After Vanderbilt defeated Belmont 6-2 in February, Commodores head coach Tim Corbin went over to give some high praise to his counterpart and friend Dave Jarvis.
“I thought they were a regional team,” Corbin said of Belmont. “I like their players. They are tough. They play hard. It is no surprise to me they are in a regional whatsoever.”
Corbin was right — Belmont is postseason bound and the Bruins won’t go far to play in their first NCAA Regional.
Vanderbilt — which received a No. 6 national seed when the 64-team tournament field was announced Monday — will host a four-team, double-elimination regional, which includes Belmont, Troy and Oklahoma State.
Vanderbilt (47-10) is the top seed and will play No. 4 seed Belmont (36-24) at 7 p.m. on Friday at Hawkins Field. Second-seeded Oklahoma State, an at-large selection after finishing fourth in the Big 12, will match up with No. 3 seed Troy, which captured the Sun Belt’s regular-season title. Oklahoma State (35-23) and Troy (42-17) will open the tournament at 2 p.m. Friday.
“You get to this point right now during the course of this season, your No. 4 seed is very hot because they just won a tournament,” Corbin said. “Your No. 3 seed is either a regular-season winner or a tournament winner. Your No. 2 is probably a very gifted team from a very good conference. And your No. 1 team is usually like us — they play consistent baseball. There is a reason why all 64 teams are in the position they’re in.”
Belmont is on a roll, riding a six-game winning streak. The Bruins surprised many by going undefeated as the sixth seed in last week’s Atlantic Sun Conference baseball tournament to clinch the league’s automatic berth.
Belmont started league play 3-8 but won 18 of its last 23 games against conference opponents. The Bruins are 11-3 in their last 14 games.
“That is going to be a very inspired group we are going to play on Friday night,” Corbin said. “I’m happy for Dave though that they could win that tournament and be in a regional. It is a nice story for their program.”
Vanderbilt is hosting its first regional since 2007 — when it was the tournament’s No. 1 seed.
The Commodores anticipated a top eight national seed, which guarantees the Commodores will host a Super Regional if they advance to that point. However, they were put behind Southeastern Conference foes Florida (No. 2) and South Carolina (No. 4) among the overall seeds. Florida beat Vanderbilt three out of four times this season, including on Sunday in the SEC Tournament championship game. South Carolina, the defending national champ, also won two out of three during the regular season. But the Commodores advanced further than the Gamecocks in the SEC Tournament so there was hope that Vanderbilt might receive a national seed as high as fourth.
“That would have been nice,” Vanderbilt first baseman Aaron Westlake said. “Obviously, losing to South Carolina and Florida might not have helped our chances as much. Just getting a national seed, getting the opportunity to host, it is just an honor to get that.”
Vanderbilt will be playing its sixth straight NCAA Tournament. Last year it was one win away from reaching the program’s first College World Series last year.
The Commodores have looked like a national title contender all year long. They shared the SEC regular-season championship with Florida and South Carolina and rank in the top 10 nationally in team ERA (2.49) and batting average (.318).
“Vanderbilt is a very tough draw. There is no doubt about it,” Jarvis said. “To go into their facility and play them is going to be a real challenge. … I want these kids to be prepared to play. I want them to be in a good frame of mind when we take the field. At the same time, too, I want to them to enjoy this experience at being at an NCAA Regional tournament.
“We are happy to be there but it is not just ‘happy to be there.’ We are looking forward to the competition of it. Our intentions are to go in there and win this thing.
• Vanderbilt will start ace Sonny Gray on the mound. The right-hander went 10-3 with a 2.12 ERA and 112 strikeouts and 39 walks in 101.2 innings pitched.
Belmont will wait until Tuesday to announce its starter. But it will most likely be right-hander Matt Hamann (9-1, 2.22 ERA) or lefty Chase Brookshire (5-4, 3.52 ERA).
“It is awesome,” Gray said. “I can’t wait to take the ball Friday night and get started.”
• The winner of the Nashville regional will play the winner of the Corvallis Regional. That site includes top-seed Oregon State, No. 2 seed Creighton, third-seeded Georgia and No. 4 Arkansas Little-Rock.
Vanderbilt is 3-1 against Georgia this season, including a 10-0 victory in seven innings last week in the first game of the SEC Tournament. The Bulldogs (31-30) just barely qualified for an at-large bid, guaranteeing an above .500 mark on Saturday with a win over Florida.
“That would be interesting, playing another SEC team,” Westlake said. “That would be a good matchup but first we have to take care of Belmont first thing on Friday.”
• Vanderbilt was one of seven SEC teams to reach the tournament. Joining the Commodores are Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama and Arkansas. LSU (36-20) won the national championship two years ago but was left out after finishing with a league record of 13-17.
• Belmont is one of three Atlantic Sun schools to receive bids. Regular-season champ Stetson is the No. 2 seed in the regional with South Carolina and Jacksonville is a No. 3 seed at Florida.