As I sit here on Sunday morning awaiting the Vanderbilt vs Georgia State doubleheader, hoping that rain doesn’t wash it out, I wanted to take a moment to review the first 5 games of the season. Anticipating a Rocker/Leiter back to back set, I needed to find out who the offensive leaders on this team are, what the power numbers look like, and a look at the pitching that is suppose to carry this team.
After the first 5 games, our beloved Commodores are sitting at 4-1 with potentially more questions than answers at this point. Beginning the season with a doubleheader sweep of Wright State behind the pitching brilliance of the studs was expected. In that series we did not get to see any 3rd starter due to inclement weather and Mother Nature taking the victory. In the midweek game against Western Kentucky, we saw a talented pitcher that should still be pitching in high school be backed up by 3 other true freshmen and a senior returning from Tommy John surgery. Splitting the first two games with Georgia State was somewhat unexpected and it might shed some light into a potential problem going forward for this team.
On the mound, Vanderbilt has, for the most part, been incredibly good. After the first three games, the VU pitching staff had a combined 0.33 ERA. As of February 26, that staff ERA has now risen to 1.25, which in most cases across the country, is extremely good and is good enough to be among the nations most elite pitching. Undoubtedly, Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter are setting the standard with back to back performances of 8 strikeouts in 4 and 5 innings respectively, and only giving up a combined 3 hits in those 9 innings of work between them. Sam Hliboki has 9 strikeouts in 2 appearances. Reliever Luke Murphy is next on that list, with 6 K thru 3 innings of work, including his first save of the season on Saturday. Between those performances, we have seen 11 other pitchers take the mound for the black and gold, including 5 true freshmen. The one performance that was not encouraging to see was that of Ethan Smith. Expected to be a major contributor in 2021, his 3 hits and 2 ER in just 2 innings of work was not what was hoped for. The bright spot for him is that he does have 4 strikeouts, so there is workable stuff in his arsenal.
At the plate, the VandyBoys have been an enigma. In the 5 games, they have pounded out 12 and 14 runs but yet then been shut down in 2 games with a combined 3 runs in 2 games. So far, it looks like this team will be somewhat of a combination offense with some power and a whole lot of speed and small ball. How it plays out going forward will be interesting to see, depending on the timetable for the return of leadoff hitter Cooper Davis, who was lost to a broken nose on a foul ball off of his bat in game 1. Jack Bulger has been in that spot since then and has struggled with an on-base percentage of .250, which is not optimum for that position in the order. In the on-base percentage department, we have Dom Keegan leading the way at .667 followed by Jayson Gonzalez at .533, Enrique bradfield Jr at .467, and Parker Noland at .412. The interesting part with Noland is that he has been the designated hitter so far and has batted 4th in the line up in all games. With Jayson Gonzalez, it is highly encouraging to see his OBP among the team leaders as his previous seasons seemed to be all feast or famine by hitting home runs or striking out. Currently he has 1 HR, 3 RBI, and 5 strikeouts in with a .417 batting average. Leading the team at the plate is Dom Keegan at a .583 clip followed by Bradfield at .429. On the base paths, this team has 4 stolen bases with Max Romero and Bradfield both with 2. Several times, Commodore batters have beaten out infield hits and laid down perfect bunts on multiple occasions. The team currently has 5 home runs and 33 RBI. The disturbing part is the trend of high numbers of guys left on the base paths. Jsut in the past 2 games, Coach Corbin’s army has left 21 base runners stranded.
Looking at this roster, one could legitimately argue that this is one of the least experienced teams in all of college baseball. Only Kumar Rocker is left from the 2019 CWS team as a player that played a huge role on that team. If the Commodores are going to make a deep post season run to Omaha, they will have to find an identity beyond the Rocker/Leiter eye poppers. While those two may carry the team to a bunch of wins, others will have to step up and take leadership roles. Early in 2021, it looks like Bradfield, Keegan, Gonzalez, and Noland are the leaders to become that person. On the mound, Sam Hliboki and Luke Murphy have certainly risen to the occasion.
To date, the biggest winner in this young season with this team has been Mother Nature. She wreaked havoc on opening weekend which saw the season pushed back by 2 days and eliminated a game already. On the second weekend, 3 of the 4 games have had their start times moved up due to rain in the hopes of getting them in. I would expect that trend to continue through March before the sun starts warming up Nashville. The biggest loser to date has to be the fans. Sadly, only immediate family is allowed to attend games. Watching this team play in a virtually empty Hawkins Stadium leaves us with a hollow feeling. Hopefully in the near future, powers that be will follow the mayors steps and begin to allow fans to attend the games.
On a personal note, if you are enjoying reading my articles on the VandyBoys, lease click the Like button at the bottom as well as the “Follow this blog” link. I hope to continue to write these articles and cover this team as part of the Southern Slams Baseball crew. Until next time, ANCHOR DOWN!!!!!!!