Three up, three down: Commodores take series over Texas A&M

Vanderbilt (16-9, 3-3 SEC) opened league play last week by losing a hard-fought road series to nationally-ranked Ole Miss. The Commodores put together a significantly better performance this weekend in taking its first conference series of the year over Texas A&M. After a non-conference season characterized by uneven play, Vanderbilt appears to be gaining steam heading into Tuesday’s game against Lipscomb and next weekend’s series at No. 19 Kentucky.

Three up:

1. Jeren Kendall

Kendall started the season relatively slowly, floating around in the high .200s in terms of batting average until this weekend. After the series win over the Aggies in which he hit seven for 14 across three games, he’s now hitting .324 on the year. Kendall also has strung together six straight multi-hit games, and his grand slam in Friday’s 4-3 victory clearly represented the top highlight of the series. The junior center fielder also stole three bases in three tries, which helped him score four runs as the Commodores’ leadoff man. Additionally, Kendall only struck out twice in the three weekend games, as he’s struggled somewhat in that department this season. If Kendall continues to play this way, Vanderbilt and his MLB draft stock are in good shape.

2. Starting pitching

While freshman Sunday starter Drake Fellows didn’t take the mound this weekend, fellow starters Kyle Wright and Patrick Raby excelled. Wright began Friday’s game by allowing three earned runs in two innings, but he came back and plowed through the third, fourth and fifth innings. Kendall showed no concern about Wright’s chances of rebounding from his disappointing start to the season after Friday’s game (he currently has a 4.50 ERA), and it doesn’t seem as if many others are worried, either.

Raby, on the other hand, has been consistent all year in running up a sterling 1.40 ERA as the Commodores’ No. 2 starter. Saturday’s game represented more of the same, as the sophomore right-hander needed only 94 pitches to get through seven innings of three-hit ball. If (or when) Wright returns to peak form, head coach Tim Corbin will have one of the most impressive three-man rotations in college baseball at his disposal.

3. SEC East race

As Vanderbilt climbed back to .500 in conference play, the Commodores started to make their move up the SEC standings. Preseason favorite Florida stands at just 2-4 so far, while South Carolina and Kentucky lead the division at 5-1. The Gamecocks, however, have faced a weak schedule so far; their first two series came against Tennessee and Alabama, teams that are a combined 1-11 in league play. Kentucky’s sweep at Texas A&M and home series victory over No. 14 Ole Miss were both impressive, but Vanderbilt can bring the Wildcats back toward the pack this coming weekend if they can win the series in Lexington. The Commodores may have fallen out of the national rankings, but they’ve got plenty of time to get in contention for the SEC East title.

Down:

1. Offensive consistency

Overall, Vanderbilt’s 25 runs against Texas A&M represent a major step forward for the Commodore offense. The problem, however, was that 17 of those runs came in Game 2 of the series; Vanderbilt scored four in both Games 1 and 3. Kendall’s grand slam gave Corbin’s club its only runs of the game Friday, and the Commodores didn’t have a hit after the fifth inning. On Sunday, Vanderbilt mustered only three hits in four innings against Aggie starter Corbin Martin, who has a respectable-but-not-great 4.07 ERA. The ‘Dores took a step in the right direction this weekend, but there’s still significant room to improve in terms of consistency at the plate.

2. Suspensions

Four Commodores were suspended for Sunday’s series finale, leaving Vanderbilt shorthanded. Vanderbilt disciplined sophomore Alonzo Jones and freshmen Harrison Ray, Zach King and Fellows for failing to meet team standards, according to the athletic department. All four played over the first two games of the series, and it’s unclear how long the suspensions will last. Without knowing how long the discipline will last, it’s impossible to say how the team’s outlook is affected. But playing without three starters in Ray, Jones and Fellows and one of the team’s top relievers in King would pose significant challenges. The Commodores’ depth will be tested if the four aren’t reinstated before Tuesday’s game.

3. Paxton Stover

Stover looked like one of Vanderbilt’s best left-handed options out of the bullpen coming into the season, but he’s struggled. On Sunday, the junior gave up four hits and two earned runs in only two-thirds of an inning, running his ERA to 7.56 on the year in 8.1 innings pitched. Aside from King, Vanderbilt’s top relievers are all right-handed. If King remains out of the picture for an extended amount of time and Stover can’t deliver, Corbin may have to turn to freshman Michael Sandborn, who’s pitched well in only three innings this season. It would be a huge boost if Stover can turn around his season and supplement Vanderbilt’s strong but relatively shallow and righty-dominant bullpen.

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