Juco transfer Ryan Rote leads SEC in saves

Last year's Vanderbilt team completed a stark turnaround under rookie coach Tim Corbin, but that team lacked a dominant closer and let many winnable games slip away in the late innings. This year, junior college transfer Ryan Rote's steady work out of the bullpen is one of many big reasons the Commodores have attained the 25-win mark at this early date. <BR><BR><i>Vanderbilt hosts Arkansas Friday at 7 p.m.

NASHVILLE-- Ryan Rote transferred to Vanderbilt from Kishwaukee Junior College a year ago hoping to win the No. 2 starter spot vacated by Robert Ransom. By the start of this season, however, Rote learned he would be used instead as the team's top closer, a role to which he was almost totally unaccustomed.

"I had been a starter my whole career, pretty much," Rote said. "But I was willing to do most anything to help this team."

Under the tutelage of pitching coach Derek Johnson, lo and behold, Rote has thrived in the role, and currently leads the Southeastern Conference in saves with eight. Though he's been shaky at times in some of the weekend series, generally it's been "That's All She Rote" once the 6-3 righthander takes the mound.

"It's definitely a different mindset. You go out there and your adrenaline is pumping. The key is to stay within yourself and use that adrenaline to your advantage.

"It's definitely a learning experience every time out there. I just have to learn fast, because this is my first time around in the SEC."

Last year's Vanderbilt team completed a stark turnaround under rookie coach Tim Corbin, but that team lacked a dominant closer and let many winnable games slip away in the late innings. This year, Rote's steady work out of the bullpen is one of many big reasons the Commodores have reached the 25-win mark at this early date.

Rote credits Johnson for helping him adopt the approach utilized by one of the top closers in the major leagues, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Eric Gagne.

"Gagne basically goes right at the hitters-- give 'em your best stuff and make 'em hit it," Rote said. "That's basically my approach. As a closer you just can't go up there and pick at corners the way starters do. You just have to go out there and pretty much blow the ball by guys.

"At the same time you have to pick your spots and make good pitches, but you've got to give it all you've got. Everything's on the line. The other team is going to do whatever they can do to get back in, so it's do-or-die for them too."

To be an effective closer is to learn to live with unpredictability. If a starting pitcher like Jeremy Sowers is getting the job done, Rote may spend the evening without even getting warmed up-- or he may get warmed up and ready to throw, only never to get the call from the mound.

In this weekend's three-game series vs. Arkansas, for example, Rote could close all three games, or none. As opposed to a starter, Rote has no set pitch limit. Every night, it's something different.

When he is called upon, it typically means that the team has done its job in getting at least a small lead, and Rote is charged with slamming the door shut. In baseball lingo, it's called a "save opportunity."

"I'm used to going out there in a tight situation now. It really doesn't matter how many pitches I throw-- I'm always going to be at that intense level the entire inning."

Rote's eighth save, last Sunday at Alabama, almost turned into what's known in the lingo as a "blown save opportunity." The Tide scored two runs in the ninth and loaded the bases, before Worth Scott made a spectacular catch in right-center of a Rote fastball. Hey, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

"It's great to have awesome defense behind you," Rote said. "That's something I haven't had in the past, and it's just awesome right now. It's big to have that feeling that you're going to have guys behind you backing you up, and not all the pressure's on you."

Rote is the grandson of NFL offensive lineman Tobin Rote, who once helped win an NFL championship for the Green Bay Packers, and the son of Milwaukee sports anchorman Rock Rote. As a child Rote's father moved from job to job in major cities around the country, and it helped the well-traveled Rote to quickly adapt to new surroundings. No surprise, then, that he leads the SEC in saves only two months into his first campaign.

Should Rote find himself in a position to save a game this weekend vs. Arkansas, rest assured, the dominant Dodgers closer Gagne will be in the back of Rote's mind.

"It's the Eric Gagne approach-- go after hitters, and don't worry about trying to throw your slider for a strike here and there, just nitpicking at stuff. Go right at 'em."

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Vanderbilt hosts Arkansas Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 6 p.m. (CSS cable), and Sunday at 1 p.m. at Charles Hawkins Field.


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