To Connor Harrell, there is no use in kicking and screaming. He has to start hitting.
If regaining his swing and lifting his batting average propels him back into the starting spot in center field for Vanderbilt, so be it. If not, Harrell isn’t going to pout, especially when the Commodores (38-5, 17-4 Southeastern Conference) are ranked No. 2 in the country and are riding a six-game winning streak as they play a three-game series at Kentucky this weekend.
“The way I see it is if you are playing well at the time you are probably going to play,” Harrell said. “I didn’t play the last couple weeks but winning, [and] sweeping a couple weekends in a row isn’t bad either. As long as we are winning, I really don’t care.”
Harrell is part of a crowded outfield that features five, possibly six players battling for playing time.
Freshman Tony Kemp and sophomore Mike Yastrzemski seem to have solidified the left and right field spots, respectively. Kemp, a Centennial High product, has started 39 games in left field, but the last two he spent in center field. Yastrzemski has started all 43 games, with 35 in right field.
Both left-handed hitters have hit the ball well. Kemp is batting .313 out of the leadoff spot. Yastrzemski is digging in primarily at the fifth slot, and five hits in three games against Tennessee last weekend pushed his average up to .298 to go along with 30 RBIs, which is the fourth most on the team.
The third outfield spot seems to be up to grabs, though. Harrell, a right-handed hitter, started 25 of the first 28 games before a 0-for-18 slump during two SEC series in late March and early April landed him on the bench.
Joe Loftus, another right-handed hitter, has missed the last six games after breaking his hamate bone in his left hand against South Carolina on April 15. Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said there is a slim chance Loftus will be used defensively this weekend.
“If he is full speed with his legs and he can catch the ball with no pain and you can’t further injure his hand, then there is a possibility of traveling him. Otherwise we won’t,” Corbin said.
Also available is sophomore transfer Jack Lupo, who has started in four SEC games. The right-handed hitter had his best game against LSU on April 24, going four for four.
Designated hitter Conrad Gregor could be another option. The left-handed hitting freshman is second on the team with a .364 batting average and made his first two career starts in left field against Tennessee.
Who starts is not only decided by looking at a player’s batting average but also by seeing what type of pitcher — lefty, righty, fastball, curveball specialist — is on the mound. Corbin also likes the balance in his lineup, being able to have a left-handed batter, then a right-hander, then a lefty, then a righty and so on down the order.
In addition to the pop in the lineup, Vanderbilt doesn’t appear to be compromising on defense due to all the maneuvering. Through 43 games, the six outfielders have combined to commit just four errors.
“I think we are just trying to put the best combination of kids out there versus what we’ll see on the mound more than anything else,” Corbin said. “I think the luxury is that you’ve got four guys who can play various outfield positions so we don’t lose anything defensively. I don’t know if you can actually say that about an outfield. Usually it is, ‘OK we will put him out there to hit but we lose something defensively.’
“I realize Conrad is getting used to playing the outfield but at the same token I trust him, he’ll catch the ball and he made a couple nice plays the other day. He throws accurately so I think it is just a matter of trust defensively before we can put him in the outfield [consistently]. But I feel good with all of them.”
For Harrell, he admitted not starting was “hard for a while.” Last year, as a freshman, he started in 58 of 61 games, hitting .300. But this spring, in the middle of the SEC season, his swing didn’t feel very good and he said he got away from a flatter swing, “thinking more about the baseball instead of my swing and simplifying everything.”
“I just felt like I was thinking about it too much more than anything,” Harrell, a native of Houston, said. “I kind of got into my head and after that it kind of went downhill from there.”
Harrell’s batting average slid all the way to .232 — 100 points lower than where he started in February — prior to the Tennessee series. So Corbin brought Harrell in as a pinch hitter last weekend and he delivered. He was three for four, with two home runs, a double and four RBIs as his batting average climbed to .250.
“I think more than being relaxed it is just having confidence in each other, knowing that if I don’t get a hit someone else is going to get a hit. It took me some time to kind of realize that, ‘He’ll pick me up — the guy behind me,’” Harrell said. “As long as I can help, I feel like I helped last weekend and that was good. I feel like I wasn’t helping in the middle of the year. As long as I am helping and we are winning, whether I play or not, it is not that big of a deal.”
• Kentucky (20-25, 4-17) holds the worst record in the SEC. The Wildcats have dropped three straight and four of their last five.
They are led by right-handed ace Alex Meyer, who leads the SEC with 91 strikeouts. The 6-foot-9, 220-pounder is expected to matchup against Vanderbilt ace Sonny Gray (9-2), who is second in the league with 86 strikeouts, at 5:30 p.m. on Friday. Corbin says Meyer (4-5, 3.32 ERA) possesses “big league” velocity with a fastball that zips in the 93 to 98 miles per hour range. As a team, Vanderbilt has struck out just 222 times — the fewest in the SEC.
“He is a tough one to figure out because he throws the ball extremely hard,” Corbin said. “He is effectively wild. ... Sometimes hitters have a hard time just locking in against because he is in different areas of the strike zone. It is going to be a good challenge because he has a hard, hard slider too. You look at power pitchers that we have faced thus far, I would say outside of [Mark] Appel for Stanford, this guy probably presents the biggest challenge thus far.”
Vanderbilt is scheduled to play at Louisville on Tuesday but Corbin said the team will head back to Nashville from Lexington on Sunday instead of staying in the Bluegrass State for a couple days.
Corbin also said there is progress in setting up a possible midweek game against Murray State, out of the Ohio Valley Conference. The game, which would be played at Vanderbilt at Hawkins Field, would most likely take place on May 17 but Corbin said nothing is official yet. The contest would replace a midweek game against Western Kentucky, which was scheduled for last week but was washed out due to rain.