Jack Leiter shines as Vanderbilt downs South Alabama in home opener

Jack Leiter struck out 12 of the 16 batters he faced in his five-inning outing.

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Mattigan Kelly

Jack Leiter winds up to throw during Vanderbilt's 3-0 victory over South Alabama.

Alyssa Muir and Bobby Kent

255 days.

That’s how long it had been since the Vandy Boys last played a regular season game at Hawkins Field, where the game three victory over the Duke Blue Devils in the Super Regional is still a very fond memory. Turn the page to 2020, however, and the wait finally ended as the Commodores were back at the Hawk for their home opener where they defeated the South Alabama Jaguars 3-0. 

In the first of an 11-game homestand, Vanderbilt looked to get back on track in its match-up against South Alabama following an inconsistent weekend at the MLB4 Tournament. Two losses by one run to Michigan and Cal Poly combined with a lone win over UConn left the Commodores staring down a 1-2 record to start the year. 

Looking to do his part to right the ship, highly touted freshman Jack Leiter took the mound for his Vanderbilt debut. He certainly did his part and more. The moment was never too bright for the youngster as he collected swings and misses at a rapid pace. In five innings pitched, Leiter faced 16 batters and struck out all but four of them en route to a 12 strikeout night. Using his fastball to overpower hitters high and low and his slider and curveball down and outside, he kept hitters off balance all night. He did not allow a hit and only walked one. He also struck out the side three times. 

“[I had] a little bit of nerves the night before,” Leiter said of his first collegiate start. “But right when I got out in warm-ups I was pretty confident and, obviously, on the mound I was confident in the guys behind me and throwing to CJ [Rodriguez].”

In an inning that would set the standard for the rest of his start, Leiter struck out all three batters he faced in his first inning, two by swinging and one by looking as his fastball topped 94 mph. 

“[Leiter] was very deliberate on the mound, and he was getting on the mound, getting a sign, and getting down the hill,” Coach Tim Corbin said. “Same mannerisms, same face and that was very impressive. First time out and conditions weren’t easy obviously. For a young kid to get on the mound and do that in his first start was impressive.”

The offense then provided an immediate cushion for Leiter in the first, scoring a pair of runs on three hits. Austin Martin reached on error to lead off the inning and Cooper Davis followed that by reaching safely on a bunt. After a CJ Rodriguez shallow pop-up, senior and designated hitter Ty Duvall, having previously been sidelined by injury, brought in two runners on a base knock to center field. 

The early runs were a new development for the Commodore offense, who in the MLB4 Tournament did not score more than one run in the first five innings of any of the three games. Coming into this match-up, there was a question as to who would fill the offensive void left by those such as JJ Bleday and Philip Clarke, who left for the Major Leagues last season. The answer may still be unknown, however, as a different player every game seems to make his case. This game was Duvall’s night as he recorded all three RBIs. 

Leiter, meanwhile, continued to dominate through the opening frames, as his quick delivery and fast pace threw off South Alabama hitters. Nine of the first ten batters he faced went down on strikes as two-thirds of his pitches found the zone. Even as the young pitcher allowed what would be his only walk in the fourth and the runner advanced to second on a low pitch, he retained his composure and forced a pop-up to left to escape the jam. 

“I was throwing mostly curveballs and sliders,” Leiter said. “But I really think it was just executing each pitch and taking it one pitch at a time.”

Despite the first inning success, the bats went cold through the next three innings, totaling a combined one hit against South Carolina’s starter Matt Boswell. Cooper Davis provided the aforementioned base knock as the offense flew out five different times. 

In the fifth inning, the Commodores left two in scoring position when center fielder Isaiah Thomas grounded out to short after Duvall drew a walk to load the bases. 

Leiter’s night was done after five innings, and freshman Thomas Schultz entered the game in relief. Schultz picked up right where Leiter left off as he promptly struck out the side. 

“[Schultz had] the same type of pace, was deliberate, got down the hill well and looked unfazed,” Corbin said. “He didn’t get to a three-ball count very often, and when he did, he came right back with a strike.”

Vanderbilt threatened again in the bottom of the sixth when Harrison Ray hit a single and then proceeded to steal both second and third base. The Commodores couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity, however, as Tate Kolwyck popped-out and Carter Young grounded out to second to end the inning. 

South Alabama recorded their first hit of the game in the top of the seventh on an infield single by Ethan Wilson, but Schultz kept his composure and retired the next two batters. 

The Commodores added to their lead after the seventh-inning stretch when Duvall hit into a fielder’s choice that plated Martin. CJ Rodriguez, who was on first when Duvall was at the plate, made contact with South Alabama’s second-basemen Dakota Dailey on his slide. When Dailey went down, it gave Martin the time he needed to round third base and score, pushing the Vanderbilt lead to 3-0. 

“That was head-ups,” Corbin said of Martin’s play. “He’s a heads-up guy. He’s one of those kids where if you give him an inch, he takes a mile. And that’s what he did. He’s always paying attention to what’s going on in the field and he’s got very good instincts as a baserunner.”

South Alabama was unable to make any noise in their final two innings as Schultz continued to hammer the strike-zone. He finished with seven strikeouts and just two hits allowed over four innings, and the Commodores were victorious by a score of 3-0.