Vanderbilt looks to break from the pack at SEC baseball tournament

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 at 12:17am

Thirty Southeastern Conference games wasn’t enough to produce one regular-season champion.

On Sunday, only one team will hoist a trophy. 

Vanderbilt shared the regular-season title with defending national champion and top-ranked South Carolina and No. 5 Florida after all three teams went 22-8 in league play.

Starting on Wednesday, though, those three will battle it out — along with Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia and Mississippi State — at the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.

“The only way you can get good at winning tournaments is by playing in them and approaching them in a certain way,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “We look at this tournament as a way to maybe separate ourselves from South Carolina and Florida. It is one of those things that is important. It is on our bucket list, so to speak, of opportunities and successes.”

Vanderbilt (44-9), while ranked second in the latest National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll, is the fourth seed and will play fifth-seed Georgia (28-28, 16-14) at approximately 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday (CSS, Channel 27). Though they won a share of the championship, the Commodores are seeded fourth because South Carolina and Florida — seeded first and third, respectively — won series against Vanderbilt and own the tiebreakers. Alabama earned the second seed as the Western Division champion.

Vanderbilt bounced back after last Thursday’s series opening loss to Georgia, with victories on Friday and Saturday to clinch its share of the crown. In Saturday’s contest, the Commodores turned a one-run deficit after seven innings into a 10-run victory. They scored 11 runs in the final two innings for a 17-7 victory.

“It was awesome. It was great,” Vanderbilt outfielder Connor Harrell said. “It was a huge goal for us — winning conference. While we get to share it, we feel like we really accomplished something during the season ... that gives us a whole lot of confidence going into the postseason.”

Vanderbilt leads the SEC in hitting (.319) and ERA (2.55) and committed a league-low 50 errors in 53 games. But players and coaches know those numbers won’t guarantee an SEC tournament title.

It is the Commodores' sixth straight trip to the eight-team, double-elimination conference tournament and 16th appearance overall. Yet, they have captured the title just twice — in 1980 and in 2007.

“Any team has a chance this weekend,” first baseman Aaron Westlake said. “It is a tough conference and in tournament play anything can happen. A couple years ago, I think we were the eighth seed and made it all the way to the championship [before losing to LSU] and I don’t think many people thought that [would happen]. It is just how you respond as a team and anything can happen. You take it one game at a time. You can’t look past any team.”

While winning the tournament is on the team’s to-do list, it won’t be the end of the world if the Commodores come away from Hoover empty-handed. Their main goal of reaching the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the first time in school history still lies ahead.

But winning in Alabama would be a great way to start the postseason.

“We want to go down there and represent ourselves very well and, at the same time, keep people healthy,” Corbin said. “We know that if you win this tournament, it doesn’t mean you are going to win to go to Omaha. ... To go down there and play is a privilege.”

Briefly

• The Commodores will most likely start T.J. Pecoraro (7-0) or Kevin Ziomek (2-0)  — both are freshmen who have made a combined 10 starts this season — Wednesday.

If one of the rookies starts, it will allow ace Sonny Gray (9-3) to pitch on five days rest in the Commodores’ second tournament game on Thursday. The junior from Smyrna pitched last Thursday against Georgia and allowed four earned runs on nine hits in six innings of a 5-4 loss.

Georgia's Michael Palazzone (9-3) started that day and pitched a complete game against Vanderbilt. He allowed four earned runs on eight hits and struck out six.

Palazzone will most likely start on Wednesday for the Bulldogs.

• Vanderbilt ranked 27th in the country in attendance this season. Hawkins Field drew an average of 2,577, with a 31-game total 79,894. That ranks just ninth in the SEC, though. LSU topped the league and the country with a grand total of 400,295 for 38 games or an average attendance 10,534. Ole Miss was the next closest with an average of 8,156.

• Relief pitcher Mark Lamm is the lone Commodore who was around for the program’s last SEC regular-season championship. The senior from Loretto, Tenn., was a redshirt-freshman during the 2007 season when Vanderbilt won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles and was ranked No. 1 in the country for most of the season before falling in a regional.

The right-hander missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery the summer before but is 5-0 with one save and a 2.25 ERA in 22 relief appearances this season.