No. 12 Vanderbilt at Arkansas
Friday (6:35 p.m.)
RHP Tyler Beede (5-4, 3.23 ERA) vs. RHP Trey Killian (1-6, 3.00 ERA)
Saturday (6:05 p.m.)
To Be Announced (VU) vs. LHP Jalen Beeks (5-2, 1.36 ERA)
RHP Tyler Ferguson (5-2, 2.88 ERA) vs. RHP Chris Oliver (4-3, 2.41 ERA)
Vanderbilt (28-10, 7-8 SEC), is still ranked 12th nation despite losing two of three games in its most recent weekend series against Texas A&M. The Commodores are still in a position a lot of teams and programs would kill for, but relative to what they produced a season ago, they're continuing to fall off the pace.
Vanderbilt as a team is batting .287 compared to its opponent's batting average of .193. The Commodores' pitching staff has a 2.42 ERA while Vandy's opponents have a 4.85 ERA versus the Commodores. You'll notice that Vanderbilt's staff ERA has jumped by nearly three-tenths of a run (0.28 runs, up from 2.14) over the past week. If the Commodores are to shoot down the notion that their arms are getting weary in the middle of the season, an authoritative performance this weekend against Arkansas would eliminate a lot of worried whispers. Texas A&M feasted on Vanderbilt pitching this past weekend, scoring a combined total of 18 runs in two wins and posting five runs in the Aggies' one loss to VU.
It's true that the ERA of Vanderbilt's opponents jumped by 0.43 runs, up from 4.42. This increase, on a raw numerical level, is greater than the increase in VU's staff ERA. However, the bump is largely the product of a non-conference win over Middle Tennessee this past week. The 19-1 win fattened up Vanderbilt's statistical profile, but it wasn't the kind of SEC conquest this team needs. Vanderbilt has to be able to tuck away a few series wins to shore up a sliding SEC record. A cosmetically attractive 18-run win over MTSU won't address that need.
Vanderbilt's Friday and Sunday starters this weekend are the same as they were on April 11 and 13 against Texas A&M. VU coach Tim Corbin needs to see a lot more from both Tyler Beede and Tyler Ferguson; he hasn't yet made up his mind on Saturday's starting pitcher, which means that one could reasonably expect a starter-by-committee approach that's likely to require an extended middle-relief appearance.
What went wrong for Beede last Friday against Texas A&M? Everything. In some games, a pitcher will have great stuff but poor location. In others, the script will be flipped. Beede, though, wasn't able to establish anything. His location was poor, as shown by the four walks he allowed in five innings. His stuff wasn't that great, as shown by the nine hits he surrendered in a truncated outing. There are times when pitchers just don't have any kind of rhythm; such was the case for Beede last week. VU is at a point in its season (not to mention its evolution as a team) when it needs Beede to display a lot more command on the mound. There's time for Beede to adjust, but as the man who often starts a series for VU, Beede is something of a tone-setter for this team, and that tone must change over the course of the next month, before the postseason arrives.
Ferguson, who will take the bump on Sunday for Vanderbilt, watched his ERA increase by nearly two-thirds of a run (0.63 runs, from a prior mark of 2.25) after being bested by A&M in important situations. Ferguson wasn't shelled the way Beede was a few days earlier, and he wasn't erratic, either. Ferguson's scoreline really didn't look that bad. The sophomore scattered seven hits in six innings, and he walked only one batter. Those numbers will often (though not always) translate into a quality start, the kind of performance that – while not dominant – certainly keeps a team in a game until the final innings.
Yet, this past Sunday, things just didn't break right for Ferguson and the rest of Vanderbilt's pitching staff. The Commodores' allocation of outs did not line up in their favor, something that a sport as quirky as baseball will do from time to time. ("That's baseball" might seem like an excuse to some, but the simple and oft-used expression is frequently the best way to respond to various statistical oddities and exasperating moments at the ballyard. So it goes.)
Here's how frustrating Sunday's loss to A&M really was: In four innings – the third, fifth, sixth, and eighth – Vanderbilt pitchers retired the side in order. However, the Aggies scored in each of the other five innings. In all five of those innings, the leadoff man reached safely. In his six-plus innings of work, Ferguson (the same was true for the VU bullpen in the ninth) failed to deal with the game pressure created by the Aggies' string of successful leadoff plate appearances. Texas A&M might not have smacked 15 hits – the Aggies finished with eight hits on the day – but the Aggies bunched their hits together and produced timely run-scoring knocks that put VU in a hole. Ferguson will naturally need to get leadoff men out on Sunday, but if he gives up a leadoff single, he needs to be able to retain effectiveness despite pitching from the stretch and not a full wind-up. Pitching is difficult enough as it is; being distracted by runners prevents pitchers from working out of trouble, which is a natural part of baseball. Vanderbilt's starters just didn't go a good job of that against A&M, and they need to bounce back against Arkansas.
Speaking of Arkansas, let's look at the Razorbacks as this series arrives:
Arkansas (23-15, 7-8 SEC) is unranked and coming off a road series loss (2-1) against LSU in Baton Rouge. The Hogs outscored LSU in the three-game set, 17-14, but they claimed their one win by a margin of six runs (10-4) while losing two tight games by scores of 5-3 and 5-4. Arkansas's pitching held up over the course of the series. LSU never landed any roundhouse punch against the Razorbacks. Yet, any successful baseball team has to be able to win one- or two-run games, and Arkansas just couldn't do the deed against the Bayou Bengals.
The Razorbacks' Friday starter, Trey Killian, went the distance last Friday against LSU. He pitched a complete game (eight innings) and allowed only five hits. What hurt Killian was a combination of bad defense and an untimely loss of control in a few specific spots. An error enabled LSU to piece together a two-run first inning on April 11. In the third inning, Killian hit a batter before allowing a two-run home run. Better defense and control could have limited LSU to three runs, but those two mistakes enabled the Tigers to register a 5-3 win.
The Saturday starter for Arkansas against Vanderbilt, Jalen Beeks, is coming off a very strong outing on April 12 against LSU. Beeks went eight innings, allowing only three earned runs while issuing only one base on balls. Beeks kept LSU off balance, a reality that's magnified by the fact that he had to pitch to three more batters than he had a right to expect. Arkansas's defense committed three errors, forcing Beeks to get extra outs. His team lost in the bottom of the ninth, but he did his part. The Hogs not only committed three errors; they also left seven runners in scoring position and got thrown out on the bases to end one inning. Arkansas didn't tend to the fundamentals well against LSU, and that's why it lost the series.
Arkansas' starter on Sunday is Chris Oliver. On one hand, it is true that Oliver – staked to a four-run lead before he even threw a pitch against LSU on April 13 – had a 9-2 cushion entering the bottom of the fifth. This might make it a lot easier to diminish what he did this past Sunday. Moreover, Oliver issued seven walks and hit multiple batters; he can be so much more effective than he was last weekend. Yet, for all the ways in which his performance was littered with ugly elements, Oliver regularly danced out of tight spots. He induced a pair of double-play grounders and never did enable LSU to come up with a big inning. As long as Oliver establishes better control in his next start, he'll have a very good chance to succeed.
EAST CONF GB ALL
FLA 9-6 -- 24-13
USC 8-7 1 28-9
GEO 7-7 1.5 21-15
VAN 7-8 2 28-10
KEN 7-8 2 24-13
TEN 6-9 3 24-11
MIZ 6-9 3 17-18
WEST CONF GB ALL
ALA 10-5 -- 26-11
OLM 9-6 1 29-9
LSU 8-6 1.5 28-9
ARK 7-8 3 23-15
MSU 7-8 3 23-15
TAM 7-8 3 23-15
AUB 6-9 4 21-17
SEC THIS WEEK
Vanderbilt at Arkansas
South Carolina at Auburn
LSU at Ole Miss
Mississippi State at Missouri
Kentucky at Texas A&M
Alabama at Tennessee
Georgia at Florida