Sophomore left-hander Jeremy Sowers, a first round Major League Baseball draft pick coming out of high school, has been a one-man wrecking crew for the Commodores this season. With a record of 7-4, he has ERA of just 2.40 and has struck out 116 batters while issuing just 26 walks. The first time the two teams played, Sowers gave up just two runs on eight hits in eight innings in Vanderbilt's 7-4 win over the Tigers. Despite four different occasions in which the Tigers had at least two runners on with less than two outs, they could manage just two runs as Sowers rose to the challenge every time. Auburn Coach Steve Renfroe says this will be a big challenge for his team.
"Sowers, that's just as good as it gets," Renfroe notes. "He's one of the few college pitchers I've ever seen that can go get extra, not only on his fastball but on his breaking ball, when he has to. He's a special, special kid. We have not had much success with him. I think he's one of the top two or three guys in the country. If you want to win a baseball game anybody would enjoy penciling his name in."
Colby Paxton may be the starting pitcher for the Tigers vs. the Commodores.
Led by the pitching of Sowers and the new blood of second-year Coach Tim Corbin, the Commodores are back in the tournament for the first time since the 1996 season. Leading the way at the plate is Cesar Nicholas, who is hitting .323 with seven home runs and 32 RBI. Just behind him is Warner Jones, a .311 hitter with three home runs and 25 runs batted in. The most dangerous player in the Commodore lineup is Ryan Klosterman, a transfer from Clemson. Hitting .280, he has four home runs and 14 RBI from the leadoff spot, but has 28 stolen bases and is a very aggressive base runner who sets the tone when he can get aboard.
A team that had success against the better teams they played this season with series wins against LSU and Auburn, the Commodores struggled to close the door on a tournament bid when they had the chance in the late weekends of the season. That left them with an outside shot to make the tournament on the last weekend. Trailing Tennessee by two games and needing Florida to lose at least a game to Kentucky, things didn't look good heading into the last weekend when they would play the Vols in Nashville.
Friday and Saturday the Commodores did their part with wins over Tennessee, but so did Florida as they pounded the Wildcats on both days. That set the stage for a dramatic Sunday. Florida led the Wildcats late in Sunday's game, but a grand slam keyed a five-run inning and a come-from-behind win for Kentucky to knock the Gators out of the tournament. Still, it didn't look like it would matter as the Vols held a two run lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning.
Just like they have done all season, the Commodores came up big when it mattered the most. With two outs and a runner on, Worth Scott hit a dramatic home run to give Vanderbilt the win and a berth in the tournament. Corbin says it was fitting for his team to take it down to the last swing.
"We really had to rely on the last weekend and had to sweep to do so," Corbin says of making the SEC Tournament. "We came up big and won on a dramatic walk off home run, which was huge for us. We've had some success at home and been able to beat some very good teams at home and play reasonably well throughout the season.
"We're probably understaffed on the mound, but we've had good front line pitching and played pretty good defense throughout the year. We're definitely happy to be here.
"We've played a lot of one run and two runs games, 29 of them," Corbin adds. "From a coaching standpoint it's draining and it's draining for our kids. You're going right up to the last at-bat quite a few times. You never sit back and get the six-run or five-run innings, it basically comes down to one at-bat, one play. I think through the season that can catch up with you."
While the Commodores are riding an emotional high coming into the tournament, the Tigers are a banged-up group as they head to Hoover. Even though the feelings are good after winning two of three from Ole Miss over the weekend, the loss of Josh Bell for the rest of the season has taken the edge off winning.
Shortstop Chuck Jeroloman was injured in Sunday's victory over Ole Miss.
Catching Saturday's game, Bell took a foul ball off his throwing hand and was taken from the game for X-rays. They showed a broken finger that required pins to be inserted on Monday at HealthSouth. Unfortunately, he's not the only injured Tiger at the moment. Shortstop Chuck Jeroloman is questionable after hyperextending a knee and spraining his ankle in Sunday's game. Throw in catcher Bobby Huddleston's sprained ankle and Karl Amonite's bruised foot and you have a team that is in tough shape heading into the postseason.
With just two days to rest after the Ole Miss series, the pitching rotation for the tournament is still up in the air for the Tigers. Friday starter Colby Paxton, who threw 74 pitches, could get the start against the Commodores, but Renfroe says that freshman Chris Dennis is also in mind and could see his first action in almost two weeks.
The game time for Wednesday's matchup with Vanderbilt is set for 10 a.m. and can be seen live on Comcast/College Sports Southeast. The winner of the game takes on the winner of the (No. 2 seed) South Carolina vs. (seventh seed) Alabama game that begins at 1 p.m. That game two winner's bracket contest will begin at approximately 5 p.m. on Thursday. The losers will play at 10 a.m. on Thursday.