Soon after Tim Corbin took over the Vanderbilt baseball program before the 2003 season, he hit the phones in an attempt to fill the upcoming schedules.
He wanted to pencil in traditional powerhouses, teams the Commodores, in the long run, would benefit from playing.
Stanford fit that bill.
With an academic reputation that rivaled Vanderbilt’s, the Cardinal had what Corbin wanted to create —sustained NCAA Tournament success. At that point, Stanford had been to 20 NCAA Regionals and was fresh off its 14th trip to the College World Series.
That was the measuring stick Corbin wanted. The only problem was Stanford didn’t think Vanderbilt measured up.
“They weren’t willing to play us and I probably understand why,” Corbin said. “We probably didn’t raise their RPI enough. Now it has gotten to the point where we have gotten closer to them.”
Ten years and seven NCAA Tournaments later, Vanderbilt has proved itself more than worthy of a shot at the Cardinal. For the third time in four seasons, the teams will square off in a three-game, non-conference series. Coming off their first CWS appearance, the 11th-ranked Commodores begin their season on Friday against No. 4 Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif.
The Cardinal holds a 4-3 edge in the all-time series, which dates back to 1973. But they’ve split the last six games, with each team winning two of three at home. The series hopes to extend after this year, with Stanford at least returning to Nashville.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect — I say that in a genuine way — about their program,” Corbin said. “I mean, it is a program that we try to emulate. They have done some fantastic things in the 37 years that [coach Mark Marquess] has been there. No. 1, he has kept it in the system for 36 years. There are a lot of marriages that don’t last that long. They have some good consistency in that program.”
Last year, Stanford came to Hawkins Field in late February ranked in the top 10. It was the first real test of the season for the Commodores, who were ranked third at the time. Vanderbilt eked out two wins in one-run contests, rallying from a three-run deficit in the second game. Stanford ended the series by handing the Commodores their first loss of the season.
“We had three great games with them,” Vanderbilt starting pitcher Kevin Ziomek said. “I think it kind of gave us some confidence moving forward into the SEC and into some of the other challenging games we played. It showed that we could win ballgames.”
After reaching a Super Regional last year, Stanford eyes its first CWS trip since 2008. With three preseason All-Americans, the Cardinal were picked to win the Pac-12. They are led by junior right-hander Mark Appel, who is projected as a high first-round draft pick this summer.
“Obviously the guy throwing on Friday is pretty impressive,” outfielder Connor Harrell said. “They bring back all their bats as well. But we’re not going to focus too much on them. We are going to focus on what we can do and what we can take care of. It will be a good test for us.”
With just two seniors and 23 freshmen and sophomores, the youthful Commodores get tossed into the fire.
A year after winning a share of the SEC regular-season title, Vanderbilt was picked to finish fourth in the SEC East. The talent is there as Baseball America ranked Vanderbilt’s recruiting class — 12 freshmen and one junior college transfer — as the best in the nation.
Six bats return to the starting lineup but the Commodores lack pitching experience. Seven of the 11 players lost to the draft last year were pitchers. Their three new weekend starters combine for just three career starts.
With a grueling SEC slate set to begin in just more than a month, Stanford will provide the first of many sink or swim moments for Vanderbilt.
“We like playing good people. We hope it brings out the best in us because that is the only way you get better,” Corbin said. “You’re looking at team development, really. Not looking at the weekend or wins and losses so much. Everybody wants to win — coaches do, players do — but I think when it gets right down to it you are just trying to develop your team so that by the time May and June rolls around you have something that is credible and one that can win some important games at the end.”