OMAHA, Neb. -- This year’s Omaha Eight is filled with name-brand programs and superstars -- although one school may be carrying a bit more weight of expectation than the others.
It’s impossible for Vanderbilt to avoid the questions and talk about a repeat as national champions. The word “reigning” is prevalent in the Commodores’ social media world, and highlights of their 2014 dog pile at TD Ameritrade Park made plenty of appearances on television and the video board on Friday.
For this Vanderbilt team, though, it’s not about a repeat. It’s about this 2015 team winning a national title. And that experience of winning it all a year ago will help the Dores put themselves in good position to do it again.“We never even broached the subject,” head coach Tim Corbin said of last season’s successes. “We didn’t ignore it, but the only time it was ever brought up was when organizations were celebrating the national championship. Outside of that, this is a team that is trying to develop their own identity.”
A majority of the 2014 squad is still in tact, including seven members of the regular lineup and several top pitchers. For much of the team, the “wow” factor of coming to Omaha for the first time is out of the way.
“We have a lot of mature guys on the team,” junior right-handed pitcher Carson Fulmer said. “And even the younger guys, I don’t think they view this stage as being different from anything else.”
That maturity has been developed through several means -- and one big help has been going through the gauntlet of playing in the SEC. After finishing first in the SEC East, the Commodores lost in the conference championship to another 2015 CWS team, Florida. Add in Arkansas and LSU, and half of the field in Omaha comes from the SEC.
The constant grind of the conference schedule helps with on-the-field preparation, but it also helps make the attention upon reaching Omaha not as much of a shock.
“Even with the SEC tournament, now with the SEC Network, it’s such a highly covered event, it’s great training for interviews, cameras, the big stage,” junior first baseman Zander Wiel said. “Being in the conference, I can’t say enough about how well it gets a team ready, not only for play on the field, but outside stuff as well.”
The heart and soul of Vanderbilt’s team is their shortstop, No. 1 overall draft pick in this past week’s MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, Dansby Swanson. Swanson moved to shortstop this season after playing second base last year. According to Corbin, Swanson would have been the shortstop his freshman year, but a broken foot and shoulder surgery prevented him from playing most of the season.
Six Commodores have a batting average above .300, led by Swanson at .350. He also leads the team with 23 doubles, six triples and 15 home runs. He’s drawn 43 walks and stolen 16 bases, in addition to anchoring the middle of the defense.
“During the course of his sophomore year, you started to understand that [Swanson] was a special kind of player because he would continually compete and come up big at moments you needed a guy the most,” Corbin said. “He showed those abilities last year in this environment. He’s very comfortable with who he is, he’s confident but it’s contained, and he’s continually gotten better at every component of the game.”
Being the defending national champions, several Vanderbilt players mentioned on Friday the challenge of being firmly in the bull’s-eye of every team they played, but always spun it into a positive, saying it helped them prepare for the competition they would face in Omaha.
“Definitely, there’s a target on our back,” Swanson said. “That’s just how it is. People are gunning for you, they want to have their best performance against you, so every game is a dogfight. I think we’ve done a good job of handling it.”That resulted in some mid-season bumps in the road. They lost two of three in a March trip to Los Angeles and fell in six out of eight in the middle of April. According to junior outfielder Rhett Wiseman, it was hard to match up good performances with both offense and pitching at the same time. That has changed in the postseason, which is what has allowed them to reach the CWS in the minimum of five games.
“At this part of the year, all three are going on all cylinders, and that’s how we’ve had the success we’ve had in recent weeks,” Wiseman said.
Fulmer, the eighth pick overall in the draft to the Chicago White Sox, will be the starter for the Commodores on Sunday. They open up the CWS at 8 p.m. ET Sunday against Cal State Fullerton. Fulmer heads a deep pitching staff for Corbin’s club, having gone 13-2 in 17 starts this season with a 1.82 ERA and a whopping 152 strikeouts. Far from a one-man show on the mound, Vanderbilt has seven other pitchers with at least 14 appearances and an ERA under 3.06.
Philip Pfeifer moved from the bullpen to become the Saturday starter, and Walker Buehler (2.97 ERA) was another first-round draft pick. The way their staff is constructed helped deal with the two-week schedule of the College World Series last year, and they look for that to be an advantage again.
“I think what’s most important is your starting pitching, but what we saw last year is your bullpen,” Corbin said. “We got two quality starts, the first one and the last one, but I think where we prospered was the kids that were coming out of the bullpen threw very well. You have to have that.”
The bottom line for Vanderbilt -- this team is comfortable with its 2015 identity. It will draw from what it learned last year, but the hitting, pitching and defense are all coming together and the right time for this year’s version. For the rest of the Omaha field, that’s a scary thought.