As SEC Play Begins, Vanderbilt Keeps Finding Ways To Win
For five innings Friday night at Texas A&M, No. 1 Vanderbilt had gotten runners on and been in position to open the game up offensively. But the Commodores had largely been stymied by lefthander John Doxakis, stranded seven baserunners and only had a 2-1 lead to show for it.
In the sixth inning, with Doxakis out of the game, Vanderbilt again was in business with runners on second and third and one out for leadoff hitter Cooper Davis. Coach Tim Corbin knew the Commodores couldn’t afford to strand more runners and with tough lefthanded reliever Joseph Menefee coming in to face Davis, a lefthanded hitter, he decided to force the issue and put on a squeeze play with a 1-2 count.
Davis pushed the bunt up the third base line and Julian Infante raced home from third base. The throw went to first base in a vain attempt to catch the speedy Davis, and Harrison Ray, who started the play on second base, kept running all the way. He dove into home, avoiding the tag to make it a two-run squeeze.
Davis said he turned around once he got to first just in time to see Ray dive into home.
“He made a ridiculous slide,” Davis said. “I knew they were going to review it, and I knew he was going to be safe because it was a cool slide.”
Davis’ squeeze not only gave Vanderbilt (15-3) control of the game Friday, it also served as a reminder that it can win a game in any number of ways. The Commodores have the power to outslug their opponents and the depth on the mound to match up with anyone. They can string hits together or use their athleticism to make a play. If necessary, they can manufacture a run. Or, in true Vanderbilt fashion, two runs at a time.
“It was a risk,” Corbin said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. in that I didn’t think we had anything to lose. I thought we needed to do something in that situation to score a run.”
Vanderbilt won on Friday despite making two errors, running into several outs on the bases and righthander Drake Fellows walking six batters in 5.2 innings. It was not the cleanest game the Commodores have played this season. But they still took care of business on the road on a Friday night in the SEC.
“The Friday night win is certainly important,” Corbin said. “It’s not everything, but we only have four kids who have been here before. So just to be able to come here and play and be on the top side of things was good. That was difficult in a lot of different ways.”
Davis’ emergence as a leadoff hitter has been a key development for Vanderbilt this spring. The sophomore went 2-for-5 with a double on Friday and is now hitting .388/.488/.507. His .995 OPS ranks fourth on the team.
Davis, a native of Canada, played in just nine games as a freshman before he was sidelined by a broken wrist. Now that he’s healthy again, he’s serving as a catalyst at the top of the lineup for the Commodores.
“I think his ability to certainly bunt, but because of the bunt to soften the defense,” Corbin said. “He can hit both sides of the field. He’s got strength. You don’t see it, but if you’re around him enough, you know he can drive the ball.”
Vanderbilt on Friday night welcomed back infielder Austin Martin, who missed the last four games, which Corbin said was due to Martin being late to class. In his return, the sophomore went 1-for-4 with a run and a stolen base. He is hitting .466/.569/.655 with a team-high four stolen bases this season.
Martin has mostly played second base this season, but on Friday moved to third base. He’s likely to stay there for the time being, but he’s capable of playing nearly anywhere on the diamond.
“He’s a good player and he’s a good kid,” Corbin said. “He plays very, very aggressively and he plays with confidence. That’s the first game he’s played over at third base and I thought he did a nice job. I love the kid. I love everything about him as long as he’s on time for class.”
With Davis and Martin hitting 1-2 in the Commodores lineup, there have been plenty of opportunities for Preseason All-American outfielder JJ Bleday to drive in runs. He’s done a good job of that this spring, though he had a tough Friday, going 1-for-5 with three strikeouts. Still, he’s hitting .384/.456/.699 with six home runs.
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So, while the Commodores’ lineup hums right along, averaging 8.83 runs per game, their pitching staff is in some ways still figuring things out. Fellows hasn’t been sharp a couple of times this season, but he has found a way to help Vanderbilt win. He’s 4-0, 4.88 with 40 strikeouts and 16 walks in 27.2 innings. Senior righthander Patrick Raby (3-0, 0.87) has been steady behind him in the rotation and will look to clinch a series win Saturday.
The bullpen presents Corbin and pitching coach Scott Brown with plenty of options and has done a good job so far. Righthander Tyler Brown shut down a potential A&M rally Friday night and finished the game with 2.2 scoreless innings to earn his third save of the year. His 21-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 innings has made him especially valuable for the Commodores.
Vanderbilt still feels like it has another gear it can get to and it would be unlike a Corbin-coached team to be a finished product at the start of conference play. The Commodores’ depth means he can continue to mix and match well into the season.
As that happens, the Commodores’ internal competition will only serve to help them get better.
“We need to improve on everything,” Davis said. “We all push each other in batting practice and in training. We all push each other to get better. In that environment we’re getting better in all angles of the game.”
If the Commodores can find that next gear, it will be bad news for the rest of the SEC. But on opening night of conference play, Vanderbilt showed that, as it is, it has plenty of ways to win a game.