NASHVILLE, Tenn. | Tim Corbin has built Vanderbilt into a top Southeastern Conference baseball program that consistently plays in the NCAA tournament while producing major league talent each June.
Yet the Commodores continue to have a very big gap in their resume: They're still looking for that first trip to Omaha and the College World Series.
Vanderbilt missed out in 2007 when it had David Price and a team ranked No. 1 in the country. The Commodores lost 7-6 at Florida State in the rubber game of the NCAA Super Regional last year.
Third baseman Jason Esposito said the Commodores (31-3) are focused only on one game at a time.
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"Our process stays the same. We're not going to worry about past history or future results," Esposito said. "We're going to worry about today and focus on winning our game, and the games we play we're going to do our best in."
Corbin certainly has the Commodores in position to contend for Omaha yet again.
They are the nation's consensus top-ranked baseball team after sweeping Alabama over the weekend for the first time since 1986 to extend their winning streak to a school record eight straight in SEC play and 11 overall. They are balanced, leading the SEC in team batting average at .315 and in team earned run average (2.26).
A program that sent Price to Tampa Bay, Pedro Alvarez to Pittsburgh and Mike Minor to Atlanta now has future stars in junior righthander Sonny Gray and lefty Grayson Garvin on a very experienced roster with 21 players back. Vanderbilt has seven returning starters and three pitchers who started 16 games each last season.
Vandy also has some talented freshmen in righthander T.J. Pecoraro and outfielder Tony Kemp along with a Yastrzemski, sophomore outfielder Mike — grandson of Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski.
"I see a lot of maturation in them," Corbin said. "I see a lot of conviction in what they're doing, and I see a lot of consistency."
It's a group of players that enjoys being together. Esposito says it's a big, fun atmosphere.
"It's a race to see who gets here first, who's the last one to leave. We just want to be here, and I think that's the main thing. That's our main focus is try to get as close as we can with each other, have as much fun as we can in the locker room. It's really helped our confidence, our chemistry and overall passion for the game," Esposito said.
Pitching is the strength of this roster.
The 5-foot-11 Gray starts each weekend series and is 7-1 with a 1.54 ERA. Garvin is the 6-5 lefty who pitches the second game who's now 6-1 with a 2.04 ERA. Add in the bullpen, the Commodores lead the SEC with 314 strikeouts.
"Everybody keeps telling us it's the deepest pitching staff they've ever seen," senior catcher Curt Casali said. "It's definitely the best pitching staff I've been a part of in my four years here. It's fun catching all these guys. They're all confident when they go on the mound. They all know that their specific roles are something different from everybody else."
That doesn't keep them from pushing each other.
"It's just more of a measuring stick," Garvin said. "He wants to do this, and I want to do every bit as good as he's done. I think that's cool because it's not just me or Sonny that's doing that. It's everybody on our staff."
Expectations are high for a team that has a reminder about taking the stairs "to Omaha" on the wall from the batting cages to the weight room. Vandy has reached the NCAA tournament the past five seasons under Corbin and won the SEC regular season and tournament titles in 2007 when Price was the No. 1 pick in the MLB draft.
Esposito said they talked all offseason of being better, especially when picked fourth in the preseason.
"We joked nobody wants to be ranked fourth, and nobody wants to say, 'Ma, I want to be ranked fourth.' We've always wanted to be first. You always want to be first in everything. That's the approach we're taking. Of course, we want to be first, and of course we want to win," Esposito said.
The schedule is about to stiffen with Vanderbilt visiting defending national champion South Carolina this weekend with LSU and Florida coming to Nashville in the coming weeks. Corbin noted Connecticut just won the men's basketball title after being 9-9 in the Big East, and it's why he doesn't want his Commodores thinking about big picture now, not with tough games left to play.
"It's anything that you're trying to go after and anything you're trying to attain is just a day to day process," Corbin said. "You can't really look at Omaha as a today thing. It's not a today thing. It's really a blend of a lot of components that you're trying to accomplish up to that point, and the coaches have to just stay in the process."