The sixth-ranked Vanderbilt baseball team lost its first non-conference series since 2012 this past weekend, dropping two of three games to the Illinois-Chicago Flames at Hawkins Field.
UIC took Friday’s opener 5-3 in 10 innings before Vanderbilt responded with a 6-2 win Saturday to even the series. Sunday’s series finale also reached extra innings, with UIC winning 5-2 in 11 innings. The weekend was marked by Commodore mistakes in the field and on the base paths, uncharacteristic but unsurprising occurrences for a young Vanderbilt team. No need to panic over early season results, Vanderbilt fans, but the Commodores do have some glaring areas of improvement as they stare down 11 more non-conference home games before SEC play starts on March 17.
1. Starting pitching
If nothing else, the 2017 Vanderbilt Commodores have themselves a solidified weekend rotation. Ace of the staff Kyle Wright pitched six strong innings Friday night, allowing just one run on four hits while striking out seven hitters and not allowing a walk. Sophomore Patrick Raby matched Wright with six innings Saturday, allowing one unearned run on three hits.
Any questions about who would start on Sundays behind Wright and Raby have been answered by the stellar work by freshman Drake Fellows in his first two collegiate starts. Fellows followed up six scoreless innings in his Vanderbilt debut last week with seven innings of two-hit ball on Sunday, and he already shows potential as a top-of-the-rotation arm. Head coach Tim Corbin has his trio and is rolling with them.
2. JJ Bleday
The team’s opening day right fielder, Bleday is likely the only freshman position player who will see considerable playing time this season. Bleday was the most productive bat on a weekend where Vandy mustered just 11 runs in three games, going 5-for-11 with five runs batted in and a run scored.
He smacked a clutch two-out, two-run double down the right-field line in the eighth inning Friday to tie the score at 3-3 and force extra innings. Corbin moved Bleday up in the lineup for Game 2, and he responded with three hits, including a second two-run double and an RBI single in Vandy’s 6-2 win. The freshman was the brightest star in a slow weekend for the Commodore bats.
3. Kendall’s dynamo dinger
Jeren Kendall led off the series opener Friday with a 436-foot home run to straightaway center field. Kendall’s first homer of the season was an absolute bomb, even with the wind blowing out, and hit high up on the Hawkins Field batter’s eye beyond the center-field wall. The dinger, unfortunately, was the limit of Kendall’s production on the weekend. He doubled later in Game 1 before being picked off, went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on Saturday and struck out with the winning run on third base in the 10th inning Sunday.
Vanderbilt committed six fielding errors in the series, most of which came in pivotal spots and cost the ‘Dores four unearned runs.
In the eighth inning of a 1-1 game Friday night, an ill-advised throw home by Kendall — technically not an error — and a misplay by Bleday allowed UIC to take a two-run lead. After Bleday tied the game with his double, pitcher Collin Snider threw well wide of first base on a sacrifice bunt attempt in the 10th inning, affording UIC another two-run lead that would last.
Even in Vanderbilt’s win Saturday, both UIC runs scored following Vanderbilt errors. Catcher Jason Delay shot an unwarranted pickoff throw past third base and into left field, and pitcher Penn Murfee repeated Snider’s error by throwing wide of first on a comebacker. Despite a few stellar defensive plays by the ‘Dores, pitchers, catchers, infielders and outfielders all contributed significant defensive blunders in the series.
2. Base running
Misplays in the field were augmented by miscues on the base paths, another typical area of strength for Corbin’s Commodores. UIC pitchers picked off two Commodores in the series, and the ‘Dores were thrown out twice pushing the limit in search of extra bases.
After smacking a double in the seventh inning Friday, Kendall was picked off second base as the potential go-ahead run, and Ethan Paul was cleanly picked off first on Saturday. Reed Hayes was thrown out at third base advancing from second on a grounder to short Friday, and Bleday was also eliminated at third trying to stretch his game-tying double into a triple, making the final out of the eighth inning at third base as the potential go-ahead run. Both Hayes’ and Bleday’s mistakes not only hurt the Commodores’ chances but also constitute widely known base-running no-nos.
3. Relief pitching depth
Despite the sudden sureness of the Commodores’ starting rotation, the vast majority of the team’s bullpen breakdown remains undecided. Vanderbilt called upon juniors Matt Ruppenthal and Collin Snider for outings of three innings or longer, and each eventually surrendered the decisive runs in extra-inning losses. The extended outings of the two bullpen veterans can be explained by the inexperience of the team’s other relief options.
Freshman southpaws Zach King and Jackson Gillis have pitched well in their first few collegiate appearances, while Hayes and Murfee are new to their roles but have pitched well. With two mid-week games coming up in which they could start, Maddux Conger, Matt McGarry and Chandler Day did not pitch in the three weekend games. But Vanderbilt will need the three in important SEC series down the road.