Vandy could be ready for another title run in 2020

Published 12:21 pm Friday, June 28, 2019

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Vanderbilt topped off its dominant run through the Southeastern Conference with the national championship, and there may be no slowing down the Commodores.

Tim Corbin’s 2020 club, on paper, might even be better.

“Tim has built a program that is to the point it just recycles guys,” ESPN college baseball analyst Kyle Peterson said Thursday. “He’s proven it for 10 years now. They’re not light on talent.”

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A lot of the talent on the team that won an SEC-record 59 games was young.

Freshman Kumar Rocker was the nation’s most dominant pitcher the second half of the season, threw a no-hitter in super regionals and was voted Most Outstanding Player in the College World Series. He will be around two more years and looks destined to be the No. 1 pick of the 2021 Major League Baseball draft.

“I’m glad that the college game has players like that in it,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich, whose team was all but shut down by Rocker in Game 2 of the CWS finals. “The college game is better when guys like that come to school.”

Vandy’s pitching staff also brings back starter Mason Hickman, the winner in Game 3 of the finals, as well as relievers Jake Eder, Tyler Brown, Ethan Smith and Hugh Fisher.

Jack Leiter, son of former major leaguer Al Leiter, would have been a first-round pick coming out of high school this year but, like Rocker a year ago, told MLB teams he was committed to going to school to pitch. He is the top Vanderbilt signee in a recruiting class ranked No. 1 by Perfect Game.

The biggest departure will be right fielder JJ Bleday, the SEC player of the year who hit a nation-leading 27 of the Commodores’ 100 home runs. He was the No. 4 overall draft pick by the Miami Marlins.

As many as five everyday players could be back, led by third baseman Austin Martin, a .400 hitter coming into the CWS who finished at .392. Martin already is projected to be a top-five draft pick next year. Catcher Philip Clarke was a draft-eligible sophomore taken in the ninth round by the Toronto Blue Jays, but chances are good he will return. The estimated value of Clarke’s draft slot is $154,900.

“He’s a top two round guy,” Peterson said. “They could throw a bunch of money at him. But it’s hard to sign draft-eligible sophomores out of a place like Vanderbilt unless you pay him more than you would pay at that draft spot. He’s got a year of leverage left.”

Sophomore center fielder Pat DeMarco (17th round, Yankees) and junior catcher-designated hitter Ty Duvall (25th round, Athletics) also have decisions to make.

Shortstop Ethan Paul would tell them that he other seniors who returned after getting drafted last year had no regrets.

“Our No. 1 reason to come back to school wasn’t to have this outlandish season or anything like that,” Paul said. “I think that we all wanted to just be a part of something special. It’s great to win a national championship, it’s great to do all those things, but the program means so much more to us than just winning.

“There’s such a bond with each other and we do all those things off the field and we celebrate each other so well. I’m happy that we were able to have this moment, and it’s going to be a memory forever, but just being able to share this team and this experience with these guys, I mean, friends for life.”

For all the talent Corbin has returning, Rocker will be the star attraction. The 6-foot-4, 255-pounder from Georgia won 10 of his last 11 starts, struck out 19 while throwing that no-hitter against Duke, and fanned 17 and allowed two earned runs in 12 1/3 innings against Mississippi State and Michigan at the CWS.

“He’s got a fiber of competition that’s different,” Corbin said. “He loves the arena of competition, and when you see guys like that, they separate themselves. Handing him the ball, I didn’t feel at any time that that was above him. I felt like that was for him. That’s something he wanted. That’s something that he could do. He pitches for Vanderbilt. He loves to pitch for his team, and it’s pure, and it’s raw, and it’s not manufactured.”