More Hitting? Better Defense? Where the VandyBoys go from here after getting swept by Tennessee

The Hustler takes a look back on an ugly weekend for the VandyBoys against Tennessee, headlined by an underwhelming offensive performance.

Vanderbilt+huddles+to+congratulate+pitcher+Christian+Little+in+a+game+against+Tennessee+on+April+3%2C+2022.

Barrie Barto

Vanderbilt huddles to congratulate pitcher Christian Little in a game against Tennessee on April 3, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)

Frankie Sheehy, Staff Writer

Last weekend, the then-No. 9 Vanderbilt Commodores faced their biggest test of the season to date in a three-game set against the rival No. 1 Tennessee Volunteers. The series was an early opportunity to see which of these top-tier SEC teams is more prepared for the difficult journey to Omaha and the College World Series this June. The VandyBoys showed that they are currently not that team.

From first pitch on Friday night to the last out on Sunday, Vanderbilt was totally outclassed by the Volunteers, who left Nashville with a sweep and a 19-game winning streak. The VandyBoys never led throughout the whole series, and never looked in the game during the late innings of their three defeats. They were outscored 16-4 and outhit 22-11 by the Volunteers. Worse yet, the Commodores’ performance—especially at the plate—seemed to worsen as the series progressed.

Offensive Struggles

As much as the Commodores were haunted this week by Tennessee’s offense and outfielder Jordan Beck’s weekend revenge mission after being caught using an illegal bat on Friday, the true story of the weekend was a Vanderbilt offense that just couldn’t string runs together. The pitching was a question mark heading into this series, but holding an offense like Tennessee’s to five or six runs shouldn’t be a concern—especially considering the defensive miscues that gave the Volunteers plenty of extra outs. However, the VandyBoys hit only 6-for-32 as a team on Friday, and it only got worse from there. 

On Saturday, the offense was limited to two solo home runs in the seventh inning by sophomore Enrique Bradfield Jr. and junior Spencer Jones. Tennessee starter Chase Dollander took a perfect game through four innings and wasn’t far from a complete game. When Vanderbilt found themselves three runs behind in the first, Dollander was able to spend his entire outing attacking the strike zone so that he could pitch 8 ⅓ frames on only 105 pitches, walking just one. 

Large deficits can only be overcome by longer innings with multiple runners on base, and Vanderbilt couldn’t generate any of those rallies on Saturday.

As bad as the Saturday game was on offense, Sunday might have been the most frustrating game of the whole series for VandyBoys fans. While the first two games had defensive problems that put Vanderbilt in the hole, Sunday was a close game. The Commodores were only down 1-0 through four innings, with a real chance to avoid the sweep. Instead, Vanderbilt didn’t register a single baserunner in the last five innings, as Tennessee’s Drew Beam shut the Commodores out for the first time this season. The VandyBoys went the whole game without a single runner in scoring position.

“They kind of suppressed us with their arms,” head coach Tim Corbin said after the game. “They put us to sleep and they didn’t give us anything.”

Lineup Shakeup?

As the Commodores look ahead to the last two months of the regular-season schedule, it will be interesting to see whether Corbin gives this offense a shakeup. Sophomore Calvin Hewett has looked outstanding at the plate in the past, batting .550 on the season, but spent the whole weekend on the bench. 

Meanwhile, the Commodores had three players start all three games and go hitless: Davis Diaz, Gavin Casas and Jack Bulger, who also made two crucial mistakes defensively on Saturday. Tate Kolwyck went 0-for-6 before exiting Saturday’s game and not playing Sunday, and is “banged up”, according to Corbin. The rest of the order wasn’t much better. Vanderbilt hitters drew just three walks together in the whole series, nowhere near enough to generate the big innings they needed. While the VandyBoys didn’t strike out much either, nobody worked deep enough into the count to frustrate the Tennessee pitching staff. This is why Dollander and Beam were able to have such long outings without a high strikeout count. Spencer Jones was the only Commodore with hits in all three games.

Unfortunately, the answer to these offensive woes isn’t as simple as swapping in players from the bench. Besides Hewett and perhaps junior T.J. McKenzie, there isn’t anyone on the roster who has obviously better hitting statistics, and more experience, than the current lineup. There is still plenty of time for Corbin to experiment and find his best nine before June, and we saw glimpses of what that might look like in Tuesday’s win over Austin Peay. Hewett was 3-for-4, Parker Noland came back in the lineup to score three runs and freshman Rob Gordon got his first college hit and RBIs on a ball that was nearly a grand slam.

Another aspect that the Commodores will certainly need to improve on is limiting costly defensive mistakes. Sloppy defense may be enough to beat some opposition, but it won’t beat SEC-caliber teams down the stretch. 

There were no shortage of miscues this past weekend, from Bulger’s dropped third strike on Saturday to the two routine popups that were lost in the lights on Friday night. Of course, some of these mistakes are more preventable than others, and no team can be held to a perfect standard. However, we saw a string of very impressive plays on defense by Tennessee this weekend. If the VandyBoys want to make it all the way to Omaha this June, they’ll likely need to mimic that consistency.

Moving Forward

As bad as this series was, it’s important to keep it in perspective. This was the first weekend in April of a season that runs at least through May. The Commodores dropped in the national rankings, but only to No. 16. And to state the obvious, Tennessee is a really good team, and seems to be capable of beating anybody right now, as evidenced by their now 20-game win streak. As much as getting swept by the Volunteers may hurt Vanderbilt fans, take this as an opportunity to reassess where the Commodores stand, and what may need to change as the season progresses.

There is a long way to go before NCAA regionals. The Commodores will certainly have plenty more chances to prove themselves as a contender and to put this weekend in the rearview mirror. But doing so will require a real reflection on what the strengths and weaknesses are of this team so they can be improved upon going forward. 

The starting rotation continues to impress, especially given how well the VandyBoys have filled in for Nick Maldonado, who is battling back from an oblique injury. Despite the biggest area of concern being how this lineup fares against top-tier pitching, there’s no doubting how many talented hitters are on the Vanderbilt roster. The journey to Omaha may come down to whether those hitters can find that consistency when it matters most.