named to the all-tournament team.

“Last year it was tough mentally given the team was doing so well and I wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “I think being able to come back this year and having the same kind of drought I never want to have again — but I had it — and kind of playing back into the team and you realize it’s not about me kind of helped me to stay mentally stronger. Then once I got plugged back in there, it was time for me to go.”

The Commodores have bounced back after a nightmarish start in their own right. They fell to 7-15 on March 23 and spot in the postseason seemed like a pipe dream.

A month later, they’re in a position to extend their season. 

The Commodores improved to 20-22 – the closest they’ve been to a winning record since starting 1-3. Vanderbilt must be above .500 to receive an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament.

Another necessary step is to qualify for the 10-team SEC Tournament. The Commodores (9-12 in conference play) are tied for ninth place with Georgia. They hold a two-game lead over Tennessee, its next opponent as it faces two straight road trips before closing the regular season by hosting Ole Miss.

“It’s huge,” Harrell said. “It’s hard to say just how big it is. But I think we’ll look back in a couple of days and realize we just beat a pretty good team.”