Vandy Baseball: A Different Transformation
It's a very counterintuitive thing to say on the heels of a "not-quite" moment in Omaha, Nebraska, but life is full of counterintuitive truths: The Vanderbilt baseball program has been transformed for a second straight season. Wait a minute, comes the reflexive and understandable reaction: Vanderbilt didn't repeat as national champions. THAT is what would have changed the way in which this program is perceived. How does falling short create a new reality for the program in the future?
Let's start by acknowledging the fact that a repeat title would indeed have conferred its own set of changes upon Vanderbilt baseball. VU would have joined a select list of programs in the highest pantheon of college baseball history with a victory over the Virginia Cavaliers in the CWS Finals. There would have been a distinct "Kneel Before Vanderbilt!" feel to the college baseball season had the Dores been able to find a few timely hits on Tuesday or Wednesday against the ACC's first national baseball champion since 1955.
Yet, for all the ways in which another national title would have given Vanderbilt the best kind of transformative moment, it can still be said that the program has changed for the better. No, it didn't change as much as it wanted to, but just a brief moment of reflection -- now that this loss to Virginia is more than 24 hours old -- will lead to such a realization.
For any sports program that hasn't yet reached its holy grail once, it's a lot harder to view an "almost-but-not-quite" experience as a fully satisfying event. Vanderbilt has not yet won an SEC championship in football; "coming close" holds only so much comfort whenever the Dores knock on the door but are denied entry into one of college football's most coveted dwelling places. Similarly, Vanderbilt men's basketball has never made a Final Four. It was easy to admire and applaud the 2007 team for all it accomplished, but the lingering feeling from that missed travel call against Georgetown's Jeff Green is that something precious was taken away from the program and the school. The moment still smarts years later, because the program had a chance to reach Valhalla in its particular sport for the first time ever.
Yet, if those two historical examples magnify why the pain of defeat can be more acute when a "significant first" has not yet been attained, they also show why the 2015 baseball team's second-place finish in the Heartland can be much more readily accepted -- perhaps a lot more than any of us were willing to acknowledge late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning, when the pain of defeat was still extremely fresh.
The reality is a simple one, but simple realities can be richly profound: Vanderbilt was trying to repeat as a national champion for the first time in its history as an SEC member school. That's over 80 years. We'll get to see what women's tennis does in 2016, but for now, the baseball team had a chance to do something even more remarkable than its 2014 run to the championship. This was a season in which a Vanderbilt sports team had a bulls-eye squarely on its back -- not Florida, not LSU, not South Carolina, but Vanderbilt. The SEC's depth and quality in college baseball are unmatched, but VU had muscled its way to the very top of the heap. As the season began and continued and moved into the postseason, all eyes were on Vanderbilt, waiting for a stumble and watching for any signs of vulnerability.
The Commodores didn't give critics or Vols or anyone else what they wanted.
It was such a marvelous response, all of it -- the long months of the regular season, the focused performances in the regionals and Super Regionals, and a flawless run through the CWS round-robin stage plus Game 1 of the best-of-three finals. Vanderbilt arrived at Game 3 of the finals last year as well, also against Virginia, but in that season, the Dores were completing a magic carpet ride. This year's journey was much more the portrait of a team taking care of business, swatting aside challenges the way an adventurer swats through thick plants in the rainforest with a machete.
College baseball offers so many different layers of challenges, but they all boil down to winning one or two games in a sport that's designed to separate superiors from inferiors over many games and many months. Last year, VU really didn't handle the regular season or conference tournaments with great distinction -- enough to make the NCAA tournament, yes, but little more. This year, VU's performance was so much more consistent and decisive.
As stated earlier, the simple truth can be very profound: A Vanderbilt team, viewed as a heavyweight, carried itself as a heavyweight. This team successfully dealt with pressure. It surmounted so many obstacles with the calm steadiness of baseball players who -- this year -- knew how good they were. A year ago, VU might have gone all the way, but entering the 2014 postseason, the Dores hadn't run the race yet. That dash to the title, as impressive and satisfying as it was, still represented a journey into and through the realm of the unknown.
This year, the Dores knew exactly what they were getting into -- and came within a timely hit or two -- nothing more -- of going back-to-back. That's pretty special if you ask me.
There is, of course, a great and crowning irony in all this for Tim Corbin and his players: VU had to look at the other dugout on Wednesday night and see a reflection in a mirror. If Vanderbilt struggled in the 2014 regular season and conference tournament, only to get hot at the right time and find sustained belief when it really counted, Virginia did much the same thing this year, playing the role of the 2014 Dores to perfection. Virginia was 15-15 in the ACC season, a failure in the ACC tournament, and a team that was not expected to reach Omaha when the 2015 regionals began. Yet, Virginia got that invitation to the big show and made the most of it. A second chance, a new life -- Virginia treated the moment as the opportunity it was. The Cavaliers are now celebrating their own special piece of history.
A word about the CWS finals we just saw: It is easy to say that the sixth inning of Game 2 on Tuesday swung the series, and while that inning -- in its top and bottom halves -- certainly decided that night of play, it's harder to cite that inning as the biggest point in the series. Vanderbilt dodged a bases-loaded jam and then scored two runs in the first inning of Game 3 on Wednesday. If Tuesday night really was the hinge point, Wednesday would have been one-way traffic for Virginia, but that clearly wasn't the case.
The eternally marvelous aspect of baseball -- the characteristic which makes it such a quintessentially American sport -- is that it is governed chiefly by the amount of opportunities players create for themselves. A game transcends a time clock and lasts only as long as the amount of bases a team is able to safely reach. Vanderbilt didn't have the ability to sit on that two-run lead over eight innings by running out a clock. The Dores had to string together more two-out hits with runners in scoring position; they could not have expected to win that game 2-0 or 2-1. Hoped? Yes. Expected? No.
Virginia freshman Pavin Smith found a very hot bat -- performing with a level of easy confidence well beyond his 19 years. He slammed a two-run homer in the fourth inning, and he took advantage of a 2-0 count in the fifth inning, plus a relatively flat fastball which didn't provide late running or biting action. He drove in three runs and watched his teammates play outstanding defense to snuff out subsequent VU attempts at a comeback. The Cavaliers were just better. They called forth the same resilience Vanderbilt found against them in the same stadium, the same city, 12 months earlier.
The Commodores did not give away this series -- Game 2 perhaps, but not the series. Virginia wrested away Game 3, using the formula and completing the journey VU had taken the year before. For Corbin and his crew, coming within one win of another national title -- in a sport where the margins between victory and defeat are so excruciatingly small -- represents far more an achievement than something unfulfilled or unattained.
Vanderbilt, you see, has already viewed the world from the mountaintop in baseball. A season such as this one -- not a national title season, but something very close to it, closer than any other team not located in Charlottesville -- might not feel like an occasion for wild celebrations. That's what Virginia fans get to do this weekend. However, if ever a VU sports season could fall short of a championship and still feel like a magnificent achievement, 2015 Commodore baseball would be it.
Living up to expectations. Withstanding dozens upon dozens of challenges. Affirming greatness. Showing that one great season was not an isolated example of excellence, but something that could be backed up with convincing consistency and quality.
Vanderbilt didn't win the final game of a very long 2015 college baseball season, that's true. However, the Dores won everything else there was to win. A changed program? Yes - VU has shown it can handle the heat. It has proved that a championship won't make this baseball program fat and happy, soft and content. This team used its national title to get even better this season. A championship approach -- with outstanding results -- has only increased the nation's respect for Vanderbilt baseball.
That's something worth carrying into the new offseason, to be sure.
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