While a game versus Belmont awaits Wednesday along with the usual non-conference, midweek games throughout the spring, Vanderbilt has essentially entered the conference portion of the schedule. The Commodores begin SEC play Friday night in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to take on the LSU Bengal Tigers, who currently sit in fifth place in the SEC West.
To this point, VU has exceeded expectations by tallying a 10-3 record versus a fairly typical SEC schedule.
W Tennessee Tech 6-4 W Connecticut 11-5 W West Virginia 7-6 W Iowa 2-1 W West Virginia 10-5 W vs. Campbell 7-3 W Lipscomb 6-3 W at C. Florida 7-2 L at Louisville 1-6 L at C. Florida 3-4 (11th) L at Louisville 3-12 W vs. Temple 10-6 W at Louisville 6-5 Avg. Score : VU 6 Opp 5
Dropping a series at Louisville has been the primary blemish in the early going, but otherwise there have been equal mixtures of good pitching, solid offense, and clutch hitting. Though all three have yet to combine in one performance, at least one facet has appeared in nearly every game. The opening game at Hawkins Field versus Tennessee Tech is a prime example. The offense struggled for much of the game, but steady pitching kept the score close. That set up bottom of the ninth heroics by Cesar Nicolas, who hit a walk-off home run to win the game.
Vandy has won the games they should win, as the only other loss came in extra innings on the road to a usually solid Central Florida squad. It has been a solid start.
1) Jeremy Sowers - Sowers has to be the brightest star on the team thus far in the season. Despite sitting out the first 6 games due to NCAA suspension, he is currently undefeated and already amongst the SEC league leaders in ERA (1.12), strikeouts (32 in 24 innings pitched), and walks (5 in 24 innings). He's done this in just three appearances, the first of his collegiate career. Almost as stunning as his sparkling statistics, was his performance during his first start. It just so happened that the Louisville native became eligible to pitch the last game of a weekend series against the University of Louisville. UL had won the first two meetings fairly convincingly. His family, friends, and locals, angry he did not sign with the Cardinals, were on hand. The pressure was tremendous, but the result was a win for the freshman, who tallied 10 strikeouts and just one earned run in seven innings of work. Sowers is definitely living up to his billing.
2) Finding ways to win - This team has had a knack for finding ways to win games. The victories have come in a multitude of ways. When the pressure has been applied the team has responded well. The pressure will be much greater when conference play begins, but they have passed the initial test.
3) Starting Pitching - Sowers has been good enough to warrant his own point, but the other starters have performed admirably as well. Steven Faulkner has shaken off a somewhat shaky first outing (not as a starter) against Tennessee Tech. Since that time, he has regained command and pitched well, keeping his ERA in the 3.00 range. The same can be said for Jeff Little. Though his ERA is closer to 4.00, that is still very respectable by college/aluminum bat standards. Though Chris Maultsby is settling into a mostly relief pitcher, he has started in the past. To this point he appears to have made the most progress of any pitcher on the squad. Not to be lost in the mix is the injured Robert Ransom. Ransom made great strides as a freshman, culminating in a masterful performance against Tennessee. A healthy Ransom would set this staff on very solid footing.
1) Inconsistent Offense - Looking at the lineup and past performances, it is easy to see that this team lacks the power hitting of years past. However, the potential is there to hit for a good average. After a good start, Karl Nonemaker has hit a bit of a slump, dropping under .300. Nonemaker has the ability to hit .350 plus, as he has led the SEC in batting average during his career. Nonemaker will have to pick thing up for VU to make a run in the SEC. The team average is currently sitting in 11th place in the league at .275, only beating out Kentucky. Also, 117 strikeouts is more than most of the league, even though most SEC squads have played more games than VU. The schedule and opposing pitching has not been any tougher than the rest of the league. The offense has to pick up.
2) Bullpen Depth - Depth in the bullpen primarily comes from some very young arms. John Scott, Jeff Sues, and Scott Shapiro are heralded freshmen, who are off to a tough start. The sidewinder Scott has had the most success with the least amount of hype with a 5.79 ERA. The others have ERA's over 11. Dean Bennett has emerged as the closer at this point. He and Chris Maultsby have been the bright spots in the bullpen with ERA's of 3.86 and 2.08 respectively. The young arms need to progress farther.
3) Left Side Errors - Vanderbilt is currently in the top 4 in the SEC in fielding percentage, as the fielding has been excellent over most of the diamond. However, a real trouble spot has been the left side of the infield, where VU is starting a Sophomore in Cesar Nicolas at third and a true Freshman in Tony Mansolino at short stop. Those two players have accounted for 13 of the 16 team errors. It is expected that the left side will have more errors, but that is too high of a ratio.
There is a lot to like about this team. They appear to be confident and steady, and they have done a good job thus far masking their weaknesses. The coaching staff seems to have done an excellent job working several pitchers and easing the young arms in slowly.
This team has the ability to qualify for the SEC tournament, which only takes the top 8 teams, if the starting pitching holds up and the fielding percentage remains high. The staff has been willing to take risks to generate offense, and the hitting has been clutch. However, if any of these portions falter, it may take another year of seasoning for the young core of talent to take VU back to the SEC and possibly NCAA tournaments. This team is teetering on the edge of competitiveness after several years primarily filled with struggle. If one or two players can step up, this team can take a sizable step forward.