Previewing Vanderbilt Baseball’s title defense

Vanderbilt begins the 2020 season against Michigan in a title series rematch.

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Hunter Long

Coach Tim Corbin looks on during Vanderbilt's fall scrimmage against Michigan.

Will Fritzler, Staff Writer

The Vandy Boys are back.

The Commodores, who captivated a university and fanbase en route to an SEC regular season title, SEC tournament title and national championship last June, begin their title defense on Friday against Michigan to open the 2020 season.

Vanderbilt baseball lost several key players from its titanic 2019 runmost notably shortstop Ethan Paul, outfielder Stephen Scott and outfielder JJ Bleday, who was picked fourth overall in the 2019 MLB Draft by the Marlins. Fortunately, Vanderbilt’s national pedigree translated into the nation’s top 2019 recruiting class, and the team retained multiple veteran linchpins from last year’s run, like third baseman Austin Martin, the nation’s top MLB prospect according to Perfect Game; pitcher Mason Hickman, who earned the win in the championship-clinching game last June; and infielder Harrison Ray, who was named to the SEC preseason 2nd team.

Tim Corbin, who enters his 18th season as Vanderbilt’s head coach, has admitted the difficulties of forming a new lineup with some of last year’s talent moving up to the majors. “It helps to have kids that have been through things before so they can relay information, but at the same time you’re recreating another team. It’s only dependent upon what you’re doing right now–it’s not dependent on what happened,” Corbin said.

For the second season in a row, Vanderbilt begins as a favorite to win the national championship. The Commodores are ranked first in the country in preseason rankings by Baseball America and NCBWA, and second by D1Baseball behind Louisville, the team Vanderbilt beat to advance to the College World Series Championship against Michigan.

The path back to Omaha, where Vanderbilt has competed in three of the last six seasons, could be challenging. Four other SEC teams are ranked in the top ten of Baseball America’s poll, including Florida and Georgia, both in the Eastern Division alongside Vanderbilt. Arkansas was picked to win the Western Division in the 2020 SEC preseason poll and has a playoff pedigree, having finished as the national runner-up in 2018.

The Commodores play 18 nonconference games before opening their conference slate against Kentucky on Mar. 13. After the MLB4 Collegiate Baseball Tournament in Scottsdale, Arizona, Vanderbilt plays a spate of non-power five teams in Nashville before playing UCLA, USC and TCU in Los Angeles Mar. 6-8. The Bruins, who finished 52-11 last season after losing to Michigan in the Los Angeles Superregional, could be Vanderbilt’s biggest nonconference test.

In SEC play, Vanderbilt avoided an interdivision series with Arkansas but faces stiff tests against the electric pitcher Emerson Hancock and Georgia at home (Mar. 27-29) and on the road against Florida near the end of the regular season (May 7-9).

Should Vanderbilt finish in the top 16 teams at season’s end, it will host an NCAA Regional tournament whose winner will advance to an NCAA Superregional. Last year, the Commodores defeated Indiana State to win the Nashville Regional before beating Duke in the Nashville Superregional to advance to Omaha. That three-game series, like the College World Series Championship, saw the Commodores lose the first game before winning the last two, the first of which featured Kumar Rocker’s stunning no-hitter.

The MLB4 tournament, which Vanderbilt also participated in last year, begins with the College World Series Championship rematch between the Commodores and Wolverines and also features UConn and Cal Poly. The Commodores will face UConn on Feb. 15 and Cal Poly on Feb. 16 in the tournament’s concluding game.

Michigan was a dark horse team last year, scoring an improbable victory over UCLA in the Los Angeles Superregional before advancing as an unseeded team to the College World Series Championship. Head coach Erik Bakich, in his eighth year with the Wolverines, was previously Corbin’s assistant at Vanderbilt from 2003 to 2009. Though Michigan similarly lost a chunk of its top talentstarting pitchers Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffmann, and outfielder Jordan Brewerit enters the heavyweight tilt with Vanderbilt as favorites to win the Big Ten Conference. They are ranked 13th by D1Baseball and scored a 3-2 exhibition victory over Vanderbilt at the David Williams Fall Classic on Nov. 10 last year.

On starting the season against Michigan, Ray said, “It’s been fun playing each other, very competitive for us. But once you get to go against somebody else, to compete with your guys against an opponent, that’s the ultimate joy.”

UConn finished 39-25 last year, losing in the final of the Oklahoma City Regional to Oklahoma State, but has finished in the top three of the Big East Conference Tournament every year since 2013. Cal Poly, which competes in the Big West Conference, finished 28-28 in 2019 and hasn’t appeared in the postseason since 2014.

Corbin expressed excitement about returning to Scottsdale to start the season. “We’re excited to be part of this again. We enjoyed it so much, thought it was a good celebration to start the season. I think it’s a great celebration for the kids. Good for them, good for the program,” Corbin said.

Hickman will start against Michigan, Rocker will take the mound against UConn and Jake Eder, who earned the championship save, will start against Cal Poly.

Commodore fans can catch the start to the much anticipated 2020 season with Vanderbilt vs. Michigan on Friday Feb. 14 at 6 p.m. on MLB Network. Vanderbilt’s games against UConn and Cal Poly can be streamed at MLB.com.