Vanderbilt (22-15, 7-8) hosted the 10th-ranked Florida Gators (24-12, 8-7) this weekend in what proved to be an exciting weekend series right in the heart of SEC play. The Vanderbilt bullpen struggled on Thursday night, but Kyle Wright bounced back Friday, not needing them at all in a complete-game shutout. The Gators dominated Vandy’s pitching on Saturday, however, to take the rubber game of the series and jump ahead of the Commodores in conference play.
Kyle Wright looks dominant in three-hit shutout
Maybe moving from the No. 1 starter to the No. 2 was all the motivation Wright needed. He was flawless on Friday night, hurling all nine innings for the Commodores, allowing just three hits and striking out a career-high 13 batters in a win. Wright had been struggling earlier in the year, sporting an ERA that sat at a whopping 5.59 at one point. But he has really settled down as of late, and this is his second start in a row with no earned runs allowed. In front of 37 scouts from Major League teams, Wright proved why he remains a projected top-10 pick in this upcoming draft, showing excellent command of all four pitches in his arsenal and constantly keeping the Florida hitters off-balanced.
Will Toffey continues to rake
After a lackluster performance last season, Toffey has been red-hot nearly all season long for the Commodores. That didn’t change this past weekend, as Toffey wasted no time blasting a shot off the top of the left-field wall to open Thursday night’s game. He would finish with five total hits in the series, and if not for a couple great defensive plays by the Gators, that number easily could have been seven. Even when Toffey hasn’t gotten hits, he finds a way to get on base. The junior third baseman is hitting .318 on the year but has gotten on base at a .467 clip, ranking first on the team.
It’s no secret that head coach Tim Corbin loves to mix it up a bit to manufacture runs. How many other coaches have their top-five prospect square to bunt in his first two at-bats?
The small ball was on full display on Thursday night, as the Commodores scored their first two runs of the game off bunts from Alonzo Jones and Connor Kaiser. They followed it up in the fourth inning when Jones reached on an error and groundouts from Kaiser and Ro Coleman scored the runs. Friday was much of the same, with Kaiser dropping down a suicide squeeze with two strikes to score what would prove to be the deciding run. Nearly every starter squared to bunt at some point against the Gators, with most of them getting them down. The hitting has been strong, but if it begins to struggle, Corbin has a lethal weapon in his back pocket.
Fellows struggles again
SEC hitters just refuse to be kind to Drake Fellows. Saturday marked the second straight start in which the true freshman failed to get through three innings of action, after getting roughed up for two home runs in the top of the first. In front of a sold out crowd at Hawkins Field and thousands more watching on ESPN2, the nerves seemed to get to Fellows early.
He found himself leaving a large number of his pitches in the dirt and left a couple more right over the heart of the plate. Corbin might decide to move Fellows to the mid-week role starting next week, as his ERA has skyrocketed from 1.00 to 3.67 since the start of conference play.
What’s going on with the bullpen?
Now more than halfway through the year, the Commodores don’t have a reliable formula out of the bullpen. Just a week after tossing seven scoreless innings of relief, Matt Ruppenthal walked the first two batters he faced in Thursday’s game. Reed Hayes came in to close the ninth and was tagged for five runs to blow the save opportunity.
Saturday was no better. Vanderbilt trotted out six pitchers after Fellows exited the game in the top of the third inning. Those pitchers gave up 15 runs in the next seven innings, highlighted by an eight-run third inning in which Collin Snider allowed five runs without even recording an out. His ERA jumped a full two points in the process. In fact, the game that Vanderbilt won this weekend proved to be the only one in which it didn’t use the bullpen at all.
History not on the Commodores’ side
If you want to find the last time Vanderbilt gave up 20 runs in a game, go all the way back to 2002 in a loss to South Carolina. The coach then: Roy Mewbourne.
That’s right, it’s the most runs that this team has ever surrendered in a game under Corbin. The Commodores are also four losses away from equaling last year’s loss loss total, yet they’re 21 games away from the win total. If Vanderbilt takes anything away from this series, it’s that it can compete with any team in the country on any given night, but with this level of inconsistency, it’s going to need to right the ship fast.