Timing perfect for Vandy to be in midst of hot streak
Posted: Thursday, June 16, 2011 2:52 pm
By: By TERESA M. WALKER, AP Sports Writer
NASHVILLE (AP) — Vanderbilt prides itself on being able to move runners and play small ball. Singles and doubles matter greatly, and anyone from the top of the order to the bottom is liable to be the next big hitter.
Their timing couldn’t be much better.
The Commodores head to their first College World Series with very hot bats. They have outscored opponents in the NCAA Tournament 46-6. Contributions come from throughout the lineup with six players hitting .316 or better in this postseason.
“Our offense one through nine when it all works together, it’s fun to watch,” senior catcher Curt Casali said. “I think as you guys can see we’ve got some talented hitters. We have a good solid mix of lefties and righties, and we couldn’t have picked a better time to get the bats going right now leading into Omaha.”
Sixth-seeded Vanderbilt (52-10) opens the CWS against third-seeded North Carolina (50-14) on Saturday.
The Tar Heels are in their fifth CWS in six years thanks to strong pitching and defense. The Tar Heels have posted a 2.00 ERA in the NCAA Tournament while outscoring opponents 39-10 themselves.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin expects the Tar Heels to start senior righty Patrick Johnson, who is 13-1 with a 2.27 ERA and 120 strikeouts. The senior has won six straight in a stretch where his ERA is a mere 0.60 over the past 45 innings.
North Carolina coach Mike Fox is counting on his team’s experience as being an advantage.
“It’s trip No. 5 for our program. It’s trip No. 1 for this group. We’ve got to keep that first and foremost in mind,” Fox said.
Johnson will go against an offense that has batted .319 for the season, ranked fifth in Division I. Even Tony Kemp, the Southeastern Conference freshman of the year, has driven in five runs in this tournament.
First baseman Aaron Westlake led the Comm-odores’ Omaha-clinching berth with three home runs, while it was Mike Yastrzemski coming up with a key home run vs. Oregon State.
Vanderbilt understands good pitching too. The Commodores rank third in Division I with a 2.38 ERA, and junior right-hander Sonny Gray will pitch against North Carolina.
Corbin compares Johnson to Florida righty Hudson Randall or Georgia’s right-hander Michael Palazzone, which the coach thinks will provide some familiarity for his Commodores.
“The confidence that he has may be really, really good,” Corbin said of Johnson. “He’s going into the situation having been there himself before and having pitched there before, not last year but as a younger kid, so he’ll be a tough one to contend with.”
That’s where the lineup Corbin has built comes into play. Vanderbilt couldn’t be much more balanced with five left-handed and four right-handed batters.
“I like the matchup,” Corbin said Wednesday. “He’s going to have to pitch away from our hitters, but our hitters are very skilled at hitting the ball the other way. They’ve been taught well.”
Third baseman Jason Esposito thinks the key for Vanderbilt’s success has been how somebody else steps up every day.
“If one player struggles, somebody will pick us up like Westy. It’s awesome,” Esposito said.
“Some of the guys weren’t hitting early on, Westy just kept it going throughout the game and was our spark plug just like Tony Kemp. It’s great to have those players step up, and Westy may not have the best day Saturday maybe. Somebody else will. That’s the way we play. We pick each other up.”