Three Up, Three Down: Vanderbilt falls to Oregon State in Super Regional to end season

Photo by Ziyi Liu

After an impressive run in the regionals that featured three dominant performances, the Vanderbilt Commodores dropped two straight games to top-ranked Oregon State to end their College World Series aspirations. Vanderbilt struggled through the regular season, finishing seven games below last year’s win total, but the Commodores certainly put forth their fair share of highlights, including an offensive clinic in the regional and standout seasons from their upperclassmen.

Here are some takeaways from Vanderbilt’s 2017 season.

Three Up:

Kyle Wright certainly lived up to the hype

Entering this season, Kyle Wright was a fringe top ten draft prospect looking to build on a solid 2016 campaign.  He was also looking to fill the shoes of so many elite starters that have stepped onto the mound at Hawkins Field in recent years.  As the season comes to a close, it’s safe to say he did both of those things, even exceeding expectations along the way.  After a lackluster start to the season in which Wright couldn’t buy a victory, Tim Corbin moved the Huntsville native to the Saturday role.  There, he flourished.  Sporting a fastball that touched 97 with excellent command of his array of off-speed stuff, Wright boosted his stock dramatically, and was rewarded by becoming the fifth overall pick in the MLB Draft to the Atlanta Braves. 

Will Toffey bounces back 

Vanderbilt might have played its last game of the 2017 season, but Will Toffey is still the hottest college hitter in the country.  Over the past six games in the regional and super regional, Toffey hit .464 with four home runs, posting multi-hit games in five contests.  Just a couple weeks before, a dislocated shoulder put Toffey’s season in jeopardy, but he came back good as new, carrying the Commodores offensively.  He finished the season hitting .354, 127 points above his 2016 average. He also went from no home runs to twelve.  Toffey was a huge high-point for Vanderbilt this season, and should he leave for the draft, he will leave a gaping hole at third base.

Freshmen have laid the ground work for the future

Replacing Wright, Jeren Kendall, some of the other seniors and possibly Toffey is a tall task.  Fortunately for the Commodores, this year’s group of newcomers looks ready to shoulder the load heading into their sophomore seasons. Drake Fellows showed excellent stuff after seizing that Sunday role, posting an excellent outing in a loss to Clemson in the regional.  Zach King was by far the most reliable option out of the bullpen for Corbin, and Jackson Gillis looked strong as the season went on. JJ Bleday was a mainstay in the order this year and can look to build on a strong freshman year, and Harrison Ray and Ty Duvall both will look to fill huge voids. Duvall hit .375 in limited action this year, so while this team might be losing firepower, its freshmen can keep them relevant.

Three Down:

Bullpen couldn’t keep the Dores in games

Vanderbilt was lucky to have Wright and Patrick Raby consistently able to go to deep into ballgames. When they wouldn’t, they’d turn the ball over to a bullpen that was shaky at best. Time and time again the bullpen seemed to spoil leads or close games. This was most evident in the home series against Florida, in which the bullpen blew the lead in the first game, and then contributed to a 20-run outing for the Gators just two days later. King was the only reliable option, and was also the only consistent guy who kept his ERA under three. Reed Hayes, the primary closer, watched his ERA balloon up to 5.75 by the end of the year, with Collin Snider and Maddox Conger not too far behind. Matt Ruppenthal will be remembered for the absolute gem he hurled against Clemson in the regional final, but it’s hard to escape the struggles that he had late in games, and Vanderbilt likely could have notched a few more games in the win column had it gotten a stronger performance from its relievers.

Out of conference woes

While Vanderbilt advanced further than they did last season, the regular season was more of a struggle, finishing 6.5 games below last year’s mark. With a similar performance in conference play, look no further than the nonconference schedule as the reason for its regular season woes. The Commodores struggled mightily out of the gate, dropping games to San Diego, St. Mary’s, and Tennessee Tech. They also lost series’ to Illinois-Chicago and Cal State Northridge. Last year’s three regular season nonconference losses grew to eight this year, and Vanderbilt entered conference play on its heels. Late in the season, Chandler Day’s midweek starts remedied the problem, but not before the Commodores had notched far too many games in the loss column to lesser opponents.

Way too many strikeouts

A strikeout is the least productive out you can get in baseball. Well, save for a double play maybe, but even that puts the ball in play. While guys like Will Toffey and Ro Coleman are known for rarely ever striking out, the rest of the lineup more than made up for it, striking out far too often and leaving men on base in the process. Of course, it’s hard to knock the season that Jeren Kendall had, hitting .307 with 15 homers and 20 steals, but a hole in his swing was exposed, and it led to a team-high 74 strikeouts in 261 at bats. He posted a strikeout rate of 25.5%, striking out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances, and continued to struggle with swing and misses in the postseason. Scouts have noticed, as his status as a top three prospect diminished. He ended up falling to the Los Angeles Dodgers at 23rd overall in the MLB Draft. Julian Infante wasn’t too far behind with 59 K’s.  When the offense was struggling, it was because they weren’t putting the ball in play, and that was the case far too often this season, especially for Vandy’s stars.

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