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 Loyola Marymount

Carter Holton throwing a pitch against Loyola Marymount on March 10, 2023 (Hustler Multimedia/Ophelia Lu).

The No. 7 Vanderbilt Commodores improved to 12-5 over the weekend by winning two of three games against the visiting Loyola Marymount Lions in their final non-conference weekend series.

Three up.

Owen’s phenomenal Saturday

As a junior, Hunter Owen has slotted perfectly into the Saturday starting role this season. Despite only one career college start before this year, Tim Corbin has trusted him to take over a weekend spot, and he’s done very well. Following an impressive showing this summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League, Owen has pitched his way to a 3.20 earned-run average (ERA) across four starts, with the highlight being this weekend. Owen threw six shutout frames against the Lions, allowing just five hits and no walks. With SEC games now on the doorstep, Owen has proven himself to be a reliable starter who can face even tougher lineups.

Holton as the ace

Sophomore lefty Carter Holton had another excellent outing on Friday. In 99 pitches, Holton threw six innings while striking out seven and allowing just three hits with a solo homer. Somewhat similar I think to Owen, Holton aims to pitch to contact and to trust the defense behind him to get outs. With only seven walks given over his 20.1 innings, Holton has kept runners off the basepaths so that when he makes a mistake, it’s only a solo homer or a single to drive in one run. His WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) is only 1.131 with an ERA of 2.21. While Holton may not have the sort of overwhelming fastball or ridiculous slider that makes the highlight reels, his consistency of efficient outings is among the best in the SEC.

Clutch pitching late

Given Vanderbilt’s inability to score runs (more on that in a moment), the pitching needed to be heroic to win this series. Other than Sunday’s 9-6 loss, the Commodore staff held the Lions to just one run over the 2-1 and 2-0 wins on Friday and Saturday respectively. Following Holton’s exit Friday, Sam Hliboki put in another excellent three-inning performance. Hliboki retired all nine batters he faced to earn the win for his fourth decision in five outings (2-2). On Saturday, Bryce Cunningham and Nick Maldonado combined to close out the win, keeping the Lions hitless over three innings. These high-leverage performances become more common and more necessary when a team is struggling on offense. Counting the 17-inning win on Wednesday, Vanderbilt could have gone 1-4 this week if the bullpen hadn’t been this strong.

Three down.

Starters aren’t hitting

Across the Commodore lineup, the hitting stats are down from last year. The team batting average is only .247, way down from last season’s .286. Of the six qualifying hitters (currently those with at least 53 plate appearances), only RJ Schreck is hitting above .300. Three of last year’s eight qualifying hitters were .300 or better. The most concerning decline so far has been Enrique Bradfield Jr. Bradfield Jr.’s 2022 season saw him hit .317, swipe 46 bases at a perfect 100% rate and even hit eight homers. Now in his junior season, Bradfield Jr. is hitting just .239, only 9-for-12 on stolen base attempts with one home run. The star names like Bradfield Jr. will need to find their form again for this Commodore team to really hit their stride.

Not finding last year’s power

As I’ve said before, the biggest preseason question mark for Vanderbilt’s roster this year was who would step in to hit for power. With last year’s top three home run hitters gone, others certainly would need to fill that void. So far, the results have been underwhelming. Schreck, the favorite to be Vanderbilt’s home run leader, has the co-lead so far with three. Catcher Alan Espinal hit three in the first week but hasn’t found his fourth since. While several others have two homers, the team overall is left with 17, the third-fewest in the SEC. To compare, Florida and South Carolina both have 45 long-balls, albeit against easier schedules. 

Catchers still struggling

Jack Bulger and Espinal again split at-bats this weekend behind the plate, but the former seems to be the favorite to keep the primary spot. While Bulger was just 1-for-5 and is batting just .160, he’s drawn eight walks in only 36 plate appearances for an enormous 22.2% rate. If you took away Espinal’s three-homer burst from the start ― as magical as it was  ― he’d be batting .077 and slugging the same. Both will still get playing time as catchers always do over a long season, but Bulger seems to be the more reliable option moving forward.

The Commodores will next play Belmont on Tuesday, March 14 at First Horizon Park in Nashville at 6 p.m. CDT.

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About the Contributor
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].
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