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Vanderbilt Baseball: America's Hottest Team Headed Into the College World Series

Will Clinard didn't really know how to react when Jason Esposito told him that he "didn't know how to quit you," so he just kinda tried to laugh it off. Espo was crushed.
Will Clinard didn't really know how to react when Jason Esposito told him that he "didn't know how to quit you," so he just kinda tried to laugh it off. Espo was crushed.

A 46-7 aggregate score. The Commodores trailing just one-half out of 44 innings of play. Sonny Gray's .71 WHIP. Aaron Westlake's three home run game to cap it all off - Vanderbilt didn't just win on their way to the College World Series; they left a trail of scorched bats and demolished opponents in their wake.

With five straight wins, the Commodores have staked their claim as the hottest team in the country right now. Only North Carolina, with a similarly dominant 5-0 record, can challenge them for the title. They'll fly to Omaha to face those Tar Heels with a blooming sense of confidence despite making their first-ever trip to the College World Series.

This team's Super Regional play was a revelation. It was one thing to rake against good, but not great, teams like Troy and Belmont, but another to post a 20-4 advantage over Oregon State, who was a top five presence through much of the season. After dispatching the Trojans and Bruins last week, the 'Dores steamrolled the Beavers in a way that few could have predicted. Behind upperclassman leadership and a raucous home field advantage, Vanderbilt easily eliminated a dangerous team that had posted series wins against national powers like UCLA, Stanford, and Arizona State.

These victories can be traced directly to the athletes for whom they mean the most; Vandy's soon-to-be-departing upperclassmen. Sonny Gray, snakebitten in the 2010 NCAA Tournament (1-1, 5.28 ERA), has been lights out in his final playoff push for Vanderbilt, going 2-0 with a 0.71 ERA in two starts so far. Aaron Westlake carried this team past Oregon State with his monumental three homer game on Saturday and has four dingers, 10 RBI, and seven runs scored over the last two weeks.

The other cornerstones of the Vandy lineup, Curt Casali and Jason Esposito, have combined to bat .316 and account for 10 runs and 14 RBI of their own. Even senior Taylor Hill, the less heralded member of the Commodores' ultimate rotation of nastiness (tm), put together the team's most impressive performance on the mound in the postseason so far. Hill struck out 13 Belmont batters last week over eight innings to clinch the team's first home Regional series win.

However, recent history suggests that this team may still have trouble capitalizing on the great performances of the past two weeks.

Vanderbilt baseball teams have historically had problems turning momentum into success. The 2007 squad took a dominant run through the SEC Tournament and translated that into a pair of losses to Michigan in the Nashville Regional a week later. Three years later, Vandy's comeback in the Louisville Regional manifested itself into an 8-9 opening game loss at Florida State the following week and an eventual Super Regional loss.  Will these failures set the standard for Commodore disappointment, or will they serve as a learning point for a veteran team that's grown exponentially over the past few seasons?

Based on the way things have played out in 2011 so far, it appears to be the latter. The team's run through the postseason - surprisingly devoid of ulcer-inducing moments - has been the most dominant baseball that anyone has ever seen from a Vanderbilt squad. With their berth in the College World Series, the team has already earned the success that will go on to define Coach Tim Corbin and the players from this team. 

After coming close and falling short for several years, Vanderbilt is headed to Omaha on the backs of the players who built the team up after postseason failures. If you take a look at the 12 players drafted from this team in last week's MLB Draft, you'll find a laundry list of guys who have come up big so far in the NCAA Tournament. These are the athletes who, after at least three years in Nashville, decided they'd had enough of "so close." Now, they're the guys who can give the university it's first ever men's national championship. For guys like Westlake, Gray, Garvin, and Esposito, I can't think of a better going-away present.