Coming into the 2021 season, Vanderbilt was a preseason top 5 pick and by most publications a lock to go to Omaha for the eight team College World Series, in which Vanderbilt was the victor the last time it was played. Nationally, most writers and fans knew the name of Kumar Rocker. As the #1 overall projected pick in the MLB draft later this summer, he was the primary preseason focus. Add to that the probability that Jack Leiter would likely be a top 5 pick as well, it was greatly assumed that Vanderbilt would have a decent shot to be a major player nationally.
As we enter the second week of April, the black and gold clad young men from West End are currently ranked #1 in virtually all publications for college baseball. Entering the Georgia series, they were on a 9 game win streak, with their last loss coming in game 3 of the opening series of SEC play against nationally ranked South Carolina. The #VandyBoys had reeled off six consecutive wins in SEC play, including a series sweep in Baton Rouge against LSU, something no team had done since 2006.
Leading the way for the Tim Corbin coached Commodores is their pitching staff. Despite losing Mikey Doolin to surgery, the boys from Nashville have a deep and talented staff. Headlining have been Rocker and Leiter, as expected. Entering the series with Georgia, neither had lost a game yet and neither had a no-decision. With 42 innings pitched, Jack Leiter was listed as 2nd in the NCAA in ERA at .43. Those above him had pitched far fewer innings, however. Rocker and Leiter were #1 and #2 in strikeouts with 48 and 42 respectively. Rocker was also carrying a 1.88 ERA, which left him sitting at #52 nationally, again with guys ahead of him that had thrown far fewer innings. As far as relievers go, Luke Murphy led the SEC with 6 saves and has an ERA of .79. Nick Maldonado, Ethan Smith, and Sam Hliboki each have 2 saves apiece. As a staff, the team had only given up 24 home runs total. Midweek starter Christian Little, who early enrolled rather than play his senior season of high school ball, continues to develop well, although there are no current plans to move him into the weekend rotation. So far, the headline of the season has been Jack Leiter, who already has a no hitter in which he was a walk to the lead off batter away from a perfect game. He continued a no hit streak for 20.2 innings spanning 4 games.
Offensively, the young squad has six regulars that are hitting above a .300 clip. Led by Dom Keegan with his .413 average, freshman Enrique Bradfield is batting .358, Isaiah Thomas is at .356, Jayson Gonzalez is at .337, Carter Young comes in at .322, and Parker Noland rounds out that group at .305. Bradfield leads the nation in stolen bases with 22. He has only been caught stealing one time so far this season. Dom Keegan leads the team with a .510 on base percentage while the team as a whole cruises along with a .421 OBP while opponents are only at a .273 clip. With the long ball, Carter Young has 7 of the teams 40 while Keegan and Thomas both have 6 each. One area the team does struggle is not bringing base runners around to score once they get on. They already have 249 left on base. The team has 28 errors while opponents have committed 32.
There have been some injuries to the line up and at least one player has had to quarantine due to contact tracing related to COVID. Currently there are 3 “starters” injured with Thomas, Tate Kolwyck, and Cooper Davis out with injuries. Kolwyck appears to be the most severe at this time after breaking a bone in his hand that has required surgery. On that front, Tate was able to take a little bit of infield practice on Tuesday prior to the UT-Martin game.
Looking forward, the road does appear to become more of a challenge. After Georgia, the black and gold face the #6 ranked Tennessee Volunteers, followed by a top 10 match up with Mississippi State, a road trip to #12 Florida, a midweek game at Louisville, then back home for Alabama, a road trip to Oxford to face a top ten Ole Miss, then back home to close the season with Kentucky. As for the post season, the NCAA has announced that they will be using predetermined host sites rather than the top 16 seeds hosting the games. While some fans are concerned that Hawkins Field will not be chosen, it has been said that unquestionably the school will submit a bid to host. Of pressing concern is fan attendance. Many are hoping Vanderbilt will loosen the restrictions. Currently, numerous fans have enjoyed watching games from the parking garage from beyond the right field bleachers.
This does have the look of a team that definitely belongs in the top 5 of the polls. Based on the way Rocker and Leiter have carried this squad, it does seem hard to see the Commodores losing 2 out of 3 games in any series, though anything can happen. Once the injured players start returning, the line up should improve at that plate as well as defensively. One can definitely think that this might be a contender for bringing home its 3rd championship since 2014. At the very least, they will be a high seed and looked at as a serious contender despite being the youngest team in the SEC by far.