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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.

Takeaways from VandyBoys’ dramatic Kentucky sweep

The Commodores proved that they are serious national championship contenders with a dramatic sweep of No. 15 Kentucky.
RJ+Austin+turning+a+double+play+on+April+30%2C+2023+%28Hustler+Multimedia%2FBarrie+Barto%29.
Barrie Barto
RJ Austin turning a double play on April 30, 2023 (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto).

The No. 5 Vanderbilt Commodores (32-11, 16-5 SEC) trailed in two out of three games this weekend against No. 15 Kentucky; yet, they came away with all three. Even when the offense seemed outmatched in Sunday’s finale, trailing 2-1 into the bottom of the ninth, the VandyBoys brought late magic to walk it off on an Alan Espinal single for a final score of 3-2.

With the Commodores now 16-5 in the SEC, here are some of the most important factors that led to a fantastic sweep.

Matthew Polk appreciation week

Matthew Polk may not be the biggest star of the Vanderbilt lineup and had to fight in the early weeks to secure his starting job in left field. He usually has not been playing late in wins, being lifted almost every time for Calvin Hewett. Let’s not overlook what he’s done though. Polk is hitting .323, the third highest average of the main starters and boasts an impressive .383 on-base percentage as well.

Against Kentucky, Polk was 5-for-10 with three doubles. While Espinal’s walk-off clinched the game Sunday, Polk’s double to the wall was probably the most important swing of the game. It put the tying run on third and the winner on second with no outs, a jam Kentucky wasn’t able to escape. Polk also had the only Vanderbilt RBI of the game before the ninth, driving in Chris Maldonado from first with two outs in the fourth inning.

For most teams in college baseball, the eight-spot in the batting order is a weakness that pitchers target. Given what we saw in the first few weeks out of left field, that role could have been the biggest problem in Vanderbilt’s lineup as well. Polk’s production has been tremendously valuable, never letting pitchers rest when they get to the bottom hitters.

Reilly gets the Friday win

Patrick Reilly was another standout performance. After a rough, short outing for Carter Holton on Friday, Reilly entered in the fourth inning down 3-2 with the bases loaded and two outs. He started with a strikeout of Wildcat catcher Devin Burkes to end the frame. Reilly would then pitch four more innings, allowing just one run while striking out nine more hitters. Ten total strikeouts is an excellent number for a starter. It’s extraordinary for a reliever. Four walks is more than Reilly would have liked, but that shouldn’t take away from how critical his outing was. He took over with Vanderbilt down a run and at risk of letting the Wildcats run away and ended his outing with a two-run lead for Nick Maldonado in the ninth. It’s a well-earned third win of the season for Reilly, who will be an increasingly important long reliever for Vanderbilt down the stretch.

Big bullpen innings

While Reilly was the most impressive reliever, the whole bullpen had a major bounce-back weekend after its struggles last week against Indiana State and Tennessee. Reilly, Maldonado, Thomas Schultz, Ryan Ginther, Sam Hliboki, Grayson Moore and Jack Anderson covered 13.1 innings between them. In total, the bullpen allowed just two runs.

Maldonado was untouchable in his outing after blowing a save on April 21 against Tennessee. He quickly struck out the side to seal Friday’s 6-4 win. Schultz and Ginther did more than enough to hold a 5-2 lead through four innings Saturday, with Vanderbilt eventually winning 9-3. On Sunday, Devin Futrell had the best start of the weekend, pitching six innings and allowing two runs.

Yet, the Commodores were down 2-1. Hliboki, Moore and Anderson ― all of whom entered Sunday with an ERA over five ― pitched three crucial scoreless frames to keep Vanderbilt within one and give the offense a chance to win it in the ninth as they did. While questions still exist about the bullpen’s depth, the seven guys who pitched this weekend were essential to sweeping a dangerous Kentucky offense. That bullpen staying strong ― maybe with a soon return of Andrew Dutkanych IV ― will be key for the Commodores going forward.

RJ-squared at it again

We’ve seen plenty of times this year how dangerous RJ Schreck and RJ Austin are at the plate and in the field. On Sunday, Tim Corbin even put RJ-squared back-to-back in the batting order with Jack Bulger getting the day off. While Sunday wasn’t their greatest day, the two RJ’s were both big parts of the series.

Schreck had exactly one walk and one hit in each game. His biggest moment of the series was a two-run homer on Friday night in the fifth inning that put the Commodores up 5-3. His walk that night came with the bases loaded to add an insurance run. Overall, Schreck notched three runs scored and 4 RBIs over the weekend, bringing his totals to 44 and 49 in those two categories, respectively.

For his part, Austin was 5-for-11 on the weekend. He hit the first of back-to-back homers in the third inning Saturday night with Chris Maldonado, with his solo shot putting the VandyBoys up 3-2 then. Austin totaled 4 RBIs on Saturday alone, plating a run in three different spots.

Championship contenders

This sweep might have been the biggest series of Vanderbilt’s season so far. Coming off a humiliating weekend against Tennessee that caused them to drop a spot to No. 5 in the D1 Baseball rankings, the Commodores needed a good result against Kentucky, a formidable SEC East rival. Boy did they get one. The sweep takes the Commodores to 16-5 in the SEC, the best record in the conference and 1.5 games ahead of South Carolina in the East.

Vanderbilt has three SEC series remaining: Alabama away, Florida away and Arkansas at home. While Alabama is struggling more, Florida and Arkansas are fellow top-10 teams nationally. After that, the Commodores will head to Hoover, Alabama, for the SEC Tournament.

If the VandyBoys play the next three series like they did against Kentucky, they’ll almost certainly be the top seed in Hoover. These remaining series are a big opportunity for the Commodores to cement their ranking. Including the three remaining midweeks (and May 9 against Louisville), Vanderbilt has 12 games left in the regular season. A 9-3 finish with a non-disastrous showing in Hoover should be plenty to secure both a host Regional and Super Regional in the top eight. Going 8-4 or even a bit worse is probably good enough, too, as long as Vanderbilt avoids another sweep.

With the gritty, clutch performances Vanderbilt showed this weekend, Corbin and Co. proved that they are serious contenders for a national championship this June in Omaha. As long as they stay focused and continue to play the way they can on both offense and defense, the Commodores will be set up perfectly for a postseason run. They’ve certainly done enough so far to put themselves in that position.

The VandyBoys will next play on Tuesday, May 2, for a midweek against Georgia State at 6 p.m. CDT 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].
Barrie Barto
Barrie Barto, Editor-in-Chief
Barrie Barto ('25) is majoring in medicine, health & society with neuroscience and communication of science & technology minors in the College of Arts and Science. She previously served as Photography Director. When she's not strolling around campus with her camera, you can find Barrie cheering on the St. Louis Blues or tracking down the best gluten-free food in Nashville. She can be reached at [email protected].
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