Narrowly viewed, last season's Vanderbilt baseball team felt genuine pressure in the regionals and Super Regionals to accomplish something, to return to Omaha after a rocky regular season that didn't really go the way Tim Corbin (or anyone else in the program) hoped it would. After a 17-13 SEC campaign and an early flameout in the SEC tournament, Vanderbilt had to tend to some unfinished business - a lot of it - in order to walk away from that season feeling that months of effort were not spent in vain.
What you saw in the 2014 regionals and Super Regionals was a team fully intent on establishing what the regular season failed to put in place: a culture of excellence. Of Vanderbilt's combined total of five wins in the regionals and Super Regionals last year, four of them were by five runs or more. No, the Super Regional's deciding third game against Stanford was hardly a cakewalk -- Vanderbilt had to go to its bullpen very early in the contest, and the Dores didn't break the game open until the seventh inning. However, VU clearly found the ability to deliver big innings with fat, crooked numbers on the road to Omaha last year. Stringing together productive at-bats and enabling good hitting to become contagious are core parts of a successful late-May or early-June recipe in college baseball. Vandy didn't just find that recipe; it was able to tape it to the refrigerator door and consult it almost daily on those two separate weekends. In short order, Vanderbilt blotted out the struggles of its regular season and stacked another College World Series appearance on top of its 2011 visit to Nebraska.
The team was able to take a deep breath.
You might groan at the comparison, given that it references an SEC rival in a positive way, but it's true: Much as Kentucky's basketball team washed away its regular season in 2014 by reaching the Final Four that year, Vanderbilt baseball did something very similar. The one key difference: Whereas Kentucky basketball expects national championships, Vanderbilt -- in any sport -- could not really say it expected a national title and nothing less. The program and those players in the dugout fiercely wanted one. Fans did as well. Yet, it would have been entirely unreasonable to hang the rope of "win or bust" expectations around the necks of the 2014 Commodores once they got to Omaha. Storming through Xavier, Oregon (twice) and Stanford (twice) put the regular season in the rearview mirror and gave the program another gleaming accomplishment to point to. Winning in Omaha? Who doesn't want to do that? However, that 2014 College World Series began with Vanderbilt having fulfilled its promise to reach its sport's greatest stage. You might not have felt VU was playing with house money last year, but it certainly wasn't playing with a maximum of pressure. Much as the most pressure-packed college basketball game of every NCAA tournament is the Elite Eight, that third Super Regional game against Stanford was Vanderbilt's true crucible, the hot coals the team had to walk over in order to plant the flag and say, "Successful season!" Once the team got to Omaha, the Dores could just play.
That's exactly what they did.
The fascinating thing about the 2014 College World Series -- especially when compared to the regionals and Super Regionals which preceded it -- is that Vanderbilt inverted the way in which it won games. None of VU's five wins in the 2014 CWS were settled by more than two runs. The deciding game in the top half of the bracket against Texas (for the right to advance to the CWS Championship Series) and the deciding game of the whole shebang against Virginia were supreme pressure-cookers, classic baseball dramas that had everything except a slight October chill to make the environment just a little more tinged with postseason romance. Time and time again, Vanderbilt stood on the precipice of defeat, dealing with the exquisite tension only baseball -- ungoverned by a time clock and dictated only by opportunities taken -- can provide. Every time VU came close to the precipice in the one-run games it played -- especially against Texas and Virginia -- the Dores came through.
Was the randomness of a small sample size of baseball games partly in evidence last June? Sure it was. However, this is no different for any College World Series champion. The team that wins the one-run games in June (after managing to get there) is going to hold the trophy aloft, and Vanderbilt mastered the late-inning arts in 2014. The Dores, liberated by their ability to get to Omaha, struck just the right balance of relaxation and intensity on their way to history... and an unforgettable crowning moment in the Heartland.
What does 2014 mean for the 2015 team, as it embarks upon (get this, Vandy fans, because you haven't read these words before in connection with a major team sport...) ITS NATIONAL TITLE DEFENSE?
Paradoxically and counterintuitively, it means VU can play with even more house money than last year.
If 2014 needed to prove a point, and involved the burning desire to achieve after that 17-13 SEC season, 2015 feels different. First, the national championship from last year means that the 2015 squad doesn't have to become "the team that finally wins it all." Nope -- that's already been achieved. Moreover, this year's 20-10 SEC season -- a .667 winning percentage in conference -- is "merely" 100 percentage points better than that .567 clip a year ago. VU doesn't have to restore something that was missing or lost during the regular season.
These guys can just play.
This is where Vanderbilt's long-term history as as program might work to its advantage. Everyone in college baseball knows that the Commodores are really good, owning multiple top 10 MLB draft selections and all sorts of accolades. However, VU doesn't have that decades-long history as a goliath the way Arizona State and Texas and USC and Miami and Stanford and LSU used to have. Others can apply pressure from the outside, but VU doesn't have to feel it within.
The nuance: VU doesn't have to merely "be happy it's in Omaha," which is a sure-fire recipe for defeat. No, the point is that VU doesn't have to fight a battle for perceptions or a struggle with national expectations. VU's expectations for itself -- as a program -- have been met, and they are being met in the present tense once again. "Defending a title," as exciting as that is for VU fans and players, can set a team up for failure in that a team can think, "Something could be taken away from us." Framing a challenge in that manner can lead to fear of a negative outcome.
All Vanderbilt needs to do here is frame the 2015 CWS in terms of, "Let's go get this thing and make yet another great memory." Instead of fearing the loss of something and a negative result, the Dores can infuse themselves with even more optimism and enthusiasm, as they try to build on the magnificent achievement of 2014 .
That kinda feels -- and smells -- like the fresh scent of a crisp 20-dollar bill... otherwise known as house money. Vanderbilt can play with that in the coming weeks in Omaha.
That mentality just might result in the repeat title this program would love to claim.