If you’re going to be sailing in uncharted waters, it can only help the situation to have several veteran Commodores aboard your ship.
That will be the case Friday when the NCAA baseball season officially opens with Vanderbilt — yes, Vanderbilt, usually the most maligned athletic member of the mighty Southeastern Conference — beginning the campaign with the number one ranking squarely on its shoulders.
Before the 2014 Commodores made their unlikely run to the national championship after a so-so 17-13 mark in conference play, the only Vanderbilt athletic team that had ever claimed a national title was the 2007 women’s bowling squad. But when Vandy closer Adam Ravenelle slammed the door on a final-inning rally attempt by Virginia at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park in the College World Series title game, Coach Tim Corbin’s Commodores (completing a 51-21 season) found themselves on top of the collegiate baseball world.
On Tuesday, with USA Baseball’s announcement that three Vanderbilt players — more than that of any other team — were on its 50-player preseason Golden Spikes Award watch list, the Commodores know big things are expected of them again, although simply excelling in the top-loaded SEC will be challenging enough.
Vandy’s Golden Spikes trio — juniors Dansby Swanson, Walker Buehler, and Carson Fulmer — are among 12 SEC players on the USA Baseball preseason watch list, the most of any conference. There are 10 Atlantic Coast Conference representatives and eight from the Pac-12. The award was won last season by another SEC star, A. J. Reed of Kentucky, who became the first player in SEC history to lead the league in both home runs and pitching victories in the same season. Reed was a second-round pick of the Houston Astros after his phenomenal year for the Wildcats.
The Vanderbilt horses will be trying to join 2007 award winner and current Detroit Tiger ace David Price as the only Commodores to claim the prize. Swanson, who was named the CWS Most Outstanding Player last season, hit .333 and led the nation with 27 doubles. This spring he makes the move from second base to his more favored location of shortstop as he heads up the Commodore position players.
Buehler and Fulmer, following in the footsteps of past Vandy greats Price, Mike Minor (Atlanta Braves), and Sonny Gray (Oakland A’s), will anchor another formidable pitching staff. Buehler was 12-2 in 2014 with a 2.64 ERA and 111 strikeouts, and then was named the top prospect in the Cape Cod League after a sterling summer. Fulmer, who began 2014 in the ‘Dore bullpen, moved to the starting rotation around the middle of SEC play and threw his next 29.2 innings without giving up a run. He finished at 7-1 with a microscopic 1.98 ERA, 10 saves, and 95 strikeouts in 91 innings.
The other SEC teams won’t be conceding the conference crown to the Commodores, however. Defending SEC champion Florida, led by 2014 SEC Freshman of the Year Logan Shore and junior shortstop whiz Richie Martin, is joined by six other teams who have Golden Spikes watch list finalists. LSU boasts junior shortstop Alex Bregman (.316, 6 HR, 47 RBI as a sophomore); South Carolina has soph pitcher Wil Crowe (8-3, 2.75 ERA, Freshman All-American); Tennessee features junior outfielder Christin Stewart (.322 career average as a Vol); Auburn fields soph hurler Keegan Thompson (5-3, 2.01, Freshman All-American); Ole Miss has junior southpaw Christian Trent (a stunning 9-0 in 2014, with a 2.05 ERA); and Georgia offers soph pitcher Robert Tyler (6-4, 2.68, another Freshman All-American).
Individual stars don’t tell the whole story in the SEC. Depending on which national ranking you check, as many as seven conference teams make appearances in the Top 25. Vanderbilt tops virtually every preseason poll, but you’ll find LSU as high as second, Florida fifth, South Carolina tenth, Mississippi State 14th, Ole Miss 18th, and Texas A&M 23rd.
The Commodores open the 2015 slate Friday to begin a three-game weekend series with Santa Clara in Nashville. The Broncos were 26-30 last season, but went 17-11 in WCC play. The other SEC openers (all beginning Friday): Kentucky is at Ball State (then at Richmond Saturday and at UNC-Wilmington Sunday); Missouri visits Iona; Auburn hosts Binghamton; South Carolina entertains the College of Charleston; Arkansas is at home for North Dakota; Georgia hosts Eastern Illinois; Ole Miss is home for William & Mary; Mississippi State entertains Cincinnati (and also Miami of Ohio on Saturday); Florida is in Gainesville for Rhode Island; Tennessee visits Florida International; Alabama brings in Maryland-Eastern Shore; Texas A&M meets Holy Cross in College Station; and LSU hosts the Kansas Jayhawks.
Other games of note after the weekend: Auburn travels to South Alabama Tuesday; Vandy goes to Belmont and Florida heads to South Florida on Wednesday; and Kentucky is at Southern Cal on Thursday.
Vanderbilt’s schedule next month features a Los Angeles trip in which it will face nationally ranked UCLA (March 6), Southern Cal (March 7), and then third-ranked Texas Christian in a Sunday game at Dodger Stadium. The Commodores face another non-conference ranked foe May 12 at Louisville.