May 29, 2012
Watching a team dog pile on the mound is tough enough the first time.
Seeing Mississippi State do it twice is just wrong.
That's what the Commodores endured as the team joined fans at an NCAA Selection Show viewing party Monday morning at the Commodore Grille.
It just so happened that the SEC Tournament Championship was the program leading up to the unveiling of the brackets on ESPN2. The game replay was greeted with little emotion as the team anxiously awaited their postseason fate.
The smiles and cheers came shortly after when Vanderbilt's name appeared on the board in the Raleigh Regional. And with that the Commodores turned their focus to an even bigger prize-- the Road to Omaha.
Head Coach Tim Corbin made sure his message to the team and media was clear and precise. To him, the next game is most important, not what lies ahead.
"It's a UNC-Wilmington Regional. It boils down to that," said Corbin, who holds a 5-2 record in opening games of regionals. "We didn't get here by looking ahead, so we're certainly not going to do that in this tournament."
How did the Commodores get to the postseason after their 7-15 start? As Corbin pointed out, Vanderbilt went 14-4 down the stretch (with 11 of those wins away from Hawkins Field) against the meat of its schedule. Solid defense, stellar pitching, aggressive base running and opportunistic hitting paved the way to North Carolina.
Vanderbilt also is battle-tested and knows how to handle pressure. The Commodores faced four of the top eight national seeds in the regular season, so what comes next won't be a surprise. "We feel like we've played in a double-elimination tournament since April," remarked Corbin.
Junior outfielder Connor Harrell believes the regional format suits their style of play. It's hard to argue with him after the Commodores went 4-1 in Hoover and swept their regional last year at home.
And if Vanderbilt needs more motivation, they can remember that feeling in the dugout Sunday (or the unfortunate reminder that followed them the next day).
"Losing (the SEC Championship) might have helped us and served as a humbling point," junior shortstop Anthony Gomez said. "We kind of got high on our horse for awhile on a nine-game win streak. I think the guys are ready to play again."
Vanderbilt's rotation for the regional hasn't been announced, but odds are the Commodores stick with their late-season starting combo of T.J. Pecoraro and Sam Selman in the first two games with Kevin Ziomek, Tyler Beede and Drew VerHagen waiting in the wings.
"I think we pretty much stay on point," Corbin said. "We have a pitching staff we can utilize and I like the ability to line them up and they're all about the same. They all pitched well at certain points of the year. We certainly like our bullpen, too. I like our staff and think they can do a good job in this tournament."
Senior righty Tyler McSwain (9-3, 2.59 ERA) is expected to take the mound for UNC-Wilmington Friday against Vanderbilt (1 p.m. CT). McSwain, who was one of three Seahawks on the Colonial Athletic Association's first team, leads UNCW's staff with nine wins this season and holds the school's career record with 17 CAA victories.
The winner of the Commodores-Seahawks matchup will meet either top seed and host NC State Saturday or No. 4-seed Sacred Heart. No official word yet on if the Wolfpack will hold freshman phenom Carlos Rondon until game two, a strategy sometimes used by No. 1 seeds in regional play. Rodon (9-0, 1.46 ERA) is the first freshman in ACC history to be named Pitcher of the Year in the conference.
Family Ties (Sha-la-la-la)
It will be an interesting reunion for the Holliday family in Raleigh this weekend.
Tom Holliday, the father of Vanderbilt assistant coach Josh Holliday, is NC State's associate head coach under Elliott Avent.
Tom, who has over 35 years of experience at the collegiate level, coached Josh at Oklahoma State from 1996-99, one year as an assistant and the final three as head coach. Josh capped his playing career by leading the Cowboys to the 1999 College World Series.
After a brief stint in the minor leagues, Josh was hired by his father as a student assistant at Oklahoma State in 2000, and promoted to assistant coach the next year. The duo stayed together until 2003 before going separate ways.
Josh spent the 2004 season under Avent at NC State, the same year Tom was the pitching coach at Texas (oddly enough, the Longhorns defeated Corbin's Commodores in the Austin Super Regional that year).
Tom joined the Wolfpack in 2006, while Josh went to Georgia Tech and Arizona State before settling in Nashville in 2010.
Stealing Your Attention
There was still a buzz surrounding Vanderbilt's triple steal in the SEC Tournament semifinals at the Commodore Grille gathering Monday near campus.
Anthony Gomez, who swiped home on the play, told reporters he didn't know how big the moment was until after the game. "Twitter, text messages, the whole works. I didn't realize it was going to catch fire like that," he said.
The clip made it on SportCenter's Top 10 Plays Saturday night and has over 147,000 views on the SEC Digital Network's YouTube channel in less than three days. Commodore fans can also watch the highlight with Joe Fisher's exciting radio call.
And props to Gomez for sporting the Fu Manchu beard at the selection show. His look was reminiscent of arm-wrestling villain Bull Hurley in "Over the Top."
Sending Out an SOS
Corbin has always had a vested interest in collegiate baseball and serves as a regular voice nationally on issues concerning the sport.
Corbin was asked to give his thoughts on this year's NCAA bracket, which included eight squads from the Southeastern Conference with bubble teams Georgia and Auburn just missing the field.
"I like the way (the selection committee) handled the SEC," noted Corbin. "Selfishly, I'd love to see more SEC teams in there because when you're coaching against your counterparts in this conference, you want to see them rewarded.
"I think everyone got treated pretty fairly. I would have liked to see Kentucky get a home regional; I thought they were deserving of such. And Mississippi State, playing them-- enjoy that one. Good luck, especially if you have to face (Chris) Stratton."
Some national pundits criticized the committee for being lazy with certain seeds and too focused on RPI as criteria for at-large bids. Corbin, who has guided the Commodores to the tournament eight times in 10 seasons, knows scheduling plays a big role when it comes to getting respect on Selection Monday.
"That's why we scheduled hard this year and we will continue to schedule hard," said Corbin, whose squad faced the second toughest strength of schedule in the country according to Warren Nolan's RPI. "I do think that schedule got us to where we are right now and it hardened us a little bit. I do know this: you have to win in your conference, and we won in our conference and I think that had a lot to do with where we are right now."
Google Maps is the Best
So, how far is it from Hawkins Field (Nashville, Tenn.) to Doak Field (Raleigh, N.C.)? It's not as close as you might think, but definitely more convenient than being sent to Eugene, Ore.
Google Maps has the length of the trip at 537 miles, which estimates to eight hours and 54 minutes on the road (or how I like to calculate it--eight and a half replays of Huey Lewis and the News' remastered and extended classic "Sports").
The recommended route keeps travelers on Interstate 40 the entire time and offers plenty of scenery, especially through the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina.
If you're not in the driving mood, you can hop on a direct flight from Nashville to Raleigh with ease.
Either way, the Commodores would like to see you this weekend.
"It's going to be nice for our fans and it will be good if we can get a good Vandy contingency out there," Connor Harrell said.
Cloudy with a Chance of Baseball
As famous NBC Today Show weather forecaster Willard Scott would say, "Here's what's happening in your world, even as we speak."
Our world this week is Raleigh. Look for much cooler weather in The Triangle for the first day of the regional (compared to the recent heat wave in Nashville and Hoover). Weather.com projects Friday's high to be 79 with a 40 percent chance of scattered showers.
Leave it to Beaver
There were no signs of Chance the Rally Beaver Monday. "The Beav" got plenty of face time on television all week in Hoover, though.
We're still waiting to see if the furry critter will make the travel roster for the NCAA Tournament.
If Vanderbilt's good-luck charm gets the call, perhaps we alter his name to the "Raleigh Beaver?"