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VOL. 43 | NO. 6 | Friday, February 8, 2019

VU baseball starting season No. 1, would rather finish there

By Chip Cirillo

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Vanderbilt’s baseball team is officially in downplay mode. That’s what happens when you’re ranked No. 1 nationally in two preseason polls, No. 2 in two others and No. 3 in another.

“I try not to think about that too much,” Commodores coach Tim Corbin says. “I think it’s probably good for our media and marketing department to push along to the fans. But in terms of how we operate, those things are out of our control.”

Corbin says his team would take the same approach if it were ranked 75th. It’s baseball as usual.

The veteran coach appreciates the recognition but realizes high rankings increase expectations to a difficult level.

“I think that’s where you probably get in trouble when you try to live up to other people’s words and you just can’t even go there,” Corbin adds. “I think you just have to stay very operational.”

Vanderbilt also had high preseason rankings in 2015 when it finished second in the nation behind Virginia. The Commodores, who were national champions in 2014, will become a target with so many high rankings.

“When you’ve got that one, two or three on your back, everybody’s circling you on the calendar,” says Vanderbilt pitcher Drake Fellows, a preseason All-America selection. “We’re just going to have to train that much harder now.”

Vanderbilt went 35-27 last year, finishing one win short of the College World Series. Mississippi State ended the Commodores’ season with a 10-6 loss in 11 innings in the third game of the Nashville Super Regional.

“That’s a big motivator, especially for the upperclassmen,” explains Fellows, a junior. “We made it to the Super Regionals my freshman year and sophomore year. That was kind of a letdown when we didn’t get past that hump, but hopefully this team – we’re looking pretty good.”

Oregon State swept Vanderbilt in two games in the 2017 Super Regional.

The Commodores return eight everyday players and their weekend pitching rotation of Fellows, Patrick Raby and Mason Hickman.

But Corbin is leaving the competition open for this season’s weekend rotation.

“That’s always floating,” Corbin says. “You rent positions around here, so we’ll see what happens. Last year’s rotation was last year’s rotation, but it won’t have much to do with what we do this year.”

Vanderbilt’s seniors boasted the nation’s top recruiting class in 2015 (Baseball America), the sophomores were No. 1 in 2017, the freshmen were No. 1 in 2018 and the juniors were No. 14 in 2016.

Two preseason All-Americans highlight the Commodores’ roster: outfielder J.J. Bleday and Fellows. Bleday led Vanderbilt with a .368 batting average, .511 slugging percentage and .494 on-base percentage last season when he ended the year on a 28-game reached base streak.

“No. 1, he’s a very mature kid,” Corbin points out. “He’s very professional in his approach to the game of baseball. He can really swing the bat.”

Vanderbilt really missed Bleday when an oblique (abdominal muscle) injury kept him out of the lineup for 22 games from March 30-May 6. “That hurt us a little bit,” Corbin acknowledges. “We missed that bat terribly, but he’s healthy now, and he’ll be right in the middle of our lineup.”

Bleday, a junior who hit a walk-off homer in a Super Regional win over Mississippi State in 2018, tries to separate each at-bat and pitch.

“I just try to decompress and really focus on the moment,” Bleday says of his hitting approach. “You’ve got to constantly work at your craft.”

Bleday isn’t a hitter who waits for a certain pitch. He just reacts to whatever is thrown.

The Commodores get in-depth scouting reports on opposing pitchers.

“Corbs does a great job of preparing us,” Bleday adds. “He makes us one of the most prepared teams in the country, if not the most prepared. It’s a really big advantage that we have.”

Fellows posted a 7-4 record and 3.92 earned run average as the Commodores’ Friday-night starter last season. The 6-foot-5 right-hander struck out a team-high 107 in 96-1/3 innings.

“He’s a pitcher. He’s not a thrower,” Corbin said. “He does a nice job of mixing his pitches.”

Bleday said Fellows’ command of (four) pitches make him difficult to hit.

“It’s up there with some of the best in the country,” Bleday says. “He’s got a good presence on the mound and he’s always consistent. That’s what’s so good about Drake.”

Fellows puts a high priority on getting a first-pitch strike.

“If you’re one ahead or one behind, that changes the whole mindset of what the hitter is looking for,” Fellows explains.

His main pitches are a two-seam fastball, slider, changeup and the four-seam fastball. His fastball is in the 90-94 mph range, the changeup dips down to about 80 mph and the slider is usually in the 81-83 mph range.

Raby ranks ninth in school history with a 2.95 career ERA and 11th in career wins (22). The 6-3 senior went 5-5 with a 3.57 ERA as the Saturday starter last year.

Hickman, a former Pope John Paul II ace who was a freshman All-American in 2018, went 8-2 with a 5.21 ERA as the Sunday starter last season.

“He attacks, good pace, good assortment of pitches,” Corbin says of the 6-6 sophomore. “He had some great performances for us.”

Vanderbilt opens the season against Virginia on Feb. 15 in the MLB Collegiate Baseball Tournament in Talking Stick, Arizona. The Commodores also will face No. 25 Cal State Fullerton and No. 19 TCU at the tournament before returning to Hawkins Field for the home opener against Evansville on Feb. 20.

Freshman flamethrower Kumar Rocker, whose fastball is measured at 90 to 98 mph, will probably make his presence known quickly. The 6-4, 235-pound right-hander is the son of former Auburn football star Tracy Rocker, now Tennessee’s defensive line coach.

“I think there’s probably a lot of notoriety about a guy that can throw that hard as a young person, but he’s more than that,” Corbin says. “He’s more than just a very good arm. This kid’s a pretty savvy young pitcher, that’s for sure.”

Philip Clarke, a former Christ Presbyterian Academy catcher who was named a freshman All-American last season after leading the Commodores in doubles (16) and batting .294 as a designated hitter, should make an impact this spring.

“He’s a good hitter and he’s been catching well behind the plate,” Corbin says. “Loves the game, he has great passion. He spends a lot of time in the cages and spends a lot of time on the art of hitting.”

Senior Ethan Paul returns with a streak of 110 consecutive starts at second base. He was drafted in the 26th round by Pittsburgh, but came back to Vanderbilt after ranking second on the team in RBI (44) and stolen bases (18) in 2018.

Senior utilityman Stephen Scott also returns after ranking seventh in the SEC in homers (15) last year. He opted to come back after being drafted in the 31st round by Miami.

Utilityman Austin Martin (.338), a freshman All-American in 2018, gives the Commodores a valuable weapon on the base paths after leading the SEC with 22 steals last year.

Vanderbilt and LSU are ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in most polls. There are eight SEC teams in Baseball America’s Top 25.

The Commodores feature a veteran lineup with five seniors, but they’re not the only team with a lot of experience.

“You’re getting more seniors back in college baseball, particularly in the SEC,” Corbin points out. “I think the thing that’s consistent with LSU and Vanderbilt is they’ve got more seniors back. And anytime you get older kids back in your program and they turn down the draft, it’s going to help your team.”

Gold Glove outfielder Jake Magnum (.351) is returning at Mississippi State and right fielder Antoine Duplantis (.328) is doing the same at LSU after both were drafted last June.

“Number one, I think they enjoy their experience and also the draft is a little more diluted,” Corbin says. “You know there are more players, and I think for a senior now, if he doesn’t get a decent amount of money, it just makes sense to come back, finish his degree and get better.”

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