When the Vanderbilt baseball team took the field for the first time Friday afternoon, the temperature hovered around the mid-40s. The way the team was playing, however, made it feel like the middle of summer. The #32 ranked Commodores displayed mid-season form in a three-game sweep of an outmatched Purple Eagle squad to kick off the NCAA Baseball season.
The team showed little rust in dispatching their MAAC opponent by a combined 46-5 score over the weekend. Vanderbilt attacked the Purple Eagles with solid batting and pitching to jump out to a 3-0 record on the season. The Commodores only trailed for two out of 27 innings and used their big leads to let their young bench players take the field, often in impressive fashion.
Game 1 - Vanderbilt 9, Niagara 0: Sophomore ace Sonny Gray threw eight shutout innings in the season opener, striking out eight and allowing only three hits. The Commodores struck first with a five run fourth inning and never looked back. Joe Loftus had three RBI to lead Vanderbilt, including the game's first run with a double into the gap in right center field.
Game 2 - Vanderbilt 16, Niagara 2: Junior Taylor Hill kept the streak of solid pitching alive by striking out nine batters in 6.2 shutout innings against the Purple Eagles. Vanderbilt used patient hitting (and wild pitching) to drive their offense, recording 10 walks and racking up an on-base percentage of .511. A great example of this was the sixth inning, where the team had only one hit - a bunt - but took advantage of Niagara mistakes to score three runs. Shortstop Brian Harris was the team's biggest weapon at the plate, reaching base and scoring on all four of his at-bats. Harris added two RBIs as well.
Game 3 - Vanderbilt 21, Niagara 3: It was relatively smooth sailing as the team closed out the sweep on Sunday. Vanderbilt trailed after the first inning, and then led by nine after the second. Regan Flaherty, Jason Esposito, and Curt Casali combined for eight hits and 14 RBI on the game. Preseason All-American Jack Armstrong had a disappointing first inning, allowing three runs, but bounced back to finish the day with four scoreless frames and three strikeouts.
More analysis, including AoG's prestigious batting and pitching awards, after the jump...
The Henry Rowengartner Hot-Ice Excellence in Pitching Award Goes to...
Sonny Gray. Eight shutout innings, eight strikeouts, and one walk are the numbers Vanderbilt needs from its ace. Gray showed that he was ready for the season on Friday, and while the Purple Eagles weren't the stiffest competition, Gray looked good in silencing their bats in the first game of the season.
The Clu Haywood "How's your wife and my kids?" Destroyer of Pitchers Award Goes to...
Jason Esposito. There are a lot of worthy candidates here, as Curt Casali and freshman Regan Flaherty also had big weekends. However, Esposito wins for leading the team with seven RBI, three doubles, and one home run in the three-game series. He finished the weekend with 13 total bases and also contributed one stolen base and zero strikeouts.
So there's your recap. Award winners can pick up their plaques at the Anchor of Gold main offices located deep underneath the Peabody campus. The team will aim for another cold weather victory Tuesday vs. Austin Peay before heading to Los Angeles, California for battles with USC, #23 UCLA, and Oklahoma State. The weekend should provide a solid litmus test of what to expect from these Commodores in SEC play, as their opponents are all solid major conference teams with high NCAA Tournament hopes. If the young squad can roll their composure over into next week's play, they'll solidify their bid to become a Top 25 team.