Forget a batting title.
Tony Kemp is chasing .400, and right now, he is ahead of the curve.
Fifty-one games in, Vanderbilt’s leadoff hitter continues to swing a hot bat. The 5-foot-6 junior leads the top-ranked Commodores and the Southeastern Conference with a .404 batting average.
Kemp burst over the .400 mark with three multi-hit games last week, which earned him the SEC’s player of the week honors on Monday. If he keeps up the torrid pace, he’ll become just the seventh Vanderbilt player to bat over .400 for a season.
Aaron Westlake was the last Vanderbilt player to win the SEC batting title when he batted .377 in 2009. In this year’s race, Kemp leads LSU freshman Alex Bregman, who is batting .394.
“If [Kemp] puts the ball in play he has a chance to do some damage, particularly if it is on the ground,” coach Tim Corbin said. “I think he is a kid who is going to find his way to first base some way, somehow.”
Warner Jones was the most recent Commodore to achieve the personal milestone, hitting .414 in 2004. Hunter Bledsoe owns the school record, a blistering .459 in 1999. He overshadowed teammate Karl Nonemaker, who hit .415 the same year.
Kemp has his work cut out for him, though. Five of Vanderbilt’s members reached the .400 club in seasons that lasted 56 games or fewer. Only Jones, a Montgomery Bell Academy grad, played in more with 66 games in 2004.
Kemp and the Commodores (45-6, 24-2 SEC) could challenge that. Vanderbilt has at least eight games left and possibly double that with deep runs in the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament.
Kemp has been a sparkplug for the Commodores, who clinched the SEC championship last weekend and became the unanimous No. 1 team in the country. On Monday, all five polls — Baseball America, Perfect Game, USA Today Coaches, Collegiate Baseball and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association — had Vanderbilt at No. 1. The last time that was the case was 2007.
The Commodores will try to extend their 12-game winning streak when crosstown rival Belmont (36-15, 21-6 OVC) comes to Hawkins Field on Tuesday for a potential NCAA Regional preview.
For Vanderbilt, the SEC’s top offense starts with Kemp.
The Franklin native and preseason All-American has bounced back after batting .261 with 42 strikeouts. This season, the left-handed hitter has struck out put himself in contention for SEC player of the year.
In addition to batting average, he leads the conference in on-base percentage (.492), runs scored (54) and stolen bases (26). He also has made highlight reel after highlight reel at second base.
“There is not one component to his game he doesn’t do well,” Corbin said. “He plays some of the most imaginative, creative defense that I’ve seen at that position and really seen in the infield. Every day he plays, you come from the game saying, ‘Can you believe what he did tonight?’”