Three up, three down: VandyBoys surge in the Bayou

The No. 6 Commodores continue their winning ways and conquer the LSU Tigers with wins on Friday and Saturday.
Braden Holcomb celebrates a home run during Vanderbilts matchup against LSU, as photographed on April 6, 2024. (Vanderbilt Athletics)
Braden Holcomb celebrates a home run during Vanderbilt’s matchup against LSU, as photographed on April 6, 2024. (Vanderbilt Athletics)
Vanderbilt Athletics

After a bounce-back series sweep against Missouri, Vanderbilt had another big test against reigning College World Series champions LSU. After dropping the first game 10-6 on Thursday, April 4, the Commodores came alive and won the second two matchups, 8-6 and 13-3. These victories came on the back of impressive offense and strong bullpen performances. 

Though this series win looks less impressive with LSU dropping out of the AP Top 25, the Tigers were ranked No. 18 coming into the weekend and in need of a statement win. The VandyBoys stomped out doubters and emerged victorious, moving from No. 7 to No. 6 and improving their record to 25-7 (8-4 in SEC) in the process.

Three up.

Offensive explosion

After putting up 33 runs against Auburn in its first SEC series, Vanderbilt had struggled to create consistent offense. Even when sweeping Missouri, the Commodores only scored 10 runs across three games. The team was leaning too heavily on its bullpen, which is already growing thin due to injuries. Luckily, promising underclassmen came in clutch and helped Vanderbilt put 27 runs on the scoreboard in its three matchups with LSU. This total is more than the Commodores scored against both Missouri (10) and South Carolina (9) combined. 

Jayden Davis shined, going 7-of-12 with 8 RBIs, Calvin Hewett went 4-for-9 and freshman Braden Holcomb got the start on Friday and Saturday as he went 4-of-7 with 5 RBIs.

Notably, in the Commodores’ 13-3 rout to close out the series, Vanderbilt underclassmen (RJ Austin, Camden Kozeal, Davis and Holcomb) contributed 9 of the team’s 14 hits and sported a batting average above .500. This bodes well for the rest of the year and the VandyBoys’ future as a whole.

The ace

Despite the offensive resurgence against LSU, Vanderbilt’s College World Series hopes still ride on its bullpen. The unit sparkled against Missouri, but could it do the same against Tommy White & Co. away in Baton Rouge? Yes. 

Kind of.

Greysen Carter gave up 7 earned runs on just 3.2 innings pitched on Thursday, and Bryce Cunningham couldn’t fare much better on Friday, allowing 5 earned runs on 4.1 innings pitched. The two combined for 8 strikeouts and 11 hits allowed across their 24 combined outs. However, the lefty ace Carter Holton stymied the Tigers’ bats. The junior allowed just 2 earned runs in 6 innings with 10 strikeouts and 6 hits allowed. 

On the season, Holton now leads the team with 44 innings pitched, 67 strikeouts and a perfect 5-0 record. His ERA is 3.27 and has given up just a single home run all year.

It’s still early, and Vanderbilt will face tougher opponents than the Tigers, so my words should be taken merely as encouragement, not congratulations. Holton’s early 2024 performances read like an ace, but time will tell if the star can last into the dog days of college baseball. Down the stretch, he’ll doubtlessly be called upon to deliver the same strong performances against superior opposition.

The back-half bunch

Though Carter and Cunningham struggled against LSU, the Black and Gold’s bullpen picked up the slack in a major way. Sam Hliboki, David Horn Jr., Levi Huesman, Brennan Seiber, Ethan McElvain and Miller Green all stepped onto the mound this weekend. For these relievers and closers, it’s no easy task to step into a tense SEC matchup and throw your best stuff, but that’s exactly what this group did.

Combined, the tag team pitched 11 innings and gave up 9 hits and just a single earned run. That’s a 0.82 ERA. You can add in 15 Ks just for the heck of it — those are video game numbers.

The cherry on top of it all? Five of those six pitchers are underclassmen, including three freshmen in Seiber, Green and McElvain. Ok, now pick your jaw up off the floor. 

With Andrew Dutkanych IV out for the season and Devin Futrell in recovery, these young heat-slingers will get more opportunities to showcase their talent. I guarantee this is the beginning of a few impressive careers.

Three down.

Walk it out

Everyone knows the classic “Moneyball” call-and-response between Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane and analyst Peter Brand: “‘Do I care how he gets on base?’ ‘You do not.’” 

The idea here is that a walk in baseball has the same outcome as a single. Although the bats were moving this weekend, Vanderbilt struggled to get men on base the easy way: with walks.

In their Thursday loss, the Commodores struck out 16 times to just 1 walk. Alternatively, they had 1 walk to 6 strikeouts on Friday and 4 walks to 8 Ks on Saturday. The improvement in the two victories is notable, but the overall output is still concerning.

Vanderbilt was out-walked by the Tigers 9 to 6 and was well behind pace of its season average 4.4 BBs it had prior to the series.

This may sound nitpicky, but it’s a skill to judge pitches, and getting six walks on 104 at-bats is unacceptable. This is one easy way the Commodores can continue to improve their offense.

Errors, errors and more errors

Defensive fielding was the main storyline of the South Carolina series, as the VandyBoys committed five errors across three games that resulted in nine unearned runs crossing the plate. Against Missouri, the Commodores cleaned their act up and faltered just once, however, Vanderbilt committed four more errors this weekend, resulting in four more unearned runs. 

Jonathan Vastine, Alan Espinal, Davis and Hewett were guilty of the infractions, and the more concerning part here is that only Davis is an underclassman. The rest are experienced ballplayers who shouldn’t be contributing errors at this point in their career. Davis (2B), Hewett (CF) and Vastine (SS) are all repeat offenders from the South Carolina series and must clean their act up to help their pitching staff. 

As of right now, I’d be peppering the center of Vanderbilt’s defense with target practice if I were Texas A&M.

Offensive output is great, but Vanderbilt must back it up with error-free defense to survive in an unforgiving field of SEC foes. Speaking of which…

VandyBoys’ outlook

The Commodores’ schedule is no walk in the park. So far, they’ve risen up to the challenge of ranked opponents, beating both Auburn and LSU when those teams were in the top 25. Still remaining on their slate, though, is No. 3 Texas A&M, No. 24 Florida, No. 22 Mississippi State, No. 4 Tennessee and No. 8 Kentucky. In fact, the only unranked series they have left is against Georgia. 

This will surely test Vanderbilt’s mettle and legitimacy as title contenders. The main danger here is fatigue, but Commodore faithful can trust that head coach Tim Corbin knows how to pace his squad after enough years behind the helm. 

With the Tigers tamed, the Commodores move on to a midweek tilt with Middle Tennessee State University tonight, April 9, at 4 p.m. CDT. Then, this weekend, the VandyBoys travel to College Station, Texas to face Texas A&M. The first pitch of that series is on Friday, April 12, at 6 p.m. CDT.

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About the Contributor
Sam Curtis
Sam Curtis, Former Deputy Sports 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 Sports Copy 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].    
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