The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Three up, three down: VandyBoys beat the Bruins

Rockstar pitching overcame inconsistent offense in Vanderbilt’s weekend series win over No. 17 UCLA.
Michael Tung
Nick Maldonado looking in for the sign on Feb. 26 (Hustler Multimedia/Michael Tung).

The No. 10 Vanderbilt Commodores improved to 5-3 by winning their first traditional weekend series of 2023, taking two of three over No. 17 UCLA. The series win came after a mixed midweek that saw the Commodores lose to Central Arkansas on Tuesday before defeating UAB on Wednesday.

Three up.

Stellar starting pitching

The starting rotation is definitely the place to start this week. Vanderbilt’s starting pitchers ― Carter Holton, Hunter Owen and Devin Futrell ― pitched a combined 15.1 innings without allowing a single run. Tim Corbin has been unsurprisingly silent about whether these three will remain the weekend starters, but I’d at least expect Holton and Futrell to stay put. All three certainly earned it this weekend, striking out 18 batters, with Holton and Owen getting 7 each. They combined for a WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) of only 0.847, keeping the Bruins to just 5 hits. Out of the three of them, only Hunter Owen left the weekend with an earned-run average (ERA) over 2, at only 2.08. The cold weather may have played some part in keeping UCLA’s bats quiet, but the outings that the rotation produced this weekend were as good as any fan could have asked for.

Awesome Austin

RJ Austin, as photographed on Feb. 25, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Kadyn Lee)
RJ Austin, as photographed on Feb. 25, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Kadyn Lee)

Freshman RJ Austin has slotted into the full-time role at third base and has been very impressive to start the season. He was 4-for-10 this weekend, adding a walk and a hit-by-pitch while scoring two runs. Entering the spring, the infield seemed to be the biggest question mark in Tim Corbin’s roster with the departures of Carter Young and Dominic Keegan. Austin, Davis Diaz, Parker Noland and Jonathan Vastine have started every game together and have been mostly excellent at the plate. Corbin trusts Austin enough to consistently put him near the top of the lineup, and he’s responded with an impressive .355 batting average on a Vanderbilt team that has struggled early, only hitting .239. The glove is there, too. Austin has looked excellent on the hot corner with a strong arm to throw out runners. In future series, Vanderbilt will need to find more power in the middle of the order to drive in more runs. But for now, Austin in the 2-hole is a rarity: a freshman that can reliably jump straight into a regular starting role and consistently put in good at-bats.

Depth in the bullpen

With the rotation all still on their early-season pitch limits, the Commodore bullpen needed to show up this weekend. The six Vanderbilt relievers who saw action this week combined for a 3.09 ERA against a dangerous UCLA offense. Nick Maldonado was the most impressive, coming on in the seventh inning on Sunday with a one-run lead and blitzing past the Bruins for a nine-out save that featured 8 strikeouts. On a weekend when the offense struggled to produce runs, the bullpen propelled the team to victories in the games on Friday and Sunday while giving Vanderbilt a chance on Saturday. Sam Hliboki and Andrew Dutkanych IV were the only real blemishes, with the former allowing two homers and the latter giving up a run as well. This was unfortunately Hliboki’s second bad outing and second loss in as many appearances. However, this weekend has shown that Tim Corbin has options out of the bullpen that will need to stay consistent for the VandyBoys to win tight games.

Three down.

Inconsistent offense

Despite a six-run showing on Friday, the Commodores really struggled at the plate this series. Vanderbilt hit an even .200 as a team with an abysmal .256 slugging percentage. The Commodores had only three extra-base hits all weekend, with only one in the 6-0 win on Friday. Clearly, Mendoza-line hitting with this little power will not be enough to keep winning games. Vanderbilt is still averaging 6.5 runs per game, but that’s mostly due to good timing, drawing plenty of walks and bizarrely being hit by 18 pitches already. The Commodores should expect opposing pitching to improve as the season goes on. With Spencer Jones and Keegan gone and Jack Bulger on the bench, it’s not immediately clear where Vanderbilt’s power hitting will come from. One way or another though, the team’s hitting will need to improve soon.

Dilemma behind the plate

Alan Espinal prepares for a pitch against UCLA on February 25, 2022 (Hustler Multimedia/Kadyn Lee).
Alan Espinal prepares for a pitch against UCLA on February 25, 2022 (Hustler Multimedia/Kadyn Lee). (Kadyn Lee)

In our preseason roster preview, we expected Jack Bulger to be the starting catcher with freshman Logan Poteet serving as the backup. Nobody here at The Hustler predicted that Alan Espinal would hit three home runs ― including a grand slam ― in his first two games and fully take over the starting job by week two. Of course, Espinal is on an incredible run and has certainly earned his at-bats this weekend over the struggling Bulger, starting in all three games. However, Espinal was just 1-for-9 at the plate in the series and struck out three times. He hit the ball hard when he did, but it may be too soon to anoint Espinal the full-time starter on the basis of two good games. Corbin was hesitant to comment on his future plans behind the plate in his postgame pressers this weekend. In the four games coming up this week though, I would be surprised not to see at least one more chance for Bulger.

Running into outs

One of the cooler moments of this weekend was Enrique Bradfield Jr.’s 97th stolen base of his college career, setting the new program record and earning him a standing ovation on Sunday. I can’t be the only one, though, who is becoming a bit apprehensive about the Vanderbilt running game lately. Bradfield Jr. followed his record-setting steal by misreading the pitcher and running into an out at third for his third caught stealing of the year. The Commodores are just 61% on stolen base attempts so far in 2023 as compared to a 90% rate last year. They were just 1-for-4 on stolen base attempts this weekend, albeit partially due to the strong arm of UCLA catcher Darius Perry. I wouldn’t expect Tim Corbin to suddenly abandon his small-ball philosophy anytime soon, though. We know that Corbin likes to steal runs whenever possible, and the Commodores may need to do so more often if their power at the plate doesn’t ramp up. While it’s certainly frustrating to see so many outs given up on the basepaths, the prototypical VandyBoys speed-dependent offense hasn’t evaporated. The names are still there to do it, and the Commodores’ running game should improve down the line.

The VandyBoys next take on Austin Peay on Feb. 28 at 4:30 p.m. CST at Hawkins Field.

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About the Contributors
Frankie Sheehy
Frankie Sheehy, Former Deputy Sports Editor
Frankie Sheehy ('24) wrote for The Hustler Sports section and graduated from the College of Arts and Science with majors in economics and law, history and society. He was also the president of the Vanderbilt Chess Club and a superfan of the Chicago White Sox. You can reach him at [email protected].
Michael Tung
Michael Tung, Staff Photographer
Michael Tung ('26) is majoring in computer science. He is currently a staff photographer and is originally from Dublin, Ohio. His interests are photography, engineering, all things aerospace and music. He can be reached at [email protected]
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