It didn't take Conrad Gregor too long to get acclimated to Hawkins Field. One at-bat, to be exact.
The touted freshman homered in his first Hawkins Field at-bat and helped set the tone for the Commodores' second come-from-behind victory of the weekend as Vanderbilt used a 3-1 week to surge into second place in the ESPN/USA Today and BaseballAmerica National Rankings. It's the team's highest ranking since May of 2007 when the 'Dores were the top national seed to open the NCAA Tournament.
Strong efforts from veterans and freshmen alike propelled Vandy in what was likely their stiffest test before conference play begins. A pair of gems from starters T.J. Pecoraro and Sonny Gray staked the team to two wins before the weekend even started, leading up to the team's gutsiest performance to date. On Saturday, the 'Dores erased Stanford leads of 3-0 and 7-4 to clinch a series win Saturday against the then #8 ranked Cardinal. The wins propelled the team to 7-1 on the season; they currently only trail division rival Florida in the eyes of the pollsters.
Game 0: Vanderbilt 6, Belmont 2 - T.J. Pecoraro made an immediate impact in his first collegiate start, throwing four scoreless innings and notching five strikeouts to record the win. Corey Williams threw two perfect innings in relief in his second appearance back after last year's terrible/awesome/terribly awesome shattered kneecap. Tony Kemp continued his hot streak against the Bruins with a pair of RBIs and a stolen base.
Game 1: Vanderbilt 2, Stanford 1 - Sonny Gray struggled with his control early, walking in a run in the first, but recovered to shut down visiting Stanford in the series opener. Gary walked four batters in the first two innings before settling down to earn the win. Navery Moore blasted his way through the final frame - hitting 99 mph on the radar gun - to stake his claim as a potentially elite closer and a major weapon in Coach Tim Corbin's arsenal. Curt Casali and Anthony Gomez's back-to-back two-out doubles in the sixth inning proved to be the difference maker in the win.
Game 2: Vanderbilt 8, Stanford 7 - The middle of the lineup propelled the 'Dores, as the 3-8 hitters combined for all eight of the team's RBI in the comeback win. Gregor and Aaron Westlake went deep for the team's first two homers of the year, while Jason Esposito added a two-run double with two outs in the sixth to tie the game. Anthony Gomez played the hero once again, adding his second game-winning RBI of the series with a slow-rolling fielder's choice in the eighth before Moore came in to close things out for his third save of the season.
Game 3: Stanford 5, Vanderbilt 2- The Cardinal used outstanding pitching to exact some revenge on the Commodores, limiting Vandy to just five hits and stopping a potential sweep. Vanderbilt got hits in only the fifth and ninth innings, and a late rally was squashed by a Connor Harrell double-play that sunk the home team. Stanford's Jordan Pries was great on the mound, allowing only three hits in seven innings for the win.
The Henry Rowengartner Hot-Ice Excellence in Pitching Award Goes to...
Navery Moore. Gray and Pecoraro had good starts, but Moore's development into a top-flight closer could be one of the team's biggest storylines of 2011. The junior has always been one of this team's most talented players but had been sidelined by Tommy John surgery and related ailments since stepping onto campus. This year, he seems to be at full strength and is staking a claim as one of the NCAA's hardest throwing relievers. With Russell Brewer gone, the Commodores needed a steady presence in the ninth inning, and Moore - who is simultaneously a veteran and a fresh face thanks to injuries - looks like a safe bet to provide that. He's got three saves, a 0.00 ERA, a 0.50 WHiP, and four strikeouts in four appearances so far this year.
The Clu Haywood "How's your wife and my kids?" Destroyer of Pitchers Award Goes to...
Aaron Westlake. The 'Dores won this week behind a balanced attack at the plate, and this award could have gone to Esposito, Gomez, Gregor, or Mike Yastzremski just as easily, but Westy gets the nod thanks to a 3-3 performance in Saturday's big win that included a home run and a pair of walks. The redshirt junior is the team's biggest power threat and their rock in the middle of the lineup. He also showed a bit of speed on the basepaths, swiping second against Belmont but also getting caught later on in the week against Stanford.
So, there's your recap. Award winners can pick up their custom-made AoG plaques at our headquarters located in the back room at Piranha's Bar on 2nd Avenue - home of some nearly-authentic Primanti Brothers' sandwiches. The Commodores proved that they belonged this weekend with a big series win against the highly-rated Cardinal. Now, they'll get a bit of a breather with weekend series against Brown and Illinois-Chicago in games whose attendance will be dictated primarily by how nice it is outside. The next few weeks should provide a stage for Tim Corbin to feature his young players and take stock of this team's talents. Though they'll be tested, it's nothing these 'Dores can't handle after dispatching Stanford this weekend.
vs. Western Kentucky, March 1
vs. Brown (Brown's season opener. Hoo boy.)
Ed. Note - For another excellent take on Vandy baseball, don't forget to check out our friend NYD over at When [It] Strikes Me. You won't be disappointed.