Super Regional: Similar Teams Meet For CWS Berth

By late April, Vanderbilt, while improved from years past, still appeared to be well short of national prominence. After being swept by Florida in Gainesville, the Commodores stood at just 7-11 in league play and 27-13 overall. The three losses to the Gators put Vandy in a precarious post-season position, not only for landing an NCAA berth but simply getting into the eight-team SEC Tournament.

So what, if anything, clicked that turned the 'Dores from a NCAA bubble team into a Super Regional qualifier on an 18-4 tear down the stretch and two wins from Omaha?

Head coach Tim Corbin said Thursday that the wins simply started coming more frequently for a team that played with consistency all year.

"We've played very consistent baseball," Corbin said at Disch-Falk Field Thursday, pointing out that of 17 losses, 12 were by two runs or less. "We've had confidence and timely hitting and we're playing with a sense of urgency."

If there was a proverbial "turning point," Corbin said he'd point to the mid-May LSU series in Baton Rouge.

"After the Friday game was rained out and rescheduled for Saturday, we lost two one-run, extra-inning games in a Saturday doubleheader," he said. Although some teams may have packed it in after that Saturday's double disappointment, Corbin added, his squad responded with a 8-1 win on Sunday, May 16 to salvage a game in the series and set the stage for 11 wins in 12 games heading into Austin. "That was a huge character check," the Vandy head coach said. "From that point on, our confidence continued to grow."

Now, the Commodores try to extend those winning ways against Texas, the No. 1 overall seed in the Tournament.

"We understand that they're a great team and a great program," DH Cesar Nicolas said Thursday. "We also understand that we'll have to play our best baseball to win games. We plan to do that."

Friday's Super Regional opener, scheduled for 6:05 with national TV coverage on ESPN, will feature a pitching dual between two of the top college lefties in the country.

Jeremy Sowers, the No. 6 overall pick in this week's MLB Draft, will take the hill for Vanderbilt while Texas will counter with Roger Clemens Award finalist and No. 31 overall pick J.P. Howell.

As you would expect, Corbin has a lot of confidence in Sowers.

"I never go out there wondering what Jeremy is gonna do today," the head coach said of his junior starter (10-5, 2.64 ERA). "And I feel that way about (Ryan) Mullins." With those two "keep-you-close left handers that throw strikes", you feel like you've got a chance to win two ballgames, Corbin said.

Howell described his Friday counterpart as a "bulldog."

"He has great command -- in-out, up-down," UT's junior starter said. "He's kind of like a magician. You don't know what he's going to throw."

Sowers offered equal praise on Howell: "I've pitched with J.P. several times (including the Pan Am games). He's an outstanding pitcher who's got a feel for I don't know how many pitches -- like five or six. It's pretty intimidating... It's going to be a battle of two lefties that throw the way lefties throw, picking around corners."

The starting pitchers are not the only similarities between the teams. Both Texas (53-13) and Vanderbilt (45-17) can be considered small ball teams that rely heavily on great pitching and defense to win often close games. A glance at the stats shows a closeness in just about every area: ERA (UT 2.70, Vandy 3.04), HRs (UT 45, Vandy 52) and fielding percentage (UT .975, Vandy .977). The story is much the same in doubles, triples, RBI, stolen bases, etc.

"I like the magic Vanderbilt brings to things by playing good, scrappy baseball," Augie Garrido said Thursday. "They've got good pitching, they've got kids up there squeezing and bunting and running and they come off the field with bloody elbows and torn up uniforms because they play hard. That's what I respect about them."

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