Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 2, 2023

Vanderbilt heats up at right moment, ready for next ‘step’

Vanderbilt players watch the NCAA regional pairings being announced Monday. The Commodores, fresh off their SEC Tournament championship, were awarded the No. 6 national seed and will host Oregon, Xavier and Eastern Illinois this weekend. - Photo by Tom Wood | The Ledger

Vanderbilt’s journey on the road back to the College World Series begins at home this weekend, while Lipscomb and Tennessee are both bound for the Clemson Regional.

The SEC Tournament champion Commodores (41-18) will host OVC Tournament champ Eastern Illinois Friday at 7 p.m., at Hawkins Field. In the double-elimination regional’s other opening game, Oregon (37-20) will face Xavier at noon.

If Vandy wins this weekend, the Commodores would also host the winner of the Oklahoma State regional June 9-12 Super Regional and that winner advances to the June 15-26 CWS in Omaha, Nebraska.

Vandy is a two-time CWS champion having won the crown in 2014 and again in 2019. They were runner-up in 2015 and 2021.

Could this year’s Vanderbilt team make a championship run?

“Yeah, because they don’t think about making the run,” Coach Tim Corbin says. “They think about making the step. I think that’s the difference.

“When you’re very localized on what you’re doing and you can get young kids to believe that’s the method behind doing something well, then you can move forward. It’s just not putting your mind so far in front of you. It’s really staying very centered on what you’re doing right now.”

Vandy is making its SEC-best 17th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. The Commodores are hosting a regional for the ninth time and for the seventh time in the last 10 seasons.

The red-hot Commodores enter this week’s regional tournament having won six of their last seven games. The SEC title earned Vandy a No. 6 national seed. The Commodores are one of eight teams hosting regionals this weekend, the most of any conference.

For Vandy, this has been a season of redemption after last season’s late struggles. The 2022 Commodores were swept at home by LSU in the regular-season final series, and then made an early exit from the SEC Tournament. Vandy was sent to the Corvallis, Oregon, regional and was eliminated by host Oregon State.

Senior right-handed pitcher Nick Maldonado (1-1, 1.45 ERA) and catcher Alan Espinal (. 265, 5 HR) agree that playing at home is much better than traveling across the country for a regional.

“It’s always exciting to be here, especially with the fans who come (to the watch party),” Maldonado says. “We’re just worried about one game, and it’s Eastern Illinois. So we’ll prepare that this week and look forward to it.”

Adds Espinal: “It’s always great when you can play at home in front of your people. Obviously, we’re pretty excited,”

The Commodores are led at the plate by Maldonado’s freshman brother Chris, who is batting .319 with 6 homers and 30 RBI mostly as designated hitter while graduate right fielder RJ Shreck is hitting .309 with 13 homers and 57 RBI, and junior center fielder Enrique Bradfield Jr., expected to be a top 10 pick in the MLB draft, is hitting .286 with 6 homers and 33 RBI.

On the mound, Vandy is led by junior left-hander Hunter Owen (4-0, 3.15 ERA) and sophomore left-hander David Futrell (7-3, 3.55 ERA). Owen has been injured but is expected to be available this weekend.

The Commodores opened the SEC portion of the 2023 schedule by winning their first nine league games, the longest in school history and only the third SEC team since 1994 to sweep its first three conference series in a season.

After that hot start, they cooled off and struggled mightily at times – getting swept by Tennessee and Florida – but the Commodores fought their way through the tough stretch and caught fire again when it counted, beating Texas A&M 10-4 in the SEC Tournament final.

“I know you throw out there, team effort, but it really speaks to everyone who was a participant inside this tournament, whether it was statistically or whether it was spiritually inside the bunker,” Corbin said after his players celebrated the tourney win in dominating style.

“I’m just happy for them that they pulled it together. We played very good baseball. We played tough baseball and played when it mattered. Just glad we could get here, start here Monday, end here today and see it through and enjoy what is America’s best conference tournament.”

Lipscomb (36-24), which earned its third-ever berth after winning the Atlantic Sun Tournament Sunday, will play regional host Clemson (43-17) at noon Friday, followed by Tennessee (38-19) against Charlotte (34-26) at 5 p.m.