Let's be completely clear. There's no shame in dropping two of three to the No. 2 team in the nation. Especially when the first loss was inches away from being a 1-1 tie after nine innings and the second was the result of a lights-out no hitter.
But No. 11 Vanderbilt is now just 14-10 in league play and in danger of falling out of the top half of the SEC. A game at No. 6 Louisville and a road series at No. 1 Florida will give the Commodores a chance to reenter the discussion when National Seeds for the NCAA Tournament are handed out. However, a weak performance in the penultimate week of the regular season will put the #VandyBoys on the top-seed bubble and could make next week's series against Auburn the last time Hawkins Fields hosts an NCAA game in 2016.
There's no denying Vanderbilt's talent, but spotty performances have this team teetering on the borderline of elite. Will Tim Corbin's College World Series counter remain stuck at three this summer?
The Case For Vanderbilt's Postseason Chances
After two straight trips to the CWS finals, Vanderbilt is no stranger to the mean streets of Omaha. But the departure of staid veteran talent like Dansby Swanson, Carson Fulmer, Walker Buehler, Zander Wiel, and Rhett Wiseman made a return trip to Nebraska questionable this summer.
While Tim Corbin's tireless recruiting meant Vandy would have the personnel to reclaim its spot atop the college baseball mountaintop, one huge question remained. Would the Commodores have the veteran leadership and clutch performances to survive in the postseason?
Despite a rocky start to SEC play, the first two months of 2016 give us plenty of evidence that says yes. Here's why.
Jordan Sheffield gives Vanderbilt a true ace on the mound
Fulmer started each of the last two College World Series finals games Vanderbilt has won. In that span, he struck out 13 batters in 13 innings while allowing only five hits and one earned run. No pitcher in program history has come up bigger when the games have mattered the most.
For that reason, it'd be disingenuous to call Sheffield the next Fulmer, but Sheff's performance since dominating No. 18 Kentucky on April 15 has certainly been Fulmer-esque. One week after getting shelled against No. 15 LSU -- his only bad outing of the year -- he bounced back with a legendary showing against the Wildcats Nine innings, three hits, and 14 strikeouts later, he'd thrown the first complete game shutout of his college career.
And then he just kept going. He threw eight scoreless innings against Tennessee in his next outing. One week later, seven scoreless at home versus Georgia. In his four starts since blowing up against the Tigers, he's thrown 31 innings and allowed only one run -- and it was unearned. In that span, he's allowed only 25 baserunners. Opponents are batting just .184 against him.
Kendall wasn't just beating the Wildcats that fateful weekend, he was also torching any doubts about his ability to be a Friday starter for a top five team. Though Vanderbilt has had to face questions about its starting rotation, that emphatic showing proves the sophomore is the planet around which the rest of his team's pitching revolves.
Bryan Reynolds and Jeren Kendall are providing veteran leadership and two of the SEC's hottest bats
Every time Reynolds has stepped to the plate in 2016, he's had a 46% chance of reaching base. He's basically a coin flip away from first whenever he picks up his bat. Kendall has cooled from his other-worldly start to 2016, but he's batting .349, hits a home run about four percent of his at-bats, and has already stolen 23 bases this season. Those are the two latest baseball robots Tim Corbin's staff has covered with realistic-looking skin for 2016.
Tyler Campbell and Jason Delay haven't yet earned their metallic skeletons, but they've been consistent performers at the plate and in the field this spring. Other vets like Ro Coleman and Will Toffey (who currently has 10 more walks than hits, which is still extremely useful) are struggling to pull their weight in the Vandy offense, but that's something this team can overcome because...
Tim Corbin's young players are blossoming
Three freshmen have stepped into starting roles for the Commodores this season; Ethan Paul (1B/DH), Connor Kaiser (SS), and Alonzo Jones (DH). Kaiser is the weak link at the plate for this trio after slumping to a .250 average in recent weeks, but his surehanded defense (one error in 32 games) makes him an invaluable addition to the Vandy lineup. Jones is hitting .289, has more doubles than anyone on the team not named Kendall or Reynolds, and graces the crowd with 15 seconds of Mike Jones every time he strides to the plate. Paul's big bat (.304/.419/.473) has helped make up for his issues in the field (12 errors, but none in the past three weeks...because he's been stuck at DH).
While those three are the headliners, Vanderbilt has a wealth of productive young players who can carry the Commodore mantle in 2016 and beyond. Patrick Raby has a 6-1 record, a 2.09 ERA, and opponents are batting just .158 against him. Walker Grisanti is batting a robust .400 and based on what I know about small sample sizes, I can guarantee he'll maintain that average throughout his career. Donny Everett, a pitcher whose 99-mph fastball made him a potential first-round pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, is back from injury and out to prove he's the next great Vandy missile launcher.
Also, Julian Infante hit a home run in his third-ever NCAA at-bat and notched an intentional walk in his fifth. He'll probably be okay, too.
The Case Against Vanderbilt's Postseason Chances
This team struggles away from Hawkins Field
Vanderbilt is 8-8 on the road. If you limit that record to games against RPI Top 50 opponents, it falls to 2-4. The Commodores have lost to lesser opponents like Middle Tennessee State and Tennessee alongside more reasonable series defeats in Baton Rouge and College Station.
This highlights how important it will be for Vanderbilt to snatch a National Seed in June. The Commodores are 27-4 at home. Half those losses came in a screwy, SEC-opening series against Mississippi State. This team is 3-1 in home series against RPI top 50 competition. On the road, it's 0-2.
Needless to say, earning hosting duties will be enormous for this team in the 2016 postseason.
The trick-or-treat offense has failed to create consistent returns
Vanderbilt is 8-4 in Sheffield's Friday night starts. The team's ERA in those games is 2.89. On Saturdays and Sundays, the Commodores are 17-7 -- but just 9-7 in SEC play. With emerging pitchers like Raby and Kyle Wright on the hill, that ERA rises to 3.58. That's not a major increase, but it's meaningful for a Vandy team vulnerable to rolling brownouts at the plate the past two months.
Since the start of league play, the 'Dores have scored eight runs or more 11 times. That's good! They've also been held to three runs or fewer 11 times. That's bad! Sometimes those low scoring affairs have been the product of insane pitching performances, like the aforementioned A&M no-hitter. Other times, a reliever with a 5.98 ERA shuts them down in a rivalry matchup. And part of the problem is...
The bottom third of the order may be a black hole
Five players batted in the seven through nine spots (as starters) in the Vandy lineup last weekend against A&M. Tyler Campbell, Connor Kaiser, Jason Delay, Karl Ellison, and Walker Grisanti combined to go 2-28 with one RBI and two runs scored.
There's no denying the talent at the top of Vanderbilt's batting order, but the outlook gets more grim once you turn the corner behind Ethan Paul and Will Toffey -- and those two haven't been especially reliable lately, either. That lack of pop has been one of the biggest factors behind this team's offensive inconsistency this spring. The Commodores only have four players who have started more than 15 games this season while batting over .265. They'll either need a big swing back towards .300 or some extremely clutch hitting to close that gap.