The Vanderbilt baseball team left the campus of Florida State University disappointed in 2010.
One win from the program’s first College World Series in Omaha, Neb., the Commodores lost 7-6 in the deciding third game of a Super Regional last June.
“It wasn’t a good [feeling] and I don’t want to experience it again,” Vanderbilt starting pitcher Sonny Gray said.
But while that season-ending defeat burned, it also gave the team hope for the next season. VU hadn’t been to a Super Regional since 2004 and had never won a game at that point. In addition, including the NCAA Regional in Louisville, the Commodores won four consecutive elimination games.
In fact, since 2009, Vanderbilt is 7-2 in the postseason when facing elimination. That experience should come in handy when Vanderbilt hosts its first NCAA Regional since 2007 this weekend. The Commodores, seeded sixth nationally, will play Belmont at 7 p.m. on Friday. Troy will play Oklahoma State at 2 p.m.
“We really know what to expect now,” Gray, who will get the start against Belmont, said. “We come in and we know how to win a Regional. We know how to win championship games. That is going to benefit us.”
Vanderbilt (47-10) has been locked and loaded for a postseason run since the season started in February. The Commodores returned 21 players from last year’s team, which collected 46 victories — the second-most in school history, at the time. Seven position players with starting experience returned, along with weekend rotation staples Gray (10-3) and Taylor Hill (4-1).
SEC Pitcher of the Year Grayson Garvin (12-1), who was just 1-1 in 13 appearances last year, has emerged as a stopper in the second game of series behind Gray. Plus, Tony Kemp has given the Commodores a boost in left field and in the leadoff spot, batting .335 en route to SEC Freshman of the Year honors.
Vanderbilt lost just two three-game series all year long — to Florida and South Carolina, which shared the league’s regular-season championship with the Commodores. Vanderbilt lost back-to-back games only once this season and are coming off a 5-0 loss to Florida in Sunday’s SEC Tournament title game.
“We are a resilient team. We bounce back pretty well,” Vanderbilt first baseman Aaron Westlake said. “That’s one of the biggest keys of our team. If something doesn’t go our way, we bounce back pretty well as a team.”
That resilience was seen over and over in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Now, the Commodores hope to pull from the 2010 postseason and the devastating Super Regional loss in order to make sure their seasons goes further this June.
“I think right after the moment, everyone says ‘OK, this is what is going to drive us for next year.’ But really what doesn’t drive you towards [Omaha]?” Vanderbilt Head Coach Tim Corbin said. “I think the experience of going to a Super Regional is big and the fact that the kids have been there. If you look at teams that have gone on and played in a Regional or Super Regional and Omaha, it is the experience of being there a few times. I certainly think that will help.”
• Both Garvin and Gray have been named semifinalists (there are 30 in all) for the Golden Spikes Award, which is given to the nation’s top amateur player.
The duo has combined for 22 of Vanderbilt’s 47 victories. Garvin, a left-hander from Suwanee, Ga., has a 2.35 ERA, and his 12 wins tie the single-season school record. Gray, a right-hander from nearby Smyrna, has a 2.12 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 101.2 innings pitched.
David Price is the only Vanderbilt player to win the award — when the former Commodore earned it in 2007.
• Vanderbilt infielder Bryan Johns is “two to three days” from throwing and could be used again this weekend, Corbin said.
Johns, a senior captain from Allen, Texas, broke the index finger on his right hand when he was hit by a pitch against Florida on May 14. Johns, who has hit just .214 in 15 starts this year, pinch-ran twice at last week’s SEC Tournament.
“He was close this week. We just couldn’t find a place to utilize him,” Corbin said. “We utilized his speed a little bit as a pinch-runner. But we didn’t put him in the game as a hitter. But he is ready to go. He is almost ready to throw. I’d say he is two or three days from that. There is just a lot of tenderness in his point finger. Because of that, he can’t throw as well.”
• Single-game tickets for this weekend’s regional games will go on sale on Thursday. Infield tickets are $17 each. In the outfield, adult tickets costs $11 while youth are $9. Single-game tickets are good for just one game as the stadium will be cleared out after each game. Tickets for all six games — possibly seven — of the tournament are already on sale and may be purchased by calling the Vanderbilt ticket office at 615-322-4653. For Friday’s game pairing Belmont and Vanderbilt, just outfield seats remain.