Thursday, May 20, 2010

VSL Gets You Ready: #15 Vanderbilt Hosts #14 Arkansas For a 3-Game Series At Hawkins Field

The stakes really couldn't be higher for this weekend's Razorback/Commodore season-ending series. Vanderbilt (39-13, 15-10), currently 4th in the SEC, needs to win this weekend's series to lock in that 4th seed in the SEC Tournament, and perhaps more importantly, play themselves into hosting an NCAA Regional. In all 5 college baseball polls, Vanderbilt is behind Arkansas, despite having a better winning percentage both overall and in conference play. As such, for Vanderbilt to leap-frog the Razorbacks (and other SEC schools that, in some polls, are also ahead for the Commodores), they'll need to win at least 2 out of 3.

Scouting Arkansas

The Razorbacks enter this series limping. They've lost their last 4 (including getting swept at home by South Carolina), and 8 of their last 11 SEC contests. Arkansas' recent history against the Commodores is equally troubling for those calling the hogs: Vanderbilt has won the last 2 series against the Razorbacks, and have won 6 straight, including an 11-1 beat-down in last year's SEC Tournament that was called in the 7th.

Despite all that, Arkansas is good. Very good, in fact. The players to watch are sophomore third basement Zack Cox, who is a prime candidate for SEC Player of the Year. Cox is .431 overall, with 8 homers, and 47 RBIs. In conference play, his average climbs to .445. Following Cox is junior clean-up hitter Brett Eibner. The junior outfielder (who also pitches), is an absolute beast. He's hitting .345, with a staggering 18 home runs and 61 RBIs. Overall, the Razorbacks can hit. Entering this weekend's series, Arkansas, as a team, is hitting .312, with 72 dingers, and scoring 413 runs, good enough for 7.8 runs a game.

Consider this: Arkansas is 7-5 on the road this season in SEC play; they are 5-0 when they score 8 runs or more. They've only scored 8 runs 3 times in their last 12 SEC games. Containing the Razorbacks offense will be the key to Vanderbilt's success.

Arkansas' Hurlers

While the Commodores don't know who they'll face Saturday, the team will have it's hands full Thursday and Friday. Thursday sees a match-up of sophomore aces with Gray going for the Commodores, and Drew Smyly heading to the hill for Arkansas. Smyly's numbers are impressive: 8-1 with a 2.40 ERA. Friday, Arkansas will send senior RHP Mike Bolsinger, 5-3 with a 4.66 ERA. Again, Saturday's Razorback starter is undecided.

How 'bout Them Commodores

The Commodores are hot. Winners of 7 of their last 8, the Commodores have avenged a disappointing April (10-8) with a red-hot May (6-1), including a win over a Louisville team ranked as high as 10 and as low as 13 depending on the poll. At home, the Commodores have only lost 1 series (2-1 to South Carolina), and are 7-3 overall within the confines of Hawkins Field.

The Commodore Bats

The lede is sophomore third basement Jason Esposito, who is tearing the cover off the ball as of late. Last week, he was 10-19 for the week, and a mind-numbing 8-11 in his weekend series at Mississippi State, including 4 doubles, 6 runs scored, and 7 (that's right, 7) walks. Since Friday, Jason has reached base safely in 15 consecutive times, breaking the Commodore record of 14. The NCAA record is 18, a mark Jason has his sights set on.

Batting in front of Esposito is freshman Anthony Gomez, who's had a fantastic freshman campaign. Currently, Go-go is second in the conference with a .418 batting average, and is the 4th toughest batter to retire in college baseball, striking out just 5 times in 158 at bats.

As a team, the Commodore bats have awoken somewhat from their early-season woes. Still, the strength of this team is certainly their pitching staff. Which brings us to...

The Commodore Hurlers

The rotation of Sonny Gray, Taylor Hill, and Jack Armstrong has to be one of the most formidable in the nation. Gray, the Commodore ace from Symrna, is 7-4 on the season, with a 3.45 ERA. Gray hasn't be his dominating self as of late. In his last 2 starts, Sonny has only gone 8 innings, while allowing 12 earned runs, causing his ERA to shoot up from 2.22 to 3.00 after his start in Baton Rogue two weeks ago. Still, Sonny has been an absolute beast at home this season. Gray is 5-1 with a 1.59 ERA. His 1 loss was a complete game performance where he allowed 3 runs to the Gamecocks. Tonight will be Gray's first start at home since April 16th, where he pitched 6 1/3, allowing just 1 earned run, and striking out 7. Sonny would have gotten a rare Saturday start after his 4 game suspension after plunking a Volunteer, but games 2 and 3 of the UGA series were cancelled because of the flood. As discussed above, Gray vs. Smyly has to be one of the best pitching match-ups going this weekend.

Where Vanderbilt might have an edge is in the Friday and Saturday match-ups. Going against Bolsinger is the junior RHP Taylor Hill. Hill, 5-3 on the year with a 3.57 ERA, is 3-0 at home overall and 1-0 in conference play. He's had some bad luck at home as far as getting decisions, as Vanderbilt is 7-0 at home when he pitches, despite only getting credit for 3 of those wins. At home, Hill has pitched 49 innings, allowing just 12 earned runs for an ERA of 2.20. During conference play, that ERA is slightly better at 2.19. While somewhat shakey in his last outing in Starkville, Hill threw a complete game gem in Baton Rogue two weeks ago, and has allowed 25 runs in 49 2/3 innings for a league ERA of 4.53. Commodore fans have to feel good about their chances with Hill on the mound at home.

Finally, the Commodores will send freshman Jack Armstrong to the hill to conclude the series Saturday against a to be announced Razorback. Armstrong has been spectacular. 7-1 with a 3.53 ERA, Jack's been a critical part of Vanderbilt's success. 3-1 in 6 starts at Hawkins with an ERA of 6.54. Armstrong is 2-1 in SEC play at home with an 7.63. While the numbers (other than wins and losses) might not be impressive, consider that he's allowed just 4 runs in his last 19 1/3 SEC innings pitched. Also, the 7 runs he allowed in 5 innings of work against Kentucky has bloated his earned run average somewhat. Still, I feel very comfortable with Armstrong in this situation either to help Vanderbilt eek out a series win, complete a potential sweep, or minimize the damage and ensure the Commodores take home at least 1 win.

Bottom Line

These two teams are trending in different directions. Arkansas is struggling while the Commodores are surging. The pitching staff is in good shape, especially considering the Razorbacks had a midweek game (a 5-2 loss to Oklahoma) while the Commodores haven't played since Sunday in Starkville. A few keys:

1. Getting Out to An Early Lead. Vanderbilt is 29-3 when leading after 5 innings, and an incredible 33-0 when leading heading to the 9th. Vanderbilt closer Russell Brewer is a big reason why. Currently, Brewer has 18 saves, and needs just 1 more to tie Ryan Rote's record of 19, and 2 to surpass it.

2. Putting Runs on the Board. The Commodores are 31-1 when they score 6 runs or more.

3. Tie Goes to the Commodores. Vanderbilt is 6-1 when tied after 5 innings, and 4-0 when tied after 8 innings. The Commodores can score runs when they need to. Part and parcel of this, while the Commodores are only 2-11 when trailing after 8 innings, they won these 2 games within the last week against Louisville and Mississippi State.

Tonight and Friday's games will only be available on radio or through, while Saturday's match-up will be on SportsSouth and available on For the unfiltered version primer, you can get the Game Notes here.

Mrs. O'Shea and I will be in Charleston for a Commodore's wedding (I think she's marrying a Dookie, but other than that, he's a super good guy), but VSL will have coverage throughout the weekend.

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