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 come up short in Tuscaloosa

Some takeaways from Vanderbilt’s series loss against Alabama.
Vanderbilts+RJ+Schreck+lays+out+for+a+ball+in+a+2-1+loss+to+Alabama+on+May+6%2C+2023+%28Vanderbilt+Athletics%29.
Vanderbilt’s RJ Schreck lays out for a ball in a 2-1 loss to Alabama on May 6, 2023 (Vanderbilt Athletics).

The VandyBoys entered last weekend in search of a series win over an Alabama team that was just 9-12 in conference play and was led by an interim head coach after Brad Bohannon was fired on Thursday morning. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt won just one of three games.

Due to underwhelming performances from some of the other top teams in the conference, though, Vanderbilt remains atop the SEC standings. Nevertheless, with series against No. 7 Florida and No. 3 Arkansas on the horizon, Tim Corbin’s bunch will need to bounce back quickly if it wants to remain atop the SEC. 

Here are some takeaways from last weekend’s performance. 

Three up.

Davis Diaz

There has been a lot of criticism surrounding Corbin’s decision to continue batting Davis Diaz second in the lineup given his struggles at the plate, but the third baseman took every opportunity this weekend to prove why he belongs there. In 12 plate appearances, Diaz recorded three singles, two doubles and a walk while driving in five of the seven runs Vanderbilt scored this weekend. He also played phenomenal defense, making multiple difficult plays moving to his left and charging in on slow ground balls. In a series that had very few bright spots, Diaz shone like a star at the top of the Commodore lineup.

It’s no secret that this season has not gone as Diaz had hoped. He was moved away from shortstop, has one of the lowest batting averages on the team (.251) and has shown minimal power at the plate (13 extra-base hits in 179 at-bats). However, this weekend was a reminder of the potential that made him worthy of being drafted by the Diamondbacks in the 12th round of the 2021 MLB Draft. If he can build upon this performance over the next few weeks, it would give the VandyBoys an immense boost at the plate. Hitting remains the team’s biggest question mark, and getting consistent contributions from someone like Diaz could go a long way toward finding an answer.

Southpaws

In the days leading up to the series, a frequent talking point was debate about how Vanderbilt’s starting pitchers would fare against an Alabama lineup that has absolutely destroyed left-handers this season. While Carter Holton struggled due to a lack of control in his start on Thursday, Hunter Owen and Devin Futrell proved that they were more than up to the challenge — putting together back-to-back dominant starts that kept the Commodores in close games. 

When Owen missed two consecutive starts due to fatigue a few weeks ago, it was difficult not to wonder if it might take him some time to get back into form. He quieted those concerns this weekend, giving up just one run in seven innings pitched in Vanderbilt’s lone victory over the Crimson Tide. He struck out nine batters while allowing just two baserunners in a dominant display. If he can replicate that performance a few more times in the coming weeks, Owen may see his name called on opening night of the MLB Draft this summer. 

Futrell followed up Owen’s gem with seven strong innings of his own. Futrell allowed very little hard contact and commanded the strike zone, walking just one of the 25 batters he faced. On almost any other day this season, his outing would have been enough to earn a win. However, the offense scored just one run, so he exited with the score tied, giving way to Thomas Schultz who surrendered a solo home run that ultimately proved to be the difference in the game. 

Outfield arms and gloves

Vanderbilt has been one of the best defensive teams in the SEC this season and, while the infield had some struggles in Tuscaloosa, the outfield put on a clinic once again this weekend. As is often the case, Enrique Bradfield Jr. stood out in center field, making a slew of running catches including a ridiculous over-the-back grab at full speed to rob Tommy Seidl of an extra base hit on Friday night. 

However, the most impressive display of outfield prowess this weekend came on Saturday, when RJ Schreck and Bradfield Jr. made back-to-back excellent plays to keep the game tied in the seventh inning. With two outs, Colby Shelton lined a base hit into right-center field and turned toward second base. He decided against it, however, and turned back to first after recognizing that Schreck had sprinted into the gap and cut off the ball. The next batter, Ed Johnson, ripped a line drive into left-center field that looked like it also had a chance to roll to the wall. However, Bradfield Jr. slid and blocked the ball before picking it up and firing it to second base, throwing out Johnson as he tried to extend the hit into a double. Shelton would have scored easily had he reached second base prior to Johnson’s at-bat, but the stellar defense of Schreck and Bradfield Jr. forced Alabama to leave the inning empty-handed. While the Commodores ultimately lost the game, the outfield’s ability to prevent extra-base hits was admirable.

Three down.

Situational hitting

The story of the weekend was Vanderbilt’s inability to bring home runners in scoring position (RISP). In 24 at-bats with RISP, the Commodores recorded just three hits, passing up countless chances to put runs on the board. Even when a sacrifice bunt or fly ball would have sufficed, Vanderbilt failed to execute.

Vanderbilt entered the weekend with the highest batting average in the league with runners in scoring position at a staggering .339, so some regression was inevitable. Still, batting .125 in clutch situations over the course of a weekend is a tough pill to swallow. Vanderbilt does not have the power hitters necessary to score consistently via the long ball, so cashing in with runners on base is crucial for the team’s success offensively. Hopefully, this weekend was just a fluke as continued struggles with RISP would only put more pressure on the pitching group.

The freshman wall

It appears as though RJ Austin and Chris Maldonado have “hit a wall” at the exact same time. These freshmen have combined for one hit and eight strikeouts in 21 at-bats this weekend, showing signs that the toll of a long SEC season is starting to get to them. In addition, Austin’s struggles have permeated into his performance at second base, where he made multiple errors in recent weeks. 

Despite their struggles this weekend, Austin and Maldonado remain two of the most valuable hitters in Vanderbilt’s lineup. Austin is third on the team in hits and RBIs, while Maldonado trails only Schreck, Noland and Jonathan Vastine in extra-base hits despite having significantly fewer plate appearances. Given their importance to the team’s offensive success, Vanderbilt needs to take the necessary steps to help these two freshmen climb the wall they are facing. Whether that’s giving them a few days off to reset their approaches or continuing to let them work through their struggles against competition, it will be crucial to improving the Commodores’ run-scoring ability moving forward.

SEC away teams

While losing two of three games in Tuscaloosa was an unfortunate result for the Commodores, almost every other SEC team that played on the road faced a similar fate. Florida dropped two of three to the Aggies in College Station, LSU lost its series in Auburn, Tennessee left Athens with just one win over Georgia and South Carolina got swept in Lexington by the same Kentucky team that went 0-3 in Nashville two weeks ago. Throw in Vanderbilt’s two losses to Alabama, and that’s five series this weekend in which a hosting team that was either unranked or ranked lower than its opponent won multiple games against a top-25 opponent. 

Home teams have dominated throughout SEC play, illustrating the importance of Vanderbilt earning a national seed and hosting both a regional and a super regional should it make it that far. Welcoming opponents to Hawkins Field this summer would elevate Vanderbilt’schances of earning a spot in Omaha. To do so, the Commodores will likely have to win at least two of their final six conference games against Florida and Arkansas. 

The VandyBoys will be back in action on Tuesday, May 9, for a matchup with Louisville at 5 p.m. CDT.

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About the Contributor
Luke Rollfinke
Luke Rollfinke, Senior Staff Writer
Luke Rollfinke ('25) is a student in the College of Arts and Science planning to major in mathematics with a minor in communications. Luke loves all things sports, so when he's not writing for The Hustler, he's probably either playing for a club or intramural Vanderbilt sports team. You can reach him at [email protected].
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