With the schedule starting to lighten up following a tough start to the SEC season, Vanderbilt had the chance to build momentum by sweeping aside rival Tennessee this weekend at Hawkins Field. But the Commodores followed up a narrow 1-0 win Friday with a 9-3 Saturday loss in which they blew a late lead despite strong play from starting pitcher Kyle Wright. Here are three takeaways from the loss, as Vanderbilt slipped to 26-17 overall and 10-10 in the SEC.
Toffey injury hurts offense and defense
Star third baseman Will Toffey left the game in the first inning with what head coach Tim Corbin implied was a dislocated left shoulder. Toffey attempted to take second base on a passed ball and appeared to jam his shoulder as his arm made contact with the bag during his slide. Writhing in pain after being called out, Toffey favored his left side while being helped off the field by training staff. Toffey later rejoined his teammates in the dugout and even participated in the team’s stretches in the outfield toward the end of the game, albeit with his shoulder wrapped. Vanderbilt couldn’t offer an update of his status for the immediate future, but the ‘Dores will miss Toffey’s presence for however much time he misses.
Not only has Toffey been one of Vanderbilt’s clear three best hitters — along with Jeren Kendall and Julian Infante — but he led off to start Saturday’s game and left a major hole at the top of the order after being injured. Corbin could turn to Kendall once again as his leadoff man, but his options are starting to get thin. Defensively, Ethan Paul moved over to third after Toffey left the game, while Alonzo Jones entered to play second base. A natural middle infielder, Paul has little experience at third and looked shaky on a few plays with respect to positioning and throwing to first.
“I’d rather make just one move, and there you make two moves [with Paul to third and Jones to second],” Corbin said. “I’d rather not do that, but it’s most comfortable for both parties.”
Hayes comes up clutch with run support for Wright
Utility man extraordinaire Reed Hayes has come up with a handful of clutch, timely hits this year, and he added another one Saturday. With runners on second and third and one out in the sixth inning, Hayes got the Commodores on the board via a single through the left side. His hit got a big inning started for the ‘Dores, as Jeren Kendall and Hayes himself both eventually came around to score. With Wright dazzling on the mound, it looked like Vanderbilt’s three sixth-inning runs might have been all it would need to clinch the series victory prior to the bullpen’s implosion.
The lack of run support the Commodores have provided Wright has been a theme during the latter’s recent resurgence, highlighted by Vanderbilt’s 1-0 loss last weekend at Georgia. Vanderbilt will need to score far more than the four runs it’s produced in two games this weekend to make a run in the SEC and NCAA tournaments. But Wright at least finally got some help from his offense.
Bullpen shows no signs of improvement
Vanderbilt’s consistent bullpen struggles have frustrated fans, and there’s no suggestion that a resolution is in sight. Matt Ruppenthal allowed an eighth-inning Grand Slam to Tennessee’s Jordan Rodgers that gave the Volunteers the lead, while Collin Snider allowed two runs in one inning pitched, granted neither run was earned. All nine of Tennessee’s runs came home after Wright exited the game in the eighth, although Wright contributed by loading the bases before Ruppenthal entered.
Vanderbilt now has only three relievers with ERAs under 4.00 (aside from freshman Michael Sandborn, who has pitched only 3.0 innings all year) in Ruppenthal, Hayes and Zach King. Snider was expected to take the role as one of Corbin’s go-to relievers, but his ERA is at a career-worst 5.13. Without elite offense, it’s extremely unlikely that Vanderbilt can get through an NCAA regional bracket with only three capable arms out of the bullpen. Corbin, for his part, appeared visibly frustrated after the game and showed no interest in discussing the bullpen’s poor play.
“It’s only one game,” Corbin said. “I don’t care about the past few games. It’s one game.”