SEC Tournament preview: VandyBoys begin title defense Wednesday

Following a heartbreaking loss to Kentucky on Saturday, Vanderbilt enters the SEC Tournament as the No. 4 seed.

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Freshman outfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. racked up four SEC honors. (Twitter/@VandyBoys).

Justin Hershey, Sports Editor

The return of the SEC Baseball Tournament in Hoover, Alabama, is finally on the horizon. Beginning Tuesday morning, all 14 of the conference’s programs will vie for the coveted automatic NCAA Tournament bid given to the tournament’s champion.

Upon first pitch on Tuesday, 730 days will have passed since Hoover last hosted the tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Vanderbilt, the third-ranked team nationally, enters as the tournament’s defending champion after erasing a 9-1 Ole Miss lead in the championship game on May 26, 2019, to win 10-9.

The goal will be similar for the 2021 VandyBoys but the circumstances are quite different. Following a heartbreaking 7-5 ninth-inning loss to the Kentucky Wildcats in the regular season finale, the Commodores lost their chance at an SEC East crown and the No. 2 seed in the tournament.

“They are over it now. The best thing about this is we [only] have three days between games,” head coach Tim Corbin told the media Monday. “Suddenness in anything that you do, it hits you.” 

Nonetheless, Vanderbilt sits as the tournament’s No. 4 seed. But with several injuries both to the pitching staff and the heart of the lineup, it may be an uphill climb for Corbin’s squad to claim the program’s fourth SEC tournament title.

The Bracket & Format

In total, six of the tournament’s 14 participating teams will enter the tournament nationally ranked. Along with the top three teams in the tournament—Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi State—the Commodores have earned a first-round bye. These four squads will closely monitor the single-elimination first-round games on Tuesday to learn their opponent for Wednesday’s second-round games.

Vanderbilt enters the SEC Tournament as the No. 4 seed. (Twitter/@SEC).

The Commodores await the winner of a potentially highly competitive first-round matchup between the Ole Miss Rebels and the Auburn Tigers. Vanderbilt just recently battled the fifth-seeded Rebels in mid-May, losing two of three in Oxford. The 12th-seeded Tigers were swept by the Rebels in their first SEC series of the season, but won five of their last seven regular season games.

The second round is double-elimination format, meaning a loss on Wednesday would not kill Vanderbilt’s chances for an SEC championship. Considering this format, Corbin said that it would be freshman Christian Little taking the hill in the Commodore’s first tournament game on Wednesday.

Little has started eight games this season, last throwing 4.2 innings on May 18 against Florida International. The righty will enter Wednesday’s matchup with a 5.57 ERA in 11 appearances this season. 

By pitching Little on Wednesday, Corbin will have aces Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter available for Thursday’s third-round game.

Honored by the SEC

Before the games begin on Tuesday, the SEC announced winners of its annual awards and Vanderbilt was well-represented.

Freshman outfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. came away with an incredible four honors highlighted by the league’s Freshman of the Year award. He was also selected to the All-SEC First Team, the SEC All-Defensive Team and the Freshman All-SEC team. Bradfield Jr. ranks fourth in the conference in batting average (.366) and leads the conference in steals (42).

Rocker and Leiter joined Bradfield Jr. on the All-SEC First Team and Leiter claimed the SEC’s Newcomer of the Year award. Vanderbilt’s aces finished the season first and second in the conference in strikeouts and are both projected top-ten picks in the upcoming MLB Draft. 

Carter Young joined Leiter on the Newcomer All-SEC team and freshman Jack Bulger was selected to the Freshman All-SEC Team thanks to his .297 batting average and five home runs.

Injuries, injuries, injuries

One of the biggest storylines for the Commodores entering the tournament will be the team’s health. After a late-season shoulder injury to Carter Young, Troy LaNeve—who had emerged as a force in the middle of the Commodore lineup—injured his foot attempting to catch a ball at the warning track on Saturday against Kentucky.

Young leads the Commodores in both home runs (14) and RBIs (47) but an MRI revealed structural damage to his left shoulder. 

“Carter is day-to-day right now,” Corbin said. “If he can do anything at all—we have to turn in the [tournament] roster [Monday night] by six o’clock—I would include him, but it probably is the back end of this [when he is available].”

LaNeve, on the other hand, is trending in the right direction. Corbin said he has “greatly improved” since injuring his foot on Saturday but is still day-to-day. 

Vanderbilt’s pitching staff has also been hit by the injury bug throughout the season. Sophomore Sam Hliboki’s season ended in early May due to Tommy John surgery and Corbin ruled out freshman Miles Garrett for the season last week due to a stress fracture. Junior Ethan Smith has also not pitched since April 3 after contracting COVID-19, but Corbin is optimistic that he will be available this week in Hoover.

“Smith—he is throwing right now—has felt really good the last three days,” Corbin said of his reliever. “If he is available, it’s going to be low volume because he just hasn’t thrown a lot.”

Limiting the long-ball, Riding hot streaks

One key area of focus for this banged-up staff as they enter the SEC tournament will be limiting home runs. Commodore pitchers have surrendered 43 home runs in SEC games this season, including six and five in their last two series respectively. But Corbin is not too concerned about this trend, citing improved offense across the board in the SEC.

“Power pitchers, good swings. Home runs are up in this conference right now. I would say offense is up in the conference too,” Corbin said. “The pitching is good, it’s just you have higher velocities, command is down a bit, and counts favor the hitter.”

Those 43 home runs created more than 60 of the staff’s 131 runs allowed during SEC play. In comparison, Corbin’s 2019 staff allowed just 19 home runs in SEC play, but a similar run total of 134.

“I think everything is correctable. It’s how you are managing your pitches,” Corbin added. “You certainly hope down the stretch here we are able to contain that a little bit more.”

Luckily for the Commodores, the bats have picked up in recent weeks. The VandyBoys are averaging nearly seven runs per game in their last six SEC games largely thanks to the emergence of LaNeve and consistent production from juniors Isaiah Thomas and Dominic Keegan.

LaNeve’s availability would be a large boost to the Commodore lineup. In his eight games started, he has provided serious pop from the left side of the plate. He is currently boasting a .390 batting average and over his last six games has racked up ten hits, eight RBIs and three home runs, including a two-run walk-off homer against Kentucky on Thursday. 

Thomas has also been hot of late, registering hits in 11 of his last 12 games while driving in 11 runs over that span. He enters the tournament with 11 home runs and a .327 batting average.

Keegan notched his sixth multi-hit performance in his last eight games on Saturday and enters the tournament second in the SEC in batting average (.379). Additionally, with 45 RBIs, he is on the cusp of passing Young for the team lead. 

Vanderbilt’s gut-wrenching loss to Kentucky on Saturday certainly gave Corbin’s team a harder path than anticipated to the SEC Tournament championship. But with just two more days to prepare for the season’s first postseason tournament, the Commodores are eager to put the loss behind them.

“We talked about it and we put it in the perspective that it deserves,” Corbin said. “Someone might tell you, ‘you lost an opportunity at the division.’ I’d ask you, ‘do you remember who the Eastern division champion was in 2014?’ Take your wild [guess] about it, but you know who the national champion was. There is no medal for going halfway up the hill. It’s the team that finishes.”

The Commodores will begin their quest for consecutive SEC Tournament championships on Wednesday.