This is the third in a series of looks at the eight teams in the College World Series.
It's a team all Gator fans know very well. It's also a team with the tools to win it all. The Vanderbilt Commodores (52-10) were ranked fourth in two preseason polls and fifth in another. They pretty much lived up to their expectations, being a mainstay in the top five of various college baseball rankings all season and garnering the No. 6 national seed after a season that included sharing the SEC regular season title and losing in the SEC Tournament Championship game to Florida. This team is loaded with talent. Vandy recently broke the SEC record for most players drafted in the MLB Draft in the MLB draft, including two first day picks.
Amazingly enough given their recent track record and churning out draft picks, this is only the Commodores tenth appearance in the NCAA Tourament, and their first College World Series in school history. Current head coach Tim Corbin has been at the helm for seven of those NCAA Tournament appearances.
Vanderbilt hosted the Nashville Regional that featured (regional seedings) the two seed Oklahoma State Cowboys (35-23), three seed Troy Trojans (42-17), and fourth seed Belmont Bruins (36-24). The Commodores beat Belmont in the first and final game and beat Troy in their second game. Their sixth national seed allowed them to host the Nashville Super Regional where they faced the Oregon State Beavers (41-19). The 'Dores swept the best-out-of-three series, outscoring the Beavers 20-4 in two games.
Vandy's pitching staff features two pitchers taken within the first 59 picks of the MLB draft (which is the first day/round). There's so much talent on this pitching staff that the SEC Pitcher of the Year and 59th pick by the Tampa Bay Rays Grayson Garvin was Vandy's Saturday pitcher. Garvin had some pretty impressive numbers on the season: He went 13-1 with a 2.36 ERA. But Sonny Gray, an All-SEC second-teamer and the 16th pick in the 2011 MLB Draft by the Oakland Athletics, is considered the ace. Gray compiled a 12-3 record with a 1.97 ERA and 119 strikeouts in 114 1/3 innings pitched and is holding batters to a meager .197 batting average. And closer Navery Moore, who had at one point late into the season had a .36 ERA and had not allowed an extra base hit, is no slouch. His ERA is now at 1.21 with 11 saves and has held hitters to a .170 average. Vanderbilt has a team ERA of 2.38.
Given the success of the pitching, you'd figure their offense doesn't necessarily have to be that potent. With four players earning All-SEC honors, though, the offense packs plenty of punch. Aaron Westlake, Tony Kemp, Jason Esposito, and Conrad Gregor collected those honors and lead the Commodores at the plate. Westlake boasts a .353 average with 17 home runs, 54 RBIs, a .651 slugging percentage, and a .474 on-base percentage. SEC Freshman of the Year Kemp has a .325 average with 16 stolen bases and a team-high 5 triples. Kemp also committed no errors in 61 games. Esposito leads the 'Dores with a .357 average, 59 RBIs, and 22 doubles. Gregor hit .350 on the season with 30 RBIs in only 45 games started. The Commodores hit .319 as a team.
Given the strength of their pitching staff and offense, Vanderbilt looks like one of the most complete teams in the College World Series and will be a force to be reckoned with for the remainder of the tournament. The Commodores first opponent is the third seeded UNC Tar Heels (50-14), which actually poses as a conflict of interest for their basketball team. Vandy basketball head coach Kevin Stallings will be at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha conflicted between rooting for the school that signs his paychecks and the school his son plays for. The Commodores, however their basketball coach may be rooting, are a front runner to win the CWS for the first time in school history.
Vanderbilt kicks off the CWS against the third seeded North Carolina Tar Heels at 2 p.m. Saturday.