Baseball: Vanderbilt Visits South Carolina

The Vanderbilt Commodores encountered the kind of loss which is never easy to handle. Baseball provides that kind of challenge in every season. This weekend’s series against South Carolina is a time for the defending national champions to learn something about themselves... and prove something as well.

No. 5 Vanderbilt at South Carolina
Thursday, 6:30 p.m., ESPNU
RHP Carson Fulmer (6-1, 1.89 ERA) vs. LHP Vince Fiori (3-0, 2.45)
Friday, 6 p.m., SEC Network
RHP Walker Buehler (3-0, 2.41 ERA) vs. LHP Jack Wynkoop (4-4, 3.20 ERA)
Saturday, Noon, ESPN2

The defending national champions are still highly ranked. They’re still exceeding the trajectory of the 2014 regular season. Yet, they have encountered the kind of moment a baseball team dreads… and must push through.

No sport punches the gut quite like baseball. The lack of a time clock makes certain sequences of events harder to take. Everyone knows when the clock’s running down that a third-down pass has to be completed (or defended). Everyone knows that a three-point shot has to be made (or denied). In baseball, it’s not quite the same. There are so many pathways to a rally in baseball, some much more acceptable to coaches than others. All pathways are profoundly exasperating if you’re on the wrong side of the divide, and Vanderbilt definitely occupied that unpleasant piece of territory last Saturday night in its home ballpark.

The Commodores, having won the series opener against Ole Miss on Friday, 6-0, were closing in on another victory, one that would have clinched the series. VU took a 5-1 lead to the top of the ninth, and there was no reason to think the Dores would be thwarted in their attempt to avoid a rubber match on Sunday. However, just when everything looked safe, a pitcher’s worst nightmare unfolded… and Vanderbilt paid the price.

After starter Walker Buehler pitched eight strong innings, allowing just one run, Philip Pfeifer entered in a non-save situation. It is true that non-save situations are often the worst scenarios for late-inning relievers, because the urgency they usually depend on to get their edge just isn’t there. However, after a batter or two, a strong late-inning reliever will buckle down and find the pitches he needs.

Saturday night, Pfeifer couldn’t straighten things out... at least not in the way he intended.

Pfeifer couldn’t shoot straight when facing the first three batters in the ninth. He hit one batter and walked two others. He committed the cardinal sin for a reliever, putting men on base without forcing them to put the ball in play. Ole Miss brought the tying run to the dish, and with Pfeifer scared of walking another batter, he straightened things out, all right… in a manner Ole Miss preferred.

As a pitcher, you can miss with your location out of the zone, or you can miss in the zone. Pfeifer had missed out of the zone on his previous three batters, but when facing Ole Miss’ Colby Bortles, Pfeifer missed in the zone. He threw a too-straight pitch Bortles whacked over the left field wall to tie the game. Vanderbilt couldn’t score in each of the next eight innings, and after Ole Miss pushed over a single run in the top of the 16th, the Dores fell by a score of 6-5. Vanderbilt has since lost two more games, also by one-run margins. VU lost 5-4 to Ole Miss on Sunday and then 3-2 to Belmont on Tuesday.

Baseball, as noted earlier, can punch your gut with surprising ferocity. Vanderbilt, stung by that loss on Saturday and unable to immediately bounce back from it, has had some downtime in which to regroup. This South Carolina series is important not just for what it might be able to deliver in terms of a boost in the standings; it is important because it marks a chance for this team to reset the emotional dial and return to playing winning baseball.
Vanderbilt is fourth in the SEC in team batting average, at .300 even. The Commodores are third in runs, with 267. (Florida is first, at 285.) Vanderbilt is second in triples (18) and fifth in home runs (30).

Dansby Swanson currently leads the Commodores in hitting with a .364 average. He’s first in total bases with 99 and second on the team in RBIs with 34. Part of what makes Swanson such an effective hitter is that he’s also willing to take walks. He leads the team with 28. When he gets good pitches to hit, he gets his cuts in. However, if he doesn’t like what he sees, he doesn’t chase.

Zander Wiel is second on the team in hitting with a .340 average. He leads the Dores in RBIs with 37. If there’s someone VU needs to re-emerge against the Gamecocks, it’s right fielder Rhett Wiseman, who has driven in just five runs over the past two and a half weeks. He needs to find his swing – perhaps a long ball will reignite him, but the maxim of hitting is not to clobber the ball so much as to make convincing, level contact, hitting a line drive. A home run is merely an extended and somewhat elevated line drive. Wiseman has not reached 30 RBIs for the season, but Bryan Reynolds is Vanderbilt’s other 30-RBI man, along with Swanson and Wiel. He has 32 runs batted in this season and a snappy .331 average. Will Toffey might hit only .267, well below all the other hitters mentioned before him, but he’s driven in 26 runs for VU this season.
Vanderbilt is third in the SEC in pitching, with a 3.01 ERA. Texas A&M is first, with a spectacular 2.07 team ERA. The Commodores have quite improbably (for a team that’s 11-4 in the league and 28-10 overall) given up more doubles than all but two other teams in the SEC (South Carolina and Ole Miss). Also, only two teams have fewer saves than Vanderbilt’s total of seven. This obviously points to VU’s ability to win games comfortably… and to the accompanying inability (seen against Ole Miss) to score late-inning runs, which would enable the Dores to take one- or two-run leads into the ninth inning.

Righthanded starter Carson Fulmer (6-1, 1.89 ERA) will start on Thursday in the opener of this series against South Carolina. He was magnificent last Friday against Ole Miss. He didn’t pitch what one would technically refer to as a complete game, but he was essentially perfect: nine shutout innings, two hits, no walks, and 14 strikeouts.

Righty Walker Buehler (3-0, 2.41 ERA), who failed to get the win last Saturday against Ole Miss because of the grand slam in the top of the ninth, was almost as good as Fulmer. He went eight innings, giving up just one run on five hits with only one walk and 13 strikeouts. The walk-strikeout numbers for Buehler and Fulmer are reflective of pitchers who have total command of their stuff.

The starter on Saturday in the series finale is TBA. However, it could still be righty Jordan Sheffield (3-1, 3.30 ERA) who gave up a late home run to Belmont to take a 3-2 loss on Tuesday night. He has been the day 3 starter for every Vandy conference series this season. He had a rough go of it against Ole Miss, lasting only two innings and surrendering three runs on four hits with four walks. It’s so clear – for Sheffield and also Pfeifer: Walks spell trouble. Vanderbilt’s best pitchers have shown how it’s done. Sheffield (in a starting role) and Pfeifer (as a late-inning reliever) know what they need to do when given the ball in this series against South Carolina.

The Gamecocks simply aren’t a good team right now. Past World Series conquests feel very distant for the Gamecocks, who have lost nine of their last 12 SEC games and haven’t won a conference series since sweeping Kentucky on March 15. The Gamecocks were demolished by Florida over the past weekend. The Gators rolled through South Carolina’s pitching, winning three games by scores of 14-3, 12-5, and 12-2. South Carolina then played Presbyterian College on Tuesday and lost by a 7-4 score. The Gamecocks used seven pitchers in that game, and their problems have been compounded by the fact that starter Wil Crowe was recently knocked out for the rest of the season with an elbow injury – yes, the kind of injury which will require Tommy John surgery. If this team is going to scramble to make the postseason, it has to reverse course in a hurry. Vanderbilt hopes to keep the Gamecocks in a bad place while washing away the memory of that haunting Ole Miss loss last Saturday.

South Carolina is 11th in the SEC in hitting, with a team batting average of .262. The Gamecocks are next to last in doubles, with only 43. The Gamecocks’ slugging and on-base-percentage numbers lag well behind the top five teams in the SEC. Elliott Caldwell and Kyle Martin are by far the Gamecocks’ two best hitters. They both hit more than 55 points better than the third-best hitter on the team, Max Schrock. Caldwell bats .375 and Martin .374. Martin, though, is the superior hitter by most measurements. He has 15 more RBIs (39-24), eight fewer strikeouts (14 to 22), six more homers (8-2), six more doubles (10-4), and a slugging percentage that is a full 100 points higher (.647 to .547 for Caldwell). If Vanderbilt pitchers get into tough spots, Martin is the man they don’t want to face, a clear candidate for an intentional walk.

Schrock hits .317. He’s second on the team with 27 runs driven in, but his power numbers are modest – he has only four home runs to his credit this season, and when a third-best hitter is not a big power source, that’s a likely indication of a team that hasn’t been able to produce as much as it would like.

Only two other hitters bat over .270 on this roster: Gene Cone and Jordan Gore. Cone hits .286 and Gore is at .272. Neither man has as many as 17 RBIs, however. It’s simply been a lean season in Columbia, especially in SEC competition.
South Carolina is seventh in the SEC in team ERA, a fact which – in light of the utter train wreck that was the series against Florida – might come across as surprising. The contextual point to be made is that South Carolina’s pitching hadn’t been all that bad for much of the season. However, this lost weekend against the Gators caused that ERA to soar.

We mentioned above that Wil Crowe is done for the season. He wasn’t pitching well, though, so this is a chance for someone else to step up in the rotation and give this team a shot in the arm. Crowe’s 2014 ERA was 2.75. His ERA after getting rocked for seven runs in 4 1/3 innings by Florida last weekend? 4.91.

On Thursday, lefty Vince Fiori (3-0, 2.45) will move up into the series opening-game slot. Fiori has a fastball that runs in the low 90s. He's struck out 24 in 22 innings while allowing just 6 earned runs and 15 hits. He's given up 14 walks.

Jack Wynkoop will pitch for the Gamecocks on Friday. He gave up eight earned runs on 11 hits in 5 2/3 innings last Saturday against Florida in a 12-5 loss. Wynkoop was unable to stay out of the big inning. He gave up four second-inning runs and three fourth-inning runs.

Saturday’s starter is not yet known due to the Crowe injury and the domino effect it will have on the Gamecocks’ rotation. It could be Taylor Widener who last Sunday made his last name a little too real. He was wide and high and low, basically all places other than the strike zone. He walked four hitters in 3 1/3 innings. He also allowed six hits and gave up five runs. He labored throughout his start, and so he’ll have to find better control this time out. You might see Clarke Schmidt (2-0, 3.82 ERA), who has six starts to his credit this season, or Reed Scott (1-1, 2.25 ERA), who has been very effective in the appearances he’s made. He has started four games for South Carolina this season.

If this game is decided by the back ends of the two teams’ bullpens, Pfeifer will be countered by South Carolina’s main reliever, Vince Fiori. He has a 3-0 record and a 2.45 ERA in 19 appearances. Brandon Murray (4-0, 2.66 ERA) is the other late-inning reliever the Gamecocks trust.

VAN 11-4 -- 28-10
MIZ 10-5 1 24-13
FLA 9-6 2 28-10
USC 6-9 5 23-15
GEO 6-9 5 20-17
KEN 5-9 5.5 19-16
TEN 5-10 6 15-17
--- --- -- ---
TAM 11-3 -- 33-3
LSU 10-5 1.5 31-6
ARK 7-8 4.5 21-16
OLM 7-8 4.5 18-18
MSU 6-9 5.5 22-16
ALA 6-9 5.5 19-16
AUB 5-10 6.5 21-15

Vanderbilt at South Carolina (Thursday-Saturday)
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