Tony Kemp’s uniform was dirty. Really dirty.
That hardly made him unique among his Vanderbilt baseball teammates given what has taken place during the 2012 season to this point.
“They get after it,” coach Tim Corbin said. “I love the way they play. I love their personality and I love their perseverance. They’re dirty after a game.”
It was the things Kemp did to get so filthy and the impact they had that made him stand out as the Commodores completed a three-game sweep of No. 22 Ole Miss with a 6-3 victory Saturday at Hawkins Field.
The sophomore second baseman was on base almost all day. And when he was, he almost always was on the go.
He went 4-for-5 with a double, stole three bases and scored three runs, including the first, despite the best efforts of Ole Miss’ pitchers to keep him in his place. When Kemp was on first base, the pick-off attempts were plentiful, to say the least, which caused him repeatedly to dive back to the base.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been picked at that many times,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. I’m going out on defense and my whole jersey is just full of sweat. I think it slowed the game down … [but] when another team is that concerned about people running, I mean, it actually can take away from the pitcher because the pitcher is so worried about the runner that he’s not really paying attention to [the batter].”
Not that long ago, the college baseball world had every reason to ignore the Commodores, who lost 15 of their first 22 games.
With its first sweep of a Southeastern Conference series in more than a year — Vanderbilt won 3-0 on Thursday and 6-2 on Friday — the Commodores climbed all the way to the No. 5 seed for the 10-team conference tournament, which opens Tuesday at Hoover, Ala. They begin against Georgia in a first-round contest scheduled for 8 p.m. (CDT) Tuesday.
Vanderbilt also finished with a winning record in SEC play (16-14) and improved to 29-25 overall with 10 victories in its final 12 games. That stretch included two wins against Kentucky, two more at LSU and a non-conference victory against Louisville.
As such the Commodores appear firmly positioned to get an NCAA tournament bid when they go out next weekend.
“Our schedule the first half was one of the toughest in the nation and it showed in our strength of schule and RPI,” senior pitcher Will Clinard said. “We’re battle tested — that’s a good way to put it for our team going into this stretch of the season, which is good for us.”
No matter how bad things got, or how dirty his uniform was along the way, the white of Kemp’s teeth were a constant presence for a team that had to remake itself in the season that followed its first College World Series appearance and an SEC-record number of players drafted by Major League baseball teams.
He endured an early slump, switched from the outfield to second to second base a little more than a month ago but never wavered in his approach.
“He’s one of those positive life-force kids who is just bright-eyed,” Corbin said. “I mean, you see his teeth all the time. I think there’s a lot of value to those types of kids in sports when they’re on your team. They do so much for the energy systems within your group — and he’s that kid.
“… He’s always in a good mood, on the field and in the locker room. You can’t help but like that personality.”
The way he plays does not hurt either.
After the Commodores gave up a run in the top of the first Saturday, he beat out a chopper to the shortstop to open the bottom half of the inning. After numerous pick-off attempts, he finally stole second and went to third when the catcher’s throw sailed into the outfield. He then scored on a wild pitch.
His other two runs also came after stolen bases.
“Looking back on the season, it was definitely tough, definitely physically draining [and] mentally draining,” Kemp said. “Coach Corbin just kept us in it and said, ‘Keep believing in yourselves.’ I think that’s what we did.”
With the postseason at hand, they now get to wipe the slate clean.