I won't lie to you - I didn't believe in this Commodore team back in May. I didn't see a national championship on the horizon. It wasn't like 2007, 2011, or 2013, when the foundation of talent reset the expectations anyone could put on Vanderbilt baseball. This year's squad had a solid roster, but it all seemed to be one season too soon for Tim Corbin's cache of talented underclassmen. There were missteps during the season, a pitching staff that was in flux, and a batting order with serious holes at the bottom of the lineup. Once this team lost a 7-2 decision to Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament, I was convinced that we were seeing the foundation for a future contender - but not a College World Series favorite.
I was wrong. In the best possible way.
These Commodores - all
but two of whom were making their first trip to Omaha - showed a fanbase where big victories are few and far between how to win. They showed us how to take advantage of opportunities; how to grind out a win in ulcer-inducing conditions. If this CWS final were judged on aggregate score or by the number of innings won, the 'Dores would have lost handily - but that's not how it works. This team came through when the margin of error was nil and their chances were keyhole-sized to deliver Vanderbilt's first-ever men's NCAA Championship. Virginia didn't make many mistakes, but when they did, the retribution was swift and severe.
When UVA coach Brian O'Connor left his struggling starter Nathan Kirby on the mound for three batters too long in game one, the Commodores made sure every one of those players came home. When nigh-untouchable reliever Nick Howard left a 96-mph fastball up in the zone in game three, John Norwood was there to promptly deposit it over the left-field fence to score a championship-winning run. When the Cavs came back to load the bases in the bottom of the eighth inning - mirroring a scenario that carried them to a game two victory the night before - Adam Ravenelle and Vince Conde were there to shut the door on them.
This team was packed with future MLB talent, but it wasn't just Vanderbilt's headline players who shone through. Dansby Swanson may have been World Series MOP and Carson Fulmer may have been the ace this team relied on for its biggest games, but afterthoughts like Norwood (undrafted) and Tyler Campbell (one start, one tasing headed into the CWS) played as big a role as anyone in the most important games in Vanderbilt history. Karl Ellison didn't hit a lick, but he and Jason Delay kept enough wild pitches in front of him to keep Vandy's CWS opponents at bay. Freshman Bryan Reynolds raked throughout June. Rhett Wiseman looked like Willie Mays in right field. Vince Conde alternated frustrating plays with game saving ones. Everybody on this squad played a role. The Commodores wouldn't be NCAA Champions if they were missing a single member of this team.
That's a long journey for a team that looked like they were sputtering out in April. After all, Tim Corbin's monster squads of 2007, 2011, and 2013 never lost weekend series to middling teams like Tennessee or Texas A&M. But they didn't win a national title, either. Something clicked for these guys after getting bounced from Hoover, and every player on the roster felt it. The unceasing ache of falling short turned out to be the fuel for an all-time run through the College World Series.
I thought this team was another link in a chain that would lead to eventual greatness. They knew all along that they were the anchor - the mooring that will hold a tremendous program in place amongst college baseball's elite. It just took a few painful lessons along the way to realize it