NCAA Baseball Nashville Regional
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Opening Game, Double Elimination
(4) Xavier at (1) Vanderbilt
Friday (7:05 p.m. local time)
RHP Vinny Nitoli (6-3, 1.98 ERA) vs. RHP Tyler Beede (7-7, 3.42 ERA)
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FULL REGIONAL SCHEDULE
Opening Game, Double Elimination
(3) Clemson Tigers vs. (2) Oregon Ducks, 12:05 p.m.
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SATURDAY, MAY 31
LOSERS BRACKET (ELIMINATION GAME), 1:05 p.m.
WINNERS BRACKET, 7:05 p.m.
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SUNDAY, JUNE 1
GAME 1: LOSERS BRACKET WINNER vs. WINNERS BRACKET LOSER (ELIMINATION GAME), 1:05 p.m.
GAME 2: GAME 1 WINNER vs. SATURDAY'S WINNERS BRACKET WINNER, 7:05 p.m.
If the winners bracket game winner from Saturday wins Game 2 on Sunday night, that team wins the regional championship and the regional is over.
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MONDAY, JUNE 2 – IF GAME 1 WINNER WINS GAME 2
GAME 3: GAME 2 REMATCH FOR THE REGIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
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Vanderbilt (41-18, 17-13 SEC) is arriving at the NCAA baseball tournament without a full head of steam, but the experience of getting knocked around in the SEC Tournament is not a decisive event. It is true that Vanderbilt missed out on a chance to host the Super Regional round, but as baseball followers know quite well, America's most enduring team sport is not as dependent on home-venue advantage as football and basketball. Baseball games are decided by pitchers and by timely hits, occasionally by an above-average defensive play in a tight spot. This is at once the curse and the blessing of baseball. Being at home is more important for the fans and the chance to generate some revenue. In terms of the bottom-line reality of winning and losing, especially in a double-elimination tournament that's confined to three or four days, what matters is that the pitchers are sharp and the hitters are dialed in, especially with runners on scoring position and two outs.
Vanderbilt pitcher Tyler Beede is aware of what the Commodores face this weekend, and he's been around baseball long enough to realize that ups and downs are part of the sport. What matters is the coming weekend and the ability to be in the proper frame of mind. Beede told the following to reporter Nick Cole of The Tennessean: ""There's two things that you see coming off a conference tournament championship or going to that last game. Obviously a team is confident that they won it, but at the same time they played a full five or six games and used a lot of pitchers and played a lot of baseball, so you see a team that is physically drained and maybe mentally drained a little bit, but also has that confidence to go forward. For us, we're taking a positive from it in that we got to get off our feet for a couple of days and be rested."
Vanderbilt might not have gained a home date for the Super Regional round, but it did get a top seed this weekend, and given that Clemson, sitting in the No. 3 spot, is a program with a solid national reputation, it's enough that Vanderbilt has earned the right to face fourth-seeded Xavier in its opening game on Friday night. The Musketeers finished below .500 in the Big East (8-10), and their overall record was just slightly better than break-even, at 29-27. The Musketeers were the lowest-seeded team in the Big East Tournament but got hot, winning three times after falling in their opening contest. They're not an annual NCAA tournament team the way Vanderbilt is. The matchup is manageable for VU, and if the Dores can take care of business on Friday, they can set up the weekend the way they want to.
Anyone with even a slight to modest degree of familiarity with postseason college baseball knows that in a double-elimination tournament, winning the first game is generally the foundation of a successful journey through the bracket. The winners bracket game on day two is naturally great, but getting the opening-game win – thereby avoiding a trip to the losers bracket and a series of guaranteed elimination games without any respite from pressure – reduces the amount of strain on a team and, more specifically, its bullpen. Vanderbilt should be able to notch this win, and from there, the rest of the regional can proceed smoothly.
It's up to Beede to set the tone, then, as the starter on Friday. His ERA has slightly decreased over the past month, going down a third of a run from 3.75 to 3.42 in a series of appearances. The detail that stands out about the matchup with Xavier righthander Vinny Nitoli is that, much as ERAs can't be taken at face value in the major leagues due to league affiliations, the same is true in college baseball. The SEC, with 10 teams in the NCAA tournament this season, has clearly established itself as the best conference in the country. A 3.42 ERA for Beede or any starting pitcher in this conference is a very good one, akin to the American League. Nitoli's 1.98 ERA is obviously glittering; it's not as though Nitoli can easily be dismissed here; Vanderbilt must take him seriously. However, a low ERA in the Big East doesn't mean what it would if achieved in the SEC, the Big 12, the Pac 12, or another quality conference.
Let's pick apart this pitching matchup in greater detail, explaining how it should be attacked by both teams. First, let's go with Vanderbilt's pitching against Xavier's hitting.
For Beede, the first key is command. He has to be able to hit spots and establish control early in the game. Maybe he'll have nervous energy in the first inning, but if he's going to miss, he'll need to miss in locations where Xavier hitters can't drive the ball. This is nothing you've never heard before, of course, but in postseason baseball, the execution of each pitch is magnified because the importance of the individual game is magnified. A few core concepts have to be absorbed more fully by the pitcher in tandem with the catcher. Beede might get by on adrenaline in the first and maybe the second inning, but by inning three, he'll need a reliable combination of pitches that he can fluidly place in the right spots. Beede, as is well known, struggles with control. He walked five in the SEC Tournament against Ole Miss, and so in the face of Xavier's hitters, Beede should be able to trust his ability to get movement in or near the strike zone. Hitting corners with late action on his pitches will put the Musketeers on edge early in the game. Conversely, if Beede can't hit spots, Xavier's hitters can get into a groove, taking pitches and sitting on 2-0 or 3-1 fastballs over the middle of the plate. This is as elemental as baseball – a simple game at its core – ever gets, but that's precisely the point: You don't reinvent the wheel in playoff baseball; you make sure it is connected to the bike and in condition to provide a smooth ride.
Now, let's tackle the matchup between Nitoli and Vanderbilt's hitters.
With a pitcher who has not been tested at the highest level, a basic tension point arises: Will his stuff be good enough to overpower hitters from a tougher conference, or at the very least, keep them off balance? Vanderbilt's hitters ought to think that if they can center the ball and get pitches in their preferred locations, they can mash against Nitoli. With this being the case, Vanderbilt's hitters have to be disciplined and not give away strikes. A take-heavy approach in the first few innings will immediately convey to Nitoli the idea that he's not going to get free strikes or outs from the Dores, based on bad and undisciplined swings early in counts. When a pitcher realizes that an opponent has a good eye at the plate and won't bite at that slider two inches off the outside corner, he'll either try to blow away hitters with heat or do his best to change speeds. It's important for Vanderbilt's hitters to see at least two to three pitches per plate appearance against Nitoli in the opening innings. Grasping patterns should pay off the second time through the order. Vanderbilt shouldn't think it has to win this game in the opening innings. Winning baseball is many things, but it's never impatient. This team wants to do so well after the SEC Tournament downer, but it can't win a game or a regional in just a few swings. Building this game plan against Nitoli, brick by brick and pitch by pitch, is the prudent course, the one that needs to be followed in full.
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Let's close with a few words about Oregon and Clemson, the two teams on the other side of the bracket who will likely come in contact with Vanderbilt at some point over the weekend. The big thing to note about both the Ducks and the Tigers is that they experienced seasons not too dissimilar from what the Dores endured. Clemson absorbed 23 losses and was given a rough time by the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference. SEC in-state rival South Carolina enjoyed a lot of success against the Tigers this year, so Vanderbilt can take the field with confidence against Clemson simply because it knows that one of its SEC East competitors found a way to flummox the Tigers.
Oregon, for its part, had just four losses and a lofty national ranking before it entered Pac-12 play. The Ducks have lost 14 games since that point in time. They did not just rise to the top of their own regional kingdom. They were given a lesson in humility as well; they had to endure the same scratchy patches VU and Clemson had to face. The three non-Xavier teams (the three teams with at-large bids to this tournament) in Nashville are all viewing the weekend as a time to put the regular season in the rearview mirror and gain a fresh start on the road to the Super Regionals.
Vanderbilt should feel that it has the best talent of anyone in this four-team event. That should be a source of relaxation, not consternation, as the time for the first pitch draws nearer.