The original plan was to write a Hot/Not column to analyze Vanderbilt's strengths and weaknesses as the Illinois Super Regional looms. Instead, it got sidetracked by the best possible kind of problem. The Commodores are running so hot that only two batters are even hovering around a 60 degree day. And, as Stringer Bell once opined, at 60 degrees, "[uh, people whose company you enjoy] is damn near barbecuing on that motherf------."
Instead, we're looking at a Hot/Lukewarm lineup for the Commodores. The entire offense could fit into that latter category. Vanderbilt scored 36 runs over three games to make it to baseball's sweet 16. This may be my hubris poking through, but putting up 12 runs per contest in Champaign should only lead to success. Especially if they can get the kinds of performances that make Dansby Swanson look average by comparison. Examine these final Regional lines for Vanderbilt's starters:
Ro Coleman was otherworldly; he got on base two out of every three times he came to the plate. Bryan Reynolds sent notice to everyone who thought he might backslide back into his slump by hitting over .500...and that was still only fourth-best among Vanderbilt regulars. Possible #1 overall pick Dansby Swanson doesn't even look that special until you realize that his lone home run wound up being the difference maker in Saturday's winner's bracket game against Indiana.
Only catcher Karl Ellison and second baseman Tyler Campbell underperformed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Ellison adds defensive value, and any slump at the plate can be mitigated should Delay's huge Monday become a trend (though this is a very small sample size, Delay came alive in the second half of the season and hit .301/.396/.815 in 93 at-bats in 2015). On the other side of the coin, it may be difficult for the 'Dores to bench Campbell at this point of the season anyway - he came off the bench to deliver some of Vanderbilt's biggest hits in the College World Series last year.
The bats are hot, but what about the pitching? Vanderbilt held Nashville Regional opponents to just 5 runs in 27 innings. Only Philip Pfeifer allowed more than a single run in an appearance, and he was hamstrung be some questionable strike zone calls early on against Indiana. Here's how the rest of the 'Dores performed:
All three Vandy starters averaged more than a strikeout per inning. Ferguson, Kilichowski, and Sheffield had nearly spotless relief efforts - but their work came against a beaten-down and demoralized Radford team that was already down by three touchdowns. If those three can keep this pace, they, along with Ryan Johnson, will give the 'Dores four additional starters who can also throw sparkling long relief if the team is backed into a corner.
The Nashville Regional featured a slew of tremendous performances from the reigning national champions. However, the context behind those numbers makes them less impressive. Radford came to Nashville with a top 20 RPI, but the Highlanders' lack of postseason experience shined through once they faced the home team in an elimination game. Indiana finished 2015 with a losing record on the road. Lipscomb beat Vanderbilt once, but only beat two other top 50 teams all season. They weren't exactly a murderer's row of opponents.
The Commodores did what reigning champions are supposed to do. They beat the teams they were supposed to with limited drama along the way. Vanderbilt's road won't be nearly as easy this weekend. Illinois, their next opponent, slashed through the Big Ten with a 21-1 conference record. Their closest game in the Champaign Regional was a 3-0 win over Ohio. Kevin Duchene gives them one of the only starting pitchers in the NCAA that can match Carson Fulmer on the mound. First baseman David Kerian may actually be a T-1000 robot.
If Vanderbilt can play the way they did last weekend, none of that will matter. That's what champions do.