Tough Days in the Desert: New-look VandyBoys struggle in opening weekend

Despite standout play from Rodriguez and Rocker, the Commodores blew two ninth-inning leads en route to a 1-2 slate.


Photo courtesy Vanderbilt Athletics

Vanderbilt catcher CJ Rodriguez points to the dugout after his double against UConn, one of his four hits on the day.

Max Schneider, Sports Editor

It was a weekend to forget for the top-ranked Vanderbilt Commodores.

Tim Corbin’s bunch traveled to Scottsdale, Arizona to compete in the three-day MLB4 Tournament at Salt River Fields. Despite leading all three games in the ninth inning, they finished the road trip with a 1-2 record and a guaranteed plummet in the rankings.

Vanderbilt’s lineup featured a sea of new faces. Just two bats were regulars in last season’s World Series run: third baseman Austin Martin and second baseman Harrison Ray. Understandably, the lack of experience led to some early mishaps. Vanderbilt struggled to find anything offensively against Michigan right-hander Jeff Criswell on Friday. Defensively, the Commodores, who were consistently one of the best fielding teams in college baseball last season, committed a whopping 10 errors in just three games. 

It was a wacky, back-and-forth opening weekend for the defending National Champions, one that has Vanderbilt fans everywhere reassuring themselves that it’s much too early to panic.

The Results

Friday’s matchup pinned Vanderbilt against the Michigan Wolverines in a rematch of last year’s College World Series Final. The Commodores got on the board early, taking a 1-0 lead in the first inning when Austin Martin grounded out to short to plate CJ Rodriguez. Michigan tied the game in the fourth and took a 2-1 lead in the seventh, but Vanderbilt answered with a pinch-hit RBI single from Parker Noland. The Commodores took a 3-2 lead on Harrison Ray’s safety squeeze, and Tyler Brown came in to close out the ninth. Just two outs away from the victory, though, Matt Schmidt smacked a two-run shot over the left field fence to give Michigan a 4-3 victory and spoil an outstanding start from Mason Hickman.

The Commodores bounced back on Saturday with sophomore phenom Kumar Rocker on the bump. UConn struck first in the second inning after Rocker walked in a run, but that would be all for the Huskies. Vanderbilt tied the game in the fifth on a sacrifice fly from Rodriguez and poured it on from there. Rodriguez would come through again in the sixth with a two-run single off the wall, and the Commodores would never look back, taking the game by a score of 6-1. 

Sunday’s matchup saw the left-hander Jake Eder get the start against Cal Poly. The Mustangs got to Eder early; after a scoreless first, they’d plate a run in each of the next three frames, driving him out of the ball game after just 3.1 innings. After five scoreless innings for Vanderbilt that saw just one hit, Rodriguez’s single to left and Martin’s double to right gave the Commodores two baserunners, both of whom would come around to score. Cal Poly answered in a big way off relievers Chris McElvain and Luke Murphy, putting up four more runs to take a 7-2 lead. Just when things looked out of reach, the Commodores got a couple runs back, and Ray smashed a three-run homer to deep left field to tie the ball game at 7-7. After Will Duff’s sac fly gave the Commodores an 8-7 lead in the ninth, Brown blew his second save of the weekend, and the Mustangs walked it off with a 9-8 win.

Three Up

CJ Rodriguez

Rodriguez was the obvious standout this past weekend. Thrust into the starting catcher role due to Ty Duvall’s illness, the freshman shined, picking up six hits in 12 at-bats. His 4-4 night on Saturday, in which he accounted for half of Vanderbilt’s RBI total, was the breakout performance that proved exactly why Corbin elected to bat him in the two-hole right from the get-go. He also just missed a grand slam, rocketing one off the left-field wall. With Duvall likely rejoining the lineup on Tuesday, somebody needs to sit, but it certainly won’t be Rodriguez, who proved that he’s already one of the better hitters on this team and will be a mainstay in the lineup whether he’s catching or DHing. 

Kumar Rocker

A Preseason First Team All-American, hopes were high for Rocker coming into the season. On Saturday, he certainly didn’t disappoint. The 6’4”, 255-pounder hurled six innings, giving up just two hits and one unearned run while striking out nine. His slider was as filthy as its always been, leading Connecticut hitters waving at breaking balls well out of the strike zone. What was perhaps even more encouraging, however, was Rocker’s fastball velocity, which sat at 95 and topped out at 97. To see his velocity that high this early in the season should be frightening for SEC hitters. The Rock is cooking. 

Sam Hliboki

Tim Corbin spent a good part of this weekend trying to figure out which of his bullpen arms could be entrusted later this season, and while a couple freshmen looked a bit shaky, Hliboki passed the test with flying colors. He threw three shutout innings on Saturday, allowing just one baserunner and striking out three to pick up the save. In a long season where someone from the bullpen will need to rise to the occasion, Hliboki took the first step in proving he might be that guy.

Three Down

Tyler Brown

Brown set the program’s single-season saves record last year, coming through time and time again in clutch situations, but this past weekend in Arizona, that clutch factor was nowhere to be found. Brown blew two saves in three days, and in both appearances, he didn’t just blow the lead: he gave up multiple runs and picked up the loss. Brown is a veteran and was a Preseason First Team All-American, so Corbin certainly isn’t worried about him moving forward, but the junior missed his spots with regularity, and that inability to locate led to a couple key hard-hit balls. 

Spencer Jones

Jones wasn’t awful at the plate in his first collegiate action. He went 2-9 over the weekend and put together some promising at-bats, mirroring the production from Julian Infante a year ago. But while Infante was a wall at first base, Jones looked clueless. The 6’7” freshman committed three errors, all on routine plays that ended up costing the Commodores runs. Given chances to atone for them, Jones failed to make picks at first base on errant throws. When Dominic Keegan returns from his injury, he’ll likely retake the first base spot, and with the weekend Rodriguez had, don’t expect Jones to slide to DH. He might fall out of the lineup entirely. 

Tate Kolwyck

Corbin converted Kolwyck from the infield to the outfield this past fall in order to get his bat in the lineup. The sophomore center fielder, who made the trip to Omaha with the team last season, looked uncomfortable at the plate, going 1-11 on the weekend and striking out five times. More costly than those numbers, though, were the nine men he left on base, including seven in the game against UConn. Kolwyck was eventually pulled in a big spot on Sunday for freshman Will Duff, who came through with an RBI single and a sac fly. With Duff’s strong weekend, Kolwyck’s spot could be up for grabs.

What’s Next

The Commodores will take on South Alabama at Hawkins Field in a two-game set on Tuesday and Wednesday. Vanderbilt’s home-opener will likely be the first start in the young career of freshman pitcher Jack Leiter, with Michael Doolin or Ethan Smith possible options to get the ball on Wednesday. The Jaguars took two of three this past weekend against Campbell University. 

First pitch for both games will be at 4:30 p.m. CT.