Texas' baseball team may face its biggest challenge yet this season in a tested, red-hot, balanced Vanderbilt club. While only one Texas opponent-- Texas A&M-- is among the 16 Super Regional squads, Vandy compiled its 45-17 record vs. a schedule that included five SEC teams still in contention for the national title.
The Commodores (16-14 in league play) finished fourth in the Eastern Division of the SEC, behind Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, while West Division teams Arkansas, LSU and Ole Miss also sported better conference records. Of that group, only the Rebels did not advance to the Super Regional round.
For Vanderbilt, it was largely feast or famine in SEC play. The Commodores opened league action by being swept at Mississippi but responded the following weekend with a sweep of Georgia. Later in the season, Vandy suffered another sweep, this one at Florida, but bounced back the next weekend at home to sweep Mississippi State. The Commodores closed the regular season with a home sweep of Kentucky. The Gamecocks, Hogs and Tigers of LSU took two of three from Vandy, while the Commodores took two of three from Alabama and Tennessee.
Vandy is 18-4 since late April, with three one-run losses (two of those in extra innings) and a two-run setback accounting for those four defeats. The Commodores won three games in the SEC Tournament before dropping a 3-2 heartbreaker to South Carolina in the championship game, the team's only loss in its last 12 games. (During that 11-1 stretch, Vanderbilt shut out Super Regional qualifiers LSU, Georgia and Florida!) Vandy followed up that runner-up finish in its league tourney by sweeping three Regional games on the home field of No. 1 seed Virginia, including a Regional title-clinching 7-3 win over the host Cavs.
Texas and Vanderbilt faced one common opponent, with each team taking two of three from Baylor. Vandy is 12-11 on the road for the season and 12-14 vs. top 25 schools.
As shown recently, though, the Commodores can be lethal both on the mound and at the plate. Vandy comes to Austin with a 3.04 team ERA, but the mound staff has been even more stingy down the stretch, giving up a total of 53 runs in its final 22 games. That's an average of just 2.4 runs per game surrendered -- earned or unearned.
Six-one junior lefty Jeremy Sowers, picked No. 6 overall by the Cleveland Indians in this week's MLB Draft, is the No. 1 pitcher in the Commodore rotation and is expected to take the hill for Friday's 6:05 p.m. Super Regional opener. The Indians director of scouting called Sowers "the most polished pitcher available in this draft." MLB.com's Draft scouting report on Sowers:
"Body similar to Tom Glavine. High windup, high 3/4. Short arm. Slight hand pump at top of jerky delivery. Slight across body delivery. Most fb's 87-89, slight arm side run. Slurve-cb tight, flashes down rot. Good arm speed fade change. Locates all pitches, especially fb. Quick arm w/ deception delivery. Confident in a quiet way. Goes after hitters."
Sowers (10-5, 2.64 ERA) struck out almost one per inning over the '04 season (118 Ks in 119-1/3 IP) and walked just 23 while limiting opposing hitters to a .222 average. This year's Horns faced -- and beat -- several pitchers that went in the Draft's first-round (Rice's Philip Humber and Jeffrey Niemann, the third and fourth overall picks, respectively, plus OU's David Purcey, the 16th overall pick), but Sowers will be another supreme challenge for the Texas bats.
Sowers, though, is not the Commodore's only pitching stud. Projected Saturday starter Ryan Mullins (9-2) is the team ERA leader at 2.36. He moved from the No. 3 starter role to No. 2 at mid-season when former No. 2 starter Jensen Lewis moved to the bullpen. Mullins is another control pitcher who strikes out a lot of batters. The lanky sophomore lefty (6-6, 179) struck out 95 and walked just 19 in 106-2/3 innings pitched while holding opponents to a .239 average. Probable Sunday (if-necessary game) starter Matt Buschmann (8-1, 2.88 ERA, .262), a 6-3 sophomore rightie, took over the No. 3 starter spot when Mullins moved to No. 2.
Junior rightie Ryan Rote (4.50, 1-4) is the team save leader with 11. Sophomore rightie Lewis (6-4, 2 saves, 3.12 ERA), freshman rightie Tyler Rhoden (2-0, 2.40 ERA), freshman lefty Stephen Shao (4-0, 1 save, 3.56 ERA), freshman rightie Michael Wagner (1-0, 3.60 ERA) and sophomore rightie Jeff Sues (4-1, 1 save, 4.47 ERA) are the guys to look for coming out of the 'pen.
UT's even deeper staff (and its 2.70 ERA) will be charged with silencing, or at least slowing, the visitor's bats. As a team, the Commodores average .306. 2B Warner Jones owns a team-leading .417 average. He also leads the club in RBI with 72 and is second in homers with 10. Clean-up hitter DH Cesar Nicolas paces the club in power with 15 dingers while just slightly trailing Jones for the RBI lead (with 70) and sports the team's third-best average (.341). Team MVP SS Ryan Klosterman has the second-highest average at .346 (with 7 HRs and 32 RBI). Other regulars: 1B Mike Baxter (.323, 2 HRs, 38 RBI), Austin (Westlake) native LF Aaron Garza (.304, 2 HRs, 31 RBI), 3B Tony Mansolino (.272, 5 HRs, 31 RBI), C Jonathan Douillard (.272, 2 HRs, 14 RBI), CF Antoan Richardson (.269, 3 HRs, 30 RBI) and RF Worth Scott (.245, 4 HRs, 26 RBI). Jones, Nicolas, Klosterman, Mansolino and Garza bat from the right side of the plate, Scott, Douillard and Baxter are lefties and Richardson is a switch-hitter.
Richardson is also a threat to steal every time he's on base. He leads the team with 32 swipes in 38 attempts. Keep an eye on Klosterman (16 steals in 19 attempts), Jones (12-16) and Baxter (13-17) on the base paths as well. As a team, Vandy collected 92 thefts in 111 attempts while opposing teams managed just 34 steals in 48 attempts.
Defensively, the Commodores field .977 as a team, with 3B Mansolino the only regular who struggled much defensively (11 errors in 55 games for a .912 fielding percentage).