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

Vandyboys Mailbag: Previewing the SEC Tournament

On Wednesday, the Commodores are set to face the Auburn Tigers in the second round of the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama.
Vanderbilts+seniors+were+honored+before+the+Commodores+games+against+Arkansas+on+May+20%2C+2023+%28Vanderbilt+Athletics%29.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Vanderbilt’s seniors were honored before the Commodores’ games against Arkansas on May 20, 2023 (Vanderbilt Athletics).

The No. 8 Vanderbilt Commodores finished their regular season with an impressive series win over Arkansas to finish 19-11 in the SEC and lock up a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. While it’s been a rocky few weeks for Tim Corbin and co., that series win likely earned the VandyBoys a national seed, meaning they’ll be able to host both a Regional and a Super Regional if they make it that far. First up though, Vanderbilt and its injury-riddled pitching staff will need to navigate the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama. With games in Hoover underway, we at The Hustler have opened up the mailbag to answer a few of the VandyBoys questions from our readers.

The VandyBoys’ first postseason game will be on Wednesday, May 24 at the Hoover Met against Auburn, with the first pitch at approximately 8 p.m. CDT.

1. Is the season salvageable and what do the Commodores need to do in the SEC Tournament?

Andrew Wilf, Sports Editor: The 2023 Vanderbilt season is absolutely salvageable. Just one week ago, things looked bleak for the Commodores as they had just lost series to Alabama and Florida in consecutive weeks. Fortunately for the Commodores, things clicked in their final regular season series of the year, as they beat the No. 2 Arkansas Razorbacks in two of three games. This spectacular series win is likely good enough to place Vanderbilt in the top 8 of seeding for the NCAA Tournament. To have the best chance of improving their NCAA Tournament seed and making it far in the SEC Tournament, Vanderbilt will need to bring the momentum from last weekend to Hoover.

Although winning the SEC Tournament is the main goal, Vanderbilt’s strong 37-17 (19-11 in the SEC) regular season record provides the Commodores with a lot of breathing room if they were to exit the SEC Tournament early. An early departure could provide Vanderbilt with much-needed rest for the team’s bullpen and entire roster. The past two National Champions, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, did not win a game in the SEC Tournament. 

Vanderbilt’s hitting is the driving force behind Vanderbilt’s success. Behind RJ Schreck, who posts a .329 batting average, and Enrique Bradfield Jr. who is a force to be reckoned with when there are runners in scoring position, the Commodores have a strong foundation. Bradfield Jr. has had a run in each of his last two games.

2. Will the lack of playing time from a lot of the depth pieces on the team pose a problem down the line as games ramp up and the season wears on?

Frankie Sheehy, Deputy Sports Editor:

It really depends on whether we’re talking about the bench or the depth in the bullpen. For the bench, it is true that Corbin has used a very consistent lineup. TJ McKenzie, Calvin Hewett and Alan Espinal have gotten more at-bats in the last couple weeks, but Hewett and Espinal are the only non-starters with over 50 plate appearances.

However, I wouldn’t be worried too much about the schedule intensifying for them. Most of these players have ambitions to play at the professional level, where position players are expected to play six games a week, every week for six months. Even in this ramped up college postseason, teams still aren’t playing more than five games per week. The only spot where you need to regularly rotate the lineup is catcher, but Jack Bulger and Espinal have more or less been doing that anyway. Unless there’s an injury to one of the starters, I wouldn’t expect them to have much difficulty keeping up with the schedule.

As for the bullpen, it’s a bit more concerning. The Commodores have only 13 healthy pitchers on the roster, and I’m not sure how many of them are stretched out to pitch five or six innings. That will be a much trickier issue, especially given how rocky the bullpen has been at times anyway. Speaking of which…

3. Can we get consistent bullpen play while dealing with injuries?

Luke Rollfinke, Senior Staff Writer: While injuries have put a strain on Vanderbilt’s starting pitching, the bullpen has remained competent over the past few weeks and there’s no reason to believe that will change in the postseason. Two weeks ago, Corbin’s relievers allowed just six earned runs in 13.2 innings of work in Gainesville. They followed that up with an even better performance last weekend against Arkansas, surrendering six earned runs again in 15.1 innings.

The key to consistent bullpen play throughout the postseason will be finding a few reliable arms that can provide length if a starter should need to leave a game early. Nick Maldonado and Ryan Ginther have proven that they are capable of shutting down opponents in the late innings, but giving them the opportunity to enter the game with a lead will require solid production from some of Vanderbilt’s less dominant pitchers.

Fortunately, Corbin has a slew of options to turn to when looking for that production. Bryce Cunningham and Patrick Reilly have both struggled in starting roles, but have been much better coming out of the bullpen and could eat innings if Vanderbilt falls behind early. Sam Hliboki has re-emerged over the last few weeks, allowing just one earned run in his last five outings and Grayson Moore has not allowed a run in five appearances since returning from an early-season injury. Even David Horn, who has thrown just 13.1 innings at the collegiate level, looks like a potential difference maker after tossing scoreless outings against Louisville and Arkansas in recent weeks. If two or three of these student-athletes can provide stability in the middle innings, Vanderbilt should have no trouble getting consistent play from the bullpen moving forward.

4. What’s going on with Carter Holton and Hunter Owen? Will they be back soon?

Rollfinke: While the specifics of what they are dealing with have not been made public, both Holton and Owen have been held out of the last few series due to arm injuries. This isn’t the first instance either pitcher has missed time this season: Holton missed a start in early April against Missouri and Owen was unable to throw against South Carolina and Tennessee. The timing of their current absences is concerning given that the postseason is imminent. 

As for when they will return, it seems like Holton’s season may be finished. Prior to last weekend’s series against Arkansas, Corbin told 102.5 radio that “He [Holton] is gonna need more time than, maybe, what we have.” Fortunately, Holton is not expected to require surgery, which suggests that he should be fully healthy by the start of 2024. 

There is significantly more optimism surrounding Owen’s ability to return to the mound this year. Whether that return will come this week in Hoover or during Regionals has yet to be determined. Corbin’s recent comments suggest that Vanderbilt fans have yet to see the last of Owen as a Commodore.

5. While Hoover probably won’t matter for Vanderbilt’s seeding, what individual players can these games be useful for?

Sam Curtis, Sports Copy Editor: For Vanderbilt, this tournament is crucial for momentum. The ‘Dores started the season hot but cooled off after some injuries and offensive struggles. Bad results in series against Tennessee, Alabama and Florida had many people starting to dig a grave for the 2023 season, but after the turnaround in the recent Arkansas series, it seems this squad could make a postseason run after all. Riding the momentum from the latest results into the SEC Tournament will be critical to finish strong. Remember, it’s not who starts best but who finishes best.

As for individual players, Devin Futrell could really use a few nice outings. The sophomore gunslinger has looked less than stellar in his last three opportunities on the mound, throwing 17.1 innings and giving up 13 earned runs and 18 hits in that time. Futrell is a centerpiece to Vanderbilt’s starting rotation and, with Holton likely out for the year and Owen on the mend, he’s all that much more important to the team moving forward.

On the offensive side, Troy LaNeve is a name to watch in Hoover. The senior has only stepped up to the dish 20 times all year, but he has back-to-back games with 3-run homers and could be the answer to late-season offensive questions. If LaNeve is suddenly giving consistent runs to the VandyBoys, this team is dangerous.

Overall, the offense needs to continue putting points on the board. In past years, the problem in the late season hasn’t been pitching, and with Owen’s possible return, I predict that trend will continue. Instead, scoring runs and developing strategies to find offense against strong opponents should be the Commodores’ main objective (other than winning it all) for this competition.

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About the Contributors
Andrew Wilf, Sports Editor
Andrew Wilf (’24) is Sports Editor for The Vanderbilt Hustler. He is from Livingston, N.J., and is majoring in history and minoring in business. He joined the sports staff his freshman year, previously serving as a Staff Writer, Assistant Sports Editor and Deputy Sports Editor. Beyond writing for The Hustler, he is also the host of Anchor Analysis, Commodore Clash and Live From West End. In his free time, Andrew enjoys watching the NFL and playing golf. He can be reached at [email protected].
Frankie Sheehy, Deputy Sports Editor
Frankie Sheehy ('24) writes for The Hustler Sports section and is a student in the College of Arts and Science with majors in economics and law, history and society. He's also the president of the Vanderbilt Chess Club and a superfan of the Chicago White Sox. You can reach him at [email protected].
Sam Curtis, Sports Copy Editor
Sam Curtis (’24) is from Wallingford, Conn., majoring in human and organizational development and French and minoring in data science in Peabody College. He was previously Assistant Sports Editor and Deputy Sports Editor. When not writing for The Hustler, he cheers on the Philadelphia Eagles, the 76ers and Leeds United. Outside of sports, he enjoys traveling and learning about history and philosophy. He can be reached at [email protected].    
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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