Tony Kemp only walked 90 feet, but it was the first 90 feet on a journey that the Commodores hope will end in Omaha. The men's baseball team opened their season in California this weekend, dispatching #28 San Diego in a three game sweep and beating San Diego State in a one game showdown to prove their mettle in the start of what has been a much-hyped season.
Kemp, the team's freshman leadoff hitter, started #3 Vanderbilt's season off with a walk and eventually came around to score on a single from transfer Sam Lind two batters later to start the 'Dores season off on a high note. Behind a clutch offense and some stellar pitching down the stretch, Vandy made an early-season case for their top five presence in several preseason polls. Late-inning rallies broke ties in the team's final two games to secure the team's solid start. The wins helped bump Vandy into the top three in BaseballAmerica's collegiate poll.
There were several differences on display between this year's team and last, most notably Jason Esposito's shift from third base to shortstop. There, he displayed some slick fielding chops but also committed a pair of errors, keeping former Freshman All-American Anthony Gomez at second base for the time being. Additionally, newcomers Kemp, Lind, Conrad Gregor, and Kevin Ziomek were all called on for significant innings for Tim Corbin's squad, and each displayed the composure and talent to give Commodore fans a reason to to optimistic about this season and years beyond.
Game 1: Vanderbilt 4, San Diego 3 (5 innings): Connor Harrell's RBI single proved to be the difference in the team's rain-shortened season opener Friday afternoon. Vanderbilt pushed three runs across the plate in the first inning of the 2011 campaign but couldn't hold on as a rusty Sonny Gray struggled in the first inning before rounding into form. Gray allowed three runs on four hits - all in the opening frame - and had six strikeouts over his final 3.1 innings on the mound.
Game 2: Vanderbilt 7, San Diego State 3: Highly-touted freshman Kevin Ziomek made his first collegiate start and was impressive, allowing only one earned run in 5.1 innings for the 'Dores. Esposito and Aaron Westlake each had a pair of RBIs for Vandy, who needed four ninth-inning runs to get past the pesky Aztecs.
Game 3: Vanderbilt 3, San Diego 1: Taylor Hill shut down the #28 Toreros with solid command, allowing just five baserunners in 7.1 innings while striking out eight. A Bryan Johns RBI double broke a 1-1 tie in the seventh inning, and Tony Kemp's follow-up single gave the 'Dores an insurance run later in the inning.
Game 4: Vanderbilt 7, San Diego 3: Vanderbilt led 6-0 after four innings in a game that was never really in question. Grayson Garvin was able to roll over the momentum of some stellar summer league performances into his first start of 2011, dominating the Toreros throughout the game. Garvin took a perfect game into the seventh innings and a shutout into the ninth while striking out 10 batters on the day, earning the win. Six different players had RBIs for the Commodores in the victory.
The Henry Rowengartner Hot-Ice Excellence in Pitching Award Goes to...
Taylor Hill/Grayson Garvin - Two Vanderbilt pitchers put together dazzling starts to open the season for the Commodores, but you won't find Sonny Gray or Jack Armstrong on that list. Who would have thought that Taylor Hill, the steady-but-unheralded starter would have had one of the country's best performances on the mound this weekend? Or that Hill's dominant showing would be out-done hours later by Grayson Garvin, who was equally impressive in 8.1 innings against San Diego on Sunday. The pair combined for 15.2 innings, zero walks, 18 strikeouts, and just 10 hits and three earned runs.
The Clu Haywood "How's your wife and my kids?" Destroyer of Pitchers Award Goes to...
Tony Kemp - Has Vanderbilt already found their replacement for Brian Harris just eight months later? Kemp, a true freshman, took over the leadoff spot for the team's opening series and responded by reaching base at least twice in every game, rapping six hits, walking twice, and stealing four bases on five attempts. Kemp's blazing speed makes him Vandy's biggest threat on the basepaths, and he made a statement with his play this weekend, showing that he's ready for the top spot in the order regardless of his age. Kemp could be a catalyst for the Commodores, and with Esposito, Westlake, and Casali behind him you can expect to see him crossing home plate several times this season.
So, there's your recap. Award winners can pick up their custom-made plaques at the AoG main offices located in the middle of the Wisconsin State Capitol in the midst of about 12,000 other terrible-smelling, off-tune chanting protestors. The Commodores got the best possible start that they could out of their season, and they got important contributions from several newcomers at the same time. The team's rotation - one of the best in the country - came up big with four solid starts, including two great outings from Vandy's less heralded hurlers. As Gray and Jack Armstrong round into shape and Ziomek adjusts to the college game, this team will be a scary five-deep rotation of bonafide NCAA caliber starters. That alone will make this team a contender - and we haven't even gotten into the offense yet.
It's gonna be a good year to be a Commodore.
Next Game: vs. Belmont 2/23
Weekend Series: vs. Stanford (2-1, #8 according to Baseball America)