Vanderbilt Finishes Season Where It Began—No. 1

Image credit: Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

OMAHA — Vanderbilt wore its gold uniforms Wednesday for Game 3 of the College World Series finals. It wasn’t a coronation, not with a strong Michigan team on a magical postseason run in the opposite dugout, but the Commodores were dressed for success.

Vanderbilt had started the season No. 1, and that’s where it was going to finish. The Commodores played like the best team in the country throughout the second half of the season, and while they had been pushed during the NCAA Tournament, losing the first game of super regionals to Duke and the first game of the College World Series finals to Michigan, they never buckled.

Vanderbilt had the nation’s home run king in JJ Bleday. It had a catalyst at the top of the lineup in Austin Martin, a freshman ace in Kumar Rocker, a premium closer in Tyler Brown and a committed, experienced senior class that has stuck together through a trying four years. It led the nation in wins, won the SEC regular season and SEC Tournament championships and beaten every other SEC team.

Vanderbilt had come this far, and it wasn’t going to be denied in Omaha. It was too deep, too talented, too well built for this stage. Vanderbilt, which had been an unstoppable battleship for the last three months, cruised to an 8-2 victory against Michigan to claim the national championship.

“I’m just happy for our team,” coach Tim Corbin said. “I’m happy for the boys. It’s fun to watch this thing come full circle for them.”

Vanderbilt won everything it possibly could have this season, but Corbin said the team hadn’t talked much about championships. That approach led to a trophy case full of them, including the Commodores’ second national championship in program history and first since 2014. They finished 59-12, setting an SEC record for wins and won more games than any national champion since 1989 Wichita State won 68 games.

Sophomore center fielder Pat DeMarco, who got Vanderbilt on the scoreboard Wednesday night with a second inning home run and then caught the game’s final out, said he was still trying to process the accomplishment. 

“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet for any of us yet, this whole experience,” DeMarco said. “I was just trying to stay in the moment, and hopefully it’ll sink in in a couple years.”

Vanderbilt came into the season ranked No. 1, but it has evolved a lot as a team over the last five months. Its pitching staff, in particular, made big strides. Through many parts of the season, its offense led the way.

Bleday’s power surge made him an All-American and the No. 4 overall pick in the draft earlier this month. Martin has established himself as a premium prospect in the 2020 draft. Seniors Ethan Paul and Stephen Scott anchored the lineup, and the Commodores averaged more than eight runs per game.

But in Omaha, the Commodores’ bats weren’t as strong and they hit just .221 as a team, the lowest batting average for a national champion since 1972 Southern California—two years before college baseball switched to metal bats.

As a result, the Commodores leaned more heavily on their pitching staff, which was up to the challenge. In six games at the College World Series, they allowed just 16 runs, nearly half of which came in a loss to Michigan in Game 1 of the finals. Rocker twice delivered outstanding starts to finish off a spectacular freshman season that lived up to the considerable hype that preceded him. He became the first freshman since Jorge Reyes from Oregon State in 2007 to be named Most Outstanding Player.

With Vanderbilt needing a win Tuesday in Game 2 to extend the series, Rocker struck out 11 batters in 6.1 innings and held Michigan to one run. It was the second time he starred for Vanderbilt with its season on the line—in super regionals he struck out 19 batters in a no-hitter against Duke, a historic performance.

“Handing him the ball, I didn’t feel at any time that that was above him,” Corbin said. “That’s what he wanted. That’s something that he could do. He pitches for Vanderbilt. He loves to pitch for his team, and it’s pure, and it’s raw, and it’s not manufactured.”

But Vanderbilt’s pitching went far beyond Rocker, the early favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft. Sophomore righthander Mason Hickman delivered two quality starts in Omaha, including winning the national championship clincher when he struck out 10 batters and held Michigan to one run in six innings. Lefthander Jake Eder closed out the clincher, the second time he delivered a strong relief performance in the College World Series. Brown was lights out at the end of games, throwing 7.2 scoreless innings in Omaha. Righthander Drake Fellows opened Vanderbilt’s College World Series with an excellent start against Louisville.

Pitching coach Scott Brown said this Commodores’ staff has been steadily improving all season and was then ready when called upon at the College World Series.

“Our offense has been outstanding, and our offense has afforded us throughout the year to get guys into roles they could grow into without the pressure of this is a huge, huge pitch,” Brown said. “We’ve stayed steady and done our thing.”

Vanderbilt’s experience helped it develop that approach. The Commodores last season nearly reached the College World Series, falling just short in a back-and-forth super regional against Mississippi State. Nearly that entire team returned this season, including five seniors, a luxury Vanderbilt doesn’t usually have.

But that group, including Paul, Scott, first baseman Julian Infante, righthander Patrick Raby and outfielder Walker Grisanti, stuck together and were rewarded with a championship.

Paul said while the national title made his decision to return easier in retrospect, it wasn’t their sole aim when they chose to return for his senior year.

“Our No. 1 reason to come back to school wasn’t to have this outlandish season or anything like that,” he said. “I think that we all wanted to just be a part of something special.

“It’s great to win a national championship, it’s great to do all those things, but the program means so much more to us than just winning.”

Paul and the rest of Vanderbilt’s four-year players have been through a lot during their college careers. When the class of 2015 came to Nashville, Vanderbilt was coming off back-to-back College World Series finals appearances against Virginia, winning in 2014 and losing in 2015. They were the top-ranked recruiting class in the country, loaded with premium talent. At the heart of it all, was Donny Everett, a powerful righthander from Tennessee who was a first-round talent but chose to instead play for Vanderbilt.

The Commodores were getting ready for regionals the next spring when Everett tragically drowned while he and some teammates were fishing. Everett’s memory has been kept alive in the program in the years since. His parents, Teddy and Susan, are often around the team and were on the field at TD Ameritrade Park for the celebration, even joining the team on stage for the trophy presentation. Several Commodores gave them hugs.

“Those two mean so much to this program and all the players and the seniors,” Paul said. “To this day, every time I look at Teddy, I think of Donny. Just being able to share that moment with them was something that I think—I can speak for the seniors, but probably the whole team—is something that we’ve all really wanted to do.”

In so many ways, it was an emotional night for the Commodores. It was cathartic, it was the fulfillment of promise, it was pure joy.

And at the end of it, Vanderbilt was back on top, steady and unflinching as a champion.

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