Vanderbilt In Omaha: Respect Earned & Given

The Vanderbilt Commodores have won quite a bit of respect from the national college baseball community over the past two weekends. They also appear to be a respectful bunch in their own right. Yet, a simple way to frame their coming stay in Omaha, Nebraska -- which will hopefully be a long one -- is that they need to remain tethered to an awareness of what baseball, the sport, can always do.


Baseball breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then, just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops."

That famous quote comes from the former commissioner of Major League Baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti. It is a quote that so poetically and poignantly captures the beauty of baseball and its accompanying capacity to deliver great pain as well. This is the sport as its lovers have known it through the centuries. This is the sport that has taken Vanderbilt through so many difficult moments in the 2014 season… but has now lifted the Commodores to a great height, and moreover, a position in which they're one of the more attractive choices to win the College World Series. Virginia might be the first favorite, but after UVA, the next-best choice to win college baseball's national title could be VU.

It might come as a shock to some that only two of the SEC's 10 NCAA tournament teams reached Omaha, and it might be especially surprising that Ole Miss is one of those two teams. However, it is in baseball's nature to surprise the human person. It is in this sport's character to throw curveballs not just at batters, but at the human mind. Vanderbilt didn't get a national seed and didn't figure to host a super regional. There were plenty of moments during the regular season when the larger project of Commodore baseball didn't seem to be headed toward its intended destination. Yet, getting a top seed in the regionals and a cushy matchup against Xavier made for light work on that first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The easy stroll through game one put little strain on the team and the bullpen. The Commodores were able to expunge the memory of the SEC Tournament and turn the page. The team that made its way through Oregon in two well-pitched games was the team many observers expected to see for much of the 2014 season.

In a logical sport – one which, like the NBA, easily pushes the top teams to the championship series and very rarely allows for upsets in elite-stage competition – Vanderbilt should have either enjoyed an easy time against Stanford in the super regionals, or it should have been drummed out of the tournament by the Cardinal. To be more specific, a logical sport either would have seen the Dores pick up where they left off against Oregon… or it would have seen the VU crew pay a steep price for the way its starters pitched against Stanford.

It spits in the face of logic to say that Vanderbilt's starting pitching was good enough to overcome Stanford in the super regionals. The Commodores' three starters surrendered 13 runs in 14 innings in the three-game series. Only one starter pitched at least six complete innings. (In another irony only baseball can provide, that starter, Carson Fulmer – by far the best VU starter over the weekend against Stanford – was naturally the starter whose game ended with a loss. Fulmer didn't take the decision, but his team didn't get the desired result. That's baseball for ya.)

How shaky was Vanderbilt's starting pitching over the weekend? In Game 1 against Stanford, a 10-0 lead turned into a white-knuckle fifth inning in which the Cardinal brought the tying run to the plate. Yes, Stanford had the bases loaded in a 10-6 contest, an unfathomable development just a few minutes earlier. It's quite reasonable to say that the final out in the top of the fifth on Friday afternoon was the gateway out to Omaha for the Dores.

Yet, if there was another set of outs which mattered as much to Vanderbilt against Stanford, it was the collection of three outs the Dores gained in the fourth inning in the decisive third game of the series. Hayden Stone, given a tenuous 6-4 lead after the Cardinal erased most of a five-run deficit in the bottom of the third, watched his day begin in the worst possible way. He notched a strikeout and allowed a seeing-eye ground-ball single. Yet, he had to confront the stress of a second-and-third, no-out situation because the third strike on his strikeout wasn't caught, allowing the Stanford runner to go to first. (That's also baseball for ya – a strikeout turns into a leadoff reach for the opponent.) After the single, a throwing error pushed the tying run into scoring position. Stone's ability to get three outs without allowing that tying run to cross the plate gave Vanderbilt the turning point it desperately needed in Game 3. The Cardinal threatened in the fifth, but their best chance to turn the tide came in the fourth. Stone's ability to stand tall in that moment allowed VU to stay the course until the top of the seventh, when it busted open the game thanks to a four-run outburst.

Vanderbilt got the crucial outs it needed against Stanford – make no mistake about that. Yet, baseball – in all its wild wackiness – unfurled a few scenarios that turned linear logic upside down. Deficient starting pitching didn't prove to be fatal. Massive early leads that turned into tense midgame situations were able to remain intact… but not before moments of doubt. If you played the VU-Stanford series 10 more times, you wouldn't get the same set of outcomes.

Guess what, though? That's. Baseball. It might look and smell like a cliché, but clichés get to be clichés because they acquire and then maintain a substantial measure of truth over time.

* * *

Now, as the scene shifts from the super regionals to Omaha, Vanderbilt – in a College World Series field with a low-heavyweight quotient – has to respect not just its opponents. The Dores need to respect the game of baseball more than anything else.

Baseball is meant to be played every day, whereas basketball and hockey are meant to be played every other day. No sport is more geared toward long-term performance. Yet, every collegiate baseball player knows that postseason success boils down to a small sample size of results and, accordingly, the quirks of a game in which a laser-like line drive can lead to a double play, and a dribbler or dunker can plate a couple runs if it finds the open spot in the defense. Vanderbilt has to know that while its prospects are encouraging in the Nebraska heartland, the sport of baseball – with a cruel break here and a nasty plot twist there – can sabotage their plans. A confident but calm and settled kind of confidence is what this team can use in Omaha. Knowing what they can potentially achieve should fuel the Dores' belief in themselves. Knowing how cruel a mistress baseball can be – and knowing how much the sport humbled them during both the regular season and the NCAA tournament – should give the Dores the humility they need to go forward without overconfidence. Striking this internal balance should give the Commodores the mindset that can win a championship, staking a claim to lasting greatness in the land where steaks are famous.

Baseball does break your heart, and it weighed on the hearts of Vanderbilt coaches, players and fans this past season. The sport was kind to VU and its starting pitchers against Stanford, but that doesn't mean the grand old game – once our nation's pastime – is going to be as charitable in Omaha. Vanderbilt, with serenity as well as trust; with peace of mind as well as fire in the belly; with historical awareness in addition to undying resilience, must ultimately view this trip to Nebraska as an opportunity, not a burden. If the team plays with that mindset firmly in place, the coming days could very well end in glory on the diamond.

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