PREVIEW: No. 1 comes to town

Whether on the diamond, football field or basketball court, South Carolina hasn't been very respectful of No. 1 rankings in the last year or so. The Gamecocks baseball team has already taken two of three from then-No. 1 Florida early this year. With No. 1 Vandy coming to Carolina Stadium this weekend, can the Gamecocks continue their giant-killing ways?

VANDERBILT Commodores

Record: 31-3; Home: 21-2; Away: 10-1; SEC: 10-2.

All of the accolades have been said about this weekend's match-up, Vanderbilt and Carolina are about as even as two teams could be; with national rankings, statistics in starting pitchers and relievers.

There is a bit of a deficit on hitting which Carolina possesses when comparing the two teams.

Carolina's current team batting average is .289; Vanderbilt's team average is .313 . Carolina's team on base percentage is .388; Vanderbilt's is .410.

Carolina currently has 3 of its starters averaging over .300, 3 are in the .290s-80s and 3 are below .279. Vanderbilt's top 7 hitters are +.300 hitters; there are four guys behind the front seven that hit in the .200s (the best is Harrell at .255, the lowest is Fann at .143). With Jake Williams out of the picture, we need to get increased production from Mooney, Bradley Jr. and Matthews needs to get back to form. If Beary and Marzilli can step it up, that will just add to our production. It is tough to depend upon 3- 4 guys in the middle of the order to carry run production. The hit/run distribution has to be a TEAM concept… just as it was for them in Gainesville, Florida a few weeks ago.

Vandy has a very balanced offense that can find different ways to score. Jason Esposito (9 steals/16 ATT) and Mike Yastrzemski (13 steals/14ATT) will test your catcher and are numbers 4 and 5 in their batting order. Their #1 (Kemp; .424 on base percentage), #2 (Gomez; .378 obp) and #3 (Westlake; .506 obp) hitters do a very good job of getting on base and setting up Espo and Yaz for RBI. Westlake and Gomez lead the Commodores in total RBI… 79 and 62, respectively.

Their #6 hitter is (and has been) the "old man" of the group, catcher Curt Casali. Casali is very dependable as a hitter, very dependable at defense (.996 Fld %) and is EXCELLENT behind the plate, calling the games for their pitchers. He reminds me very much of Kyle Enders in that he provides this group leadership like Kyle did for us last year.

The seven through nine spots can change with their needs. 1-6 provides a L-R-L-R-L-R combination (pitchers beware); figure in that they will work five guys into the back of the batting order and they have a line-up to face just about any pitcher and skill level.

Typically, you will see Riley Reynolds (L/R, Jr.) hitting #7 or #8; but he can be rotated with Bryan Johns (R/R, Sr.) as his pinch hitter. So between them you can go left or right in the #7 slot. Numbers 8 & 9 hitters will usually figure in Connor Harrell (CF; R/ R, Sr.) or Joe Loftus (DH; R/R, Jr.) in one of the slots.

Just remember that Aaron Westlake is their power hitter (5 homers on the season) and Jason Esposito is their most consistent batter (2nd in on base percentage with .407 obp) at the plate. Their #3 and #4 pace the rest; the rest are more than capable of keeping the pace if opposing pitchers aren't careful with what they are throwing to them

Here are Vanderbilt's hitters and most recent hitting order, particularly from their last game against Bama last Sunday, going 1 to 9…

6, Tony Kemp LF(L/R, Fr.); .312BA, 125AB, 29r, 39h, 14RBI, 17w, 12k (.424 obp

13, Anthony Gomez SS(R/R, So.); .379BA, 145AB, 34r, 55h, 27RBI, 1w, 4k (.378 obp).

36, Aaron Westlake, 1B (L/R, Jr.); .397BA, 126AB, 29r, 50h, 5HR, 25RBI, 23w, 27k (.506 obp).

22, Jason Esposito 3B(R/R, JR.); .320BA, 128AB, 27r, 41h, 2HR, 27RBI, 10w, 24k (.407 obp).

18, Mike Yastrzemski RF(L/L, So.); .303BA, 109AB, 33r, 33h, 19RBI, 24w, 16k (.444 obp).

9, Curt Casali C(R/R, Sr.); .319BA, 116AB, 17r, 37h, 2HR, 27RBI, 10w, 10k (.406 obp).

8, Riley Reynolds 2B(L/R, Jr.); .313BA, 67AB, 8r, 21h, 7RBI, 6w, 11k (.387 obp).

7, Joe Loftus DH(R/R, Jr.); .238BA, 42AB, 5r, 10h, 7RBI, 6w, 9k (.385 obp).

20, Connor Harrell CF(R/R, So.); .255BA, 98AB, 14r, 25h, 1HR, 12RBI, 4w, 20k (.308 obp).

55, Conrad Geiger DH(L/R, Fr.); .305BA, 59AB, 10r, 18h, 1HR, 8RBI, 19w, 9k (.474 obp).

3, Sam Lind 3B/DH(L/R, R.S. So.); .310BA, 29AB, 6r, 9h, 9RBI, 2w, 5k (.382 obp).

1, Bryan Johns 2B(R/R, Sr.); .190BA, 42AB, 4r, 8h, 1HR, 4RBI, 7w, 10k (.370 obp).

45, Drew Fann C(R/R, R.S. Jr.); .143BA, 14AB, 2h, 2RBI, 3w, 4k (.400 obp).

51, Jack Lupo LF(R/R, R.S. So.); .083BA, 12AB, 3r, 1h, 1RBI, 4k (.083 obp).

TOTALS: Vanderbilt (team) Batting Average: .313;
Opponent Batting average: .212
Vanderbilt Team) On Base Percentage: .410;
Opponent OBP: .292

Pitching… this is where Vanderbilt shines. Their team Earned Run Average equals 2.19; Carolina's team ERA equals 2.46. Their opponent's batting average is 2 points behind our team batting average (our opponents average a .289 BA against us, slightly higher than our team batting average. This reflects what we have not been able to do since our trip to Knoxville, namely to hit the ball as a team.

My personal feeling is this number has to improve; I don't see us winning too many games in the future with only two runs. I stress this because I believe there is no reason to put undue stress on your bullpen and young weekend starters. But in the grand scheme of things, I could be wrong. Those numbers can improve dramatically with two games with offense hit and scored… similar to our Friday game against Florida and their pitcher, Brian Johnson.

Vanderbilt's Friday starter, Sonny Gray (RHP, R/R, Jr.), is no new comer to Yardcock fans. Feels like he has been around for five years, but his Friday start marks his 3rd start against Yardcock hitters. At 5'10", he is Vandy's "little big man". He has excellent velocity on his fastball and has unquestionable command of his fastball (93-96 mph). His slider hits @ 83-84 mph and has excellent potential of all his pitches. It does lack a bit of control (compared to his fastball/curveball piches).

Gray's curveball is extremely accurate and he is consistent with its delivery for strikes. His change-up is solid and can be used to keep batters off guard; if his change-up is "clicking", he is close to impossible to hit. His strike out numbers increased from year to year. He had 72ks in 2009; 113ks in 2010 and currently has 66ks at the halfway point of the season… well on target to break last year's numbers. Gray has great awareness of which pitch is best utilized for the batter in the box.

This awareness is supplemented by Curt Casali and his Coaches, but it is Gray that must make the pitch and hit the strike zone. Hitting the strike zone is where he seperates himself. You will notice while watching him Friday that he is patient while working against a opposing batter… a huge asset… he will not rush the process to strike batters out. Hence, the high strike out numbers for Sonny Gray.

Saturday's pitcher, Grayson Garvin (LHP, L/L, Jr.) is a 6'6" lefty that will throw a shadow on the batter's box in day games! Garvin uses his legs well in delivery which presents a "low effort" (or easy) delivery. He throws from a ¾ armslot and can throw a solid fastball with good velocity. Getting to the catcher's mitt quickly (you will hear the pop when he pitches). His fastball has minimal movement, but his slider has excellent break, coming late in its delivery. Garvin delivers the slider with a 10-4 arm delivery. His curveball has excellent downward (10-5) break.

Garvin possesses a straight change-up with some drop and this pitch gets better for him the longer he stays on the mound. He can have problems with his fastball and has been known to leave a few of them up – which we would like to see. Unfortunately, he will use his off-speed pitches most of the time to register ks; the fastball is used sparingly. This give him and exceptional longevity on the mound (averages 107 pitches/outing).

Sunday's pitcher, Taylor Hill (RHP, R/R, Sr.) is a well built, big bodied kid – but hasn't learned to use his natural strength in his pitching process (something the pros will most likely develop). Hill throws a 89-91 mph fastball that typically runs in at @ 90 mph on hitters. His slider comes in @ 83-84; change-up @79-81 mph. His (two seam) fastball has good sink and movement.

Hill is missing a good second pitch in his arsenal of pitches, preferably a change-up, to go with his fastball. His lack of a solid second pitch keeps him from being a dominant pitcher within the SEC. It also keeps him from being a pitcher which can extend his period of time on the mound for the Commodores and he is usually good for a little over 5 innings/game.

Looking at their closers/relief pitcher the first name to know is Navery Moore (RHP, R?R, Jr.), Vandy's premiere closer and Tommy John surgery survivor. Moore can reach 98 mph with his fastball but settles in at 93-95 mph. It is his nasty 94 mph sliding fastball that registers the ks… you can't hit it. He will use it to close teams down, typically in ninth inning. They will call on him to close in the late eight or start the ninth inning.

Corey Williams (LHP, L/L, R.S.So.) is the Vandy pitcher that had his knee shattered by a 100 mph come backer against Florida in Gainesville last year. He actually finished the play by throwing the runner out (from the ground) before he hit the deck; gutsy kid. He has rehabbed nicely from his knee injury and has become an important part of Vandy's "bridge" relief. Williams possesses a really nice curveball which he will use regularly… almost too much. He will go with an off-speed (in the 70s) pitch then come in with the curve to freeze hitters. His fastball sits in the 87-89 mph range, occasionally hitting @ 90 mph.

Kevin Ziomek (LHP, R/L, Fr.) throws from a low ¾ armslot, nearly a sidearm pitcher. He has a jerky motion out of the stretch, but it doesn't effect his pitches. Fastball has good sink and is accurate but his slider can be inconsistent and left hanging. He is a good freshman prospect but lacks command/control of his pitches.

Mark Lamm (RHP, L/R, R.S.Sr.) is also a Tommy John surgery survivor; he can throw a very lively fastball in the 90-94 mph range with accuracy. Typically goes 1.6-2.0 innings while in relief and comes in 2nd; right behind their weekend starters. Vandy's pitching staff is listed below with all of the pertinent statistical information on their performances this year:

2, Sonny Gray RHP(R/R, Jr.); 1.54ERA, 7-1, 52.2IP, 30h, 11r(9e), 24w, 66k (.166 oba).

28, Grayson Garvin LHP(L/L, Jr.); 2.04ERA, 6-1, 53.IP, 38h, 18r(12e), 10w, 50k (.196 oba).

34, Taylor Hill RHP(R/R, Sr.); 3.19ERA, 2-0, 42.1IP, 42h, 19r(15e), 11w, 42k (.256 oba).

10, Navery Moore RHP(R/R, Jr.); .46ERA, 3-1, 7SV, 19.2IP, 13h, 2r(1e), 6w, 20k (.183 oba).

24, Corey Williams LHP(L/L, R.S.So.); 4.30ERA, 1-0, 23.IP, 18h, 11r(11e), 6w, 23k (.217 oba).

44, Mark Lamm RHP(L/R, R.S.Sr.); 1.93ERA, 4-0, 1SV, 18.2IP, 20h, 4r(4e), 2w, 17k (.267 oba).

35, Kevin Ziomek LHP(R/L, Fr.); 2.20ERA, 1-0, 28.2IP, 27h, 8r(7e), 8w, 37k (.245 oba).

46, Will Clinard RHP(R/R, R.S.So.); 3.26ERA, 1-0, 2SV, 19.1IP, 20h, 10r(7e), 5w, 25k (.274 oba).

21, Jack Armstrong RHP(R/R, Jr.); 1.12ERA,8.IP, 3h, 2r(1e), 6w, 9k (.115 oba).

39, Sam Selman LHP(R/L, So.); 1.42ERA, 6.1IP, 5h, 2r(1e), 3w, 6k (.208 oba).

40, T.J. Pecoraro RHP(R/R, Fr.); 1.74ERA, 6-0, 25.2IP,15h, 5r(4e), 8w, 25k (.169 oba).

TOTALS: Vanderbilt (team) Earned Run Average: 2.19; Opponent Batting Average: .212.

Carolina (team) Earned Run Average: 2.46; Carolina [team]) OBA: .214.

This series, although in Columbia this weekend, is way too close to call. Even with a pair of garnet-colored sunglasses. My hope is that this team will call upon its past experiences as a team. Their trips through Regional, Super regional and CWS play that they experienced together last year. Hard to believe, but a large majority of our starters were there and were an integral part of the 2010 Yardcock success. They need to call up the spirits of post-season play to have success against a very good Vanderbilt team this weekend… one that is likely to be in Omaha… if they can shed some post-season demons of their own this year.

If we win only one game this weekend, it won't be the end of the world. There is plenty of SEC baseball to be played by both teams. Plenty of chances to pick up more wins… or losses. We have created a pretty good spread of wins between us and the rest of the (SEC) field. Beating the best ensures the continuance of playing your best as we enter our second half of this year's schedule. I would love to see us have that advantage going into the back half… we have some tough SEC road games on the back half of that schedule.

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