It wasn’t long ago that two juniors led Vanderbilt baseball to its second consecutive College World Series championship appearance.
The dynamic duo of Dansby Swanson and Carson Fulmer steered the ship, dominating at the plate and dazzling on the mound in what was an extraordinary 2015 season for the Commodores. The two All-Americans created a framework of excellence in Nashville and were rewarded with top-10 selections in the MLB Draft that June.
Now, just two years later, another two juniors look to follow in their footsteps and recapture some of that Omaha magic, and with it comes some draft recognition of their own.
Jeren Kendall and Kyle Wright were there the last time this team reached the College World Series. In fact, they both played integral parts in the process. Kendall started all but four games for the Commodores as a freshman, batting .281 with eight home runs, 40 RBI and a team-leading 19 stolen bases.
However, it only took one at-bat to prove Kendall’s impact in his first year with the program. Down a run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Omaha, Vanderbilt looked desperate to avoid an opening round loss to Cal State Fullerton that would send it to the loser’s bracket.
That’s when Kendall launched a two-run homer into the right field bullpen to give his team the win and its first step toward a championship berth.
Not to be outdone, Wright put together an impressive freshman campaign of his own. The 6’4″ right-hander made 29 appearances, winning six games and sporting a 1.23 ERA. By the last quarter of the season, he had taken over the closer role in a stacked pitching staff, picking up a win and a save in the College World Series.
Now hours away from the commencement of the 2017 season Thursday at San Diego, Kendall and Wright are no longer supporting guys. They are the unquestioned leaders of the team.
Coming off a shaky end to last season that really wasn’t indicative of the team’s performance as a whole, Vanderbilt will rely heavily on its phenoms to lead the Commodores back to contention. Head coach Tim Corbin seems to think his standout players are up to the task.
“[Kyle’s] a pretty mature kid,” Corbin said of his ace. “We put him in a tough role his freshman year closing out games in Omaha. He’s the benefactor of investing a lot of time and effort into what he’s doing. He’s a pro at the college level.”
From the first pitch he threw, Wright displayed both the demeanor and potential to garner nationwide attention. He possesses an extremely high baseball IQ and has a unique skill set. Very few college pitchers have command of four pitches in their arsenals, but Wright has shown the ability to locate his mid-90s fastball and curveball tremendously, coupled with a more-than-competent changeup and a slider that has a sharp cut. It’s something he prides himself on and has worked hard in the offseason to perfect.
“It’s the same thing day in and day out,” Kendall said of his fellow star’s work ethic. “That’s just what good players do in this program. He just gets his work done and does it the right way.”
The endorsement from Kendall is critical for a guy whose Achilles heel has been inconsistency. Wright won eight games in 2016, sporting a 3.09 ERA and recording 107 strikeouts, at times displaying all the tools of one of the top pitchers in the nation.
However, he struggled mightily late in the year. In his last two games, Wright gave up a combined 16 earned runs to Texas A&M and Washington. Now he steps into his role as the Friday starter, one that has been occupied by first-round draft picks for the past few years in this program. Wright will need to be consistently at the top of his game in order to follow suit.
Wright isn’t shy about praising Kendall either.
“[Jeren] can beat you in a lot of different ways,” Wright said. “He can hit for power, he can hit for contact, he’s fast. So he can beat you in any way possible, whether he hits one out of the ballpark or he just drops one down and beats it out.”
The versatility in Kendall’s game is what has scouts raving about him. Kendall led the Commodores in virtually every offensive category but homers, hitting .332 and going deep nine times with 59 RBI and 28 stolen bases. On defense, Kendall is a stellar outfielder with the speed to cover the gaps, often drawing comparisons to Jacoby Ellsbury with a plus arm.
Despite all the draft talk that comes with the talent that Kendall and Wright possess, the focus is on the team, and they seem to be taking this season one game at a time.
“We don’t look too far in the future,” said Kendall, the No. 2 overall draft prospect by MLB.com. “Obviously Omaha is number one. We all want that, but we have no idea. We’re just ready to get out to San Diego.”
“I notice it,” Wright said of his own top-five draft stock. “I’m concerned with what we’re doing here. My goal is to win games here.”
If they seem almost too calm and collected for two guys with all eyes on them, it’s because they are.
Baseball is in their blood. Jeren’s father, Jeremey, was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies and spent years with their affiliates. Meanwhile, Kyle’s father, Roger, was the coach for his son’s high school baseball team in Huntsville, Alabama. Both guys have been around baseball their entire lives and are just a season away from achieving their dreams and going off the board early in the first round.
Don’t ask them though. They have business to take care of, and it starts in San Diego.