Vanderbilt's Westlake finally settles into a single position

Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 7:43pm

When it comes to baseball positions, Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin isn’t keen on handing over real estate.

He prefers to rent.

Corbin, in his ninth year at the helm, maintains the philosophy that his players are playing with borrowed time at their positions. For example, prior to the first preseason practice a month ago, Corbin said second base was junior Riley Reynolds’ position — one he lost to Anthony Gomez last spring — for the taking.

“It stays that way as long as they play well,” Corbin said then. “If they don’t play well, someone else can play there.”

On Monday in a projected lineup for the Commodores’ season opener Friday at San Diego, Reynolds was nowhere to be found. Instead, Bryan Johns was list at second, with Gomez at shortstop and Jason Esposito at third.

More proof that things are fluid came Wednesday when Corbin was entertaining the idea of playing Esposito at shortstop, Gomez at second and Johns at third for the four-game trip, which runs through Sunday and includes a game against San Diego State, which is coached by Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.

“I think that is one of those things we’ll test and see how it works out and not tie ourselves into anything right now,” Corbin said.

First base, however, at least for this season, seems to be the exception to the rule. When Vanderbilt takes the field at 4 p.m. Friday, redshirt junior Aaron Westlake will be stationed there. That might not change the rest of the season.

“He has solidified first base,” Corbin said. “I have a lot of trust in him. A first baseman touches the ball more than any other infielder and I'd just as soon have it in is hands.”

That is where the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Westlake was hoping to be when he decided to return for his fourth year instead of jumping into professional baseball.

He was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 22nd round of last year’s MLB draft and was tempted to leave early. Ultimately, he decided another year of collegiate baseball couldn’t hurt.

“One more year here in the SEC is much better than a year in minor league ball,” Westlake, who added he wanted to complete his degree in financial management and organization, said. “You are facing just as good as competition as you might in Double-A and Triple-A. A lot of guys come from the SEC to the pros so one more year of that, you can’t pass that up.”

Westlake also returned to find some defensive stability. The last three years, he bounced around from first base to designated hitter to the outfield to catcher. With the benefit another offseason of practice, he believes he has found his niche at first.

“I feel very comfortable over there,” the Redding, Calif., native said. “I put a lot of hard effort in with [Corbin] and mainly just [built] confidence. Once you get your confidence there, then everything goes more smoothly. You are not thinking about everything; you just react. Basically the main thing was reps.

"I have switched around positions, never really found a true position here yet, but got comfortable at first.”

He always has been at ease at the plate. In his first two full seasons — he missed the last two months of the 2008 season due to an injury — he hit better than .370 with 24 home runs and 118 RBIs.

Westlake, who bats left but throws right, said he has worked with hitting coach Josh Holliday on mental approach, hitting certain pitches and using both sides of the field.

He admits he has had more success pulling the ball to right field but has tried to take pitches to the opposite field.

“I had a lot more in the tank and I just wasn’t utilizing my strength as much,” he said. “I worked on that a lot and I am feeling more and more confident each day not having to feel like I have to start my swing early. I can just react to the ball.”

Corbin figures to bat him third or fourth in the lineup. In the field, though, Westlake will definitely be at first base.

Still, Westlake is playing with the mentality that Corbin has instilled in all of his players.

“Coach says everyone on the team, no matter how good you are, we are renting it,” he said. “That is a good mentality to have because it makes you work hard every day. If someone tells you it is your position, then you might not work as hard.”