The home runs are few. The runs are plenty.
Substituting speed for power, No. 2 Vanderbilt is proving to be just as productive offensively as the 2011 team that reached the College World Series.
Through 34 games, the Commodores average 6.9 runs, which matches the 2011 average (66 games). That team combined for 50 home runs behind the big bats of Aaron Westlake, Jason Esposito and Curt Casali. This year’s squad has sent just 15 out of the park and just two have cleared the fence in the last 15 games.
“We have created some free 90s,” senior right-fielder Mike Yastrzemski said. “Getting extra bases whether it’s on an error or whether it is going first to third, stolen bases, balls in the dirt, all that stuff has proven to be really effective for us. Being able to use or legs is definitely going to help us down the road.”
Breaking in their new turf field at Hawkins Field, the Commodores are already feasting on their base running.
Vanderbilt leads the Southeastern Conference and is tied for 10th nationally with 80 stolen bases — the same number the 2011 team stole all season.
Leadoff hitter Tony Kemp has set the tone with an SEC-best 16 steals and Yastrzemski is close behind with 13.
Last year, the Commodores swiped 92 bases and never have stolen more than 95 under 11th-year coach Tim Corbin. Vanderbilt last eclipsed 100 in 1994, when it had 104. The single-season school record for stolen bases is 182 set in 1989.
This year’s squad has only been caught stealing 19 times. Quite the accomplishment, especially considering the players are still getting used to sliding on turf.
Kemp was the “guinea pig” in the first game back in February. He started his slide too late and slipped by right over the bag and into an out. The junior second baseman and his teammates are still adjusting on the fly.
“The turf is still the big mystery, man,” said Kemp, who has been thrown out nine times. “If it rains you have to start your slides about 20 feet [away] and you’ll eventually get to the bag. We found out if you slide on your back you have to claw your hands down in the turf and then you slow your momentum down a bit. That also helps but as you can see I still haven’t really figured it out because I still slide past bags. Sometimes I start too early and don’t even get to the bag.
“It is fun out there but we’re figuring it out.”
The slick running has Vanderbilt (30-4, 11-1) off to its best SEC start ever. The Commodores ride an 11-game winning streak into this weekend’s home series against Missouri (12-17, 4-8). The teams have never met.
Along with stealing bases, the Commodores have galloped their way to numerous extra-base hits. They are tied for first in the SEC with 12 triples and in third with 63 doubles. Also sticking to Corbin’s small ball mentality, they’ve taken advantage of 34 sacrifice bunts and 27 sacrifice flies — the most in the league.
“We’ve preached to the kids many times of using our legs and getting those extra 90s,” Corbin said. “We’re different [than 2011]. We’re not that home-run hitting team yet. I say yet because I don’t think we’ve played in the conditions to hit home runs. We’ve had a lot of balls that have been hit hard and heavy nights with rain. You hit a ball deep and you hit it in rain, rain is going to push it down a little bit. I do think we’re capable. I just think we haven’t been there yet. But I like the balance of our offense.”
As the temperatures warm up and the ball begins to fly off the bat, Corbin expects the Commodores to tap into all their weapons.
Senior center fielder Connor Harrell contributed to that power in 2011 with nine home runs. He led the team with seven last year and again is tops with five this season but hasn’t hit one since March 15. Also capable of lifting the ball out of the yard is shortstop Vince Conde (four home runs) and 220-pound first baseman Conrad Gregor, who has just one this spring.
Even without the potent pop, though, the Commodores seem content with how they’ve generated runs to this point.
“I would think it is just as effective,” Yastrzemski said. “We’ve scored a lot of runs and put a lot of hard balls in play. We’ve played on a lot of days when the ball isn’t carrying. We’ve hit a lot of deep balls and just haven’t been in the right conditions. I wouldn’t say that we don’t have the possibility to hit as many as home runs but we just haven’t yet. We have an extra ability to run the bases even better than we ever have.”