Sunday, June 21, 2015
series preview: Vanderbilt
Date/Time: Mon-Wed, 6/22-6/24; 8:00
Record against the Commodores: 1-4
Last meeting: Vandy 2-1 over UVA (8-9, 7-2, 2-3); 6/23-6/25/14, Omaha, NE (CWS Final)
Last game: UVA 5, UF 4 (6/20); Vandy 7, TCU 1 (6/19)
Monday: RHP Connor Jones (7-2, 3.05, 107 Ks) vs. RHP Carson Fulmer (13-2, 1.95, 159 Ks)
Tuesday: LHP Nathan Kirby (5-3, 2.61, 76 Ks) vs. LHP Philip Pfeifer (6-4, 3.77, 112 Ks)
Wednesday: LHP Brandon Waddell (4-5, 4.02, 87 Ks) vs. RHP Walker Buehler (5-2, 2.85, 89 Ks)
(The last two, for UVA, are guesses on my part.)
You can't make this stuff up. Or rather, maybe you can only make this stuff up. Imagine it, dream it, but never expect it to come true. UVA started winning in California and just didn't stop, most recently taking two out of three from the SEC champions to bring in sight the pot of gold at the end of the road to Omaha. I can't decide whether to be astounded the little team that could made it this far, or whether to call it postseason business as usual. Winning the regional isn't that hard, so why shouldn't they? And once you've won the regional, why shouldn't they win the super? And once they win the super, why shouldn't they just keep on winning in Omaha?
Well, lots of reasons, actually. The bullpen is Josh Sborz and "lol I dunno maybe this guy over here." Nobody really knows who the ace starter is anymore. The lineup has four guys in a row hitting under .250. The opponents keep trotting out MLB-bound players. Two of our top three draft picks are shells of themselves thanks to untimely injuries. When teams like that keep winning, all a writer can do is fall back on things like "clutch" and "team of destiny" that drive opposing fans batshit insane.
And after all that clutch hitting and pitching, a rematch. At the end of the road, the teams left standing are the same ones as last year. The tables have turned somewhat: last year, UVA cruised through three games and set up the bullpen all nice and easy while Vandy needed the extra game to get past Texas. UVA was probably the more talented team, and outscored Vanderbilt over three games, but didn't deliver in the clutch and watched Vandy walk off with the trophy. Now the Hoos come in on fumes and giving up the on-paper edge in all conceivable aspects of the game. Vanderbilt's rotation is set up all nice and neat and their pen is fresh. It's true what they said on ESPN - a lot of books won't take bets on the series, so heavily favored is Vanderbilt.
Regardless, you have to play the games. I told you a couple weeks ago, I didn't stop telling you, and I'll continue to tell you: Connor Jones and Brandon Waddell. UVA will win for as long as those two are cutting down opposing hitters. When they stop, so does the fun. Let's hope those tables turn all the way.
-- Catcher: Karl Ellison (.213-2-15). Ellison starts about 2/3 of the time, actually; Vandy also platoons in Jason Delay. With a .292 batting average, Delay is the superior hitter, but Ellison is a better defender.
-- First base: Zander Wiel (.317-15-67): Cleanup hitter, which means he protects Dansby Swanson in the lineup. Vandy will trot out three players in a row who've got 15 homers apiece, and Wiel is the last in that murderer's row. Like UVA, Vandy won their winner's bracket game 1-0, and it was Wiel providing the decisive home run.
-- Second base: Tyler Campbell (.235-2-26). Unlike the Florida lineup, Vandy does offer some lightweight hitters. Campbell bats ninth and hits for little power, little contact, and rarely walks. He's a junior, but went undrafted this year.
-- Third base: Will Toffey (.297-4-47). One of only two freshmen in the lineup. Toffey bats fifth, sometimes sixth, and has good line-drive power. Probably going to be one of the SEC's best in the upcoming years; for now a bit overshadowed but still dangerous.
-- Shortstop: Dansby Swanson (.337-15-62). Did you know he was the top overall pick in the draft? They might've mentioned it somewhere at some point, maybe in passing. Let's face it, though - he is a really good hitter. He leads the team in every hitting stat, walks and triples included, and has speed to go along with his bat. You're allowed to breathe a little sigh of relief when he walks back to the dugout after an at-bat.
-- Left field: Jeren Kendall (.291-8-40). The other freshman. Leads the team in stolen bases, which is really an accomplishment on this team because Vandy is a hyper-aggressive team on the basepaths - and they have a tremendous success rate, too. Also has six triples, tied for the lead with Swanson, and the best OPS (.959) on the team outside the aforementioned 2-3-4 hitters.
-- Center field: Bryan Reynolds (.319-5-48). In Vandy's three games in Omaha, Reynolds is batting .500. He hasn't made the headlines the way Wiel or Kendall did, with dramatic game-winning homers, but he's been Vandy's steadiest hitter.
-- Right field: Rhett Wiseman (.319-15-49). In Vandy's lineup, the #2 hitter and the first of the three truly dangerous hitters. Quite a change from last year when he hit zero home runs all season.
-- Designated hitter: Ro Coleman (.296-1-25). Leadoff hitter. Tough to pitch to because he's 5'5" and crouches, and draws a lot of walks that way.
-- Monday: RHP Carson Fulmer (13-2, 1.95, 159 Ks). Mid-90s fastball, absurdly good breaking ball. Fulmer was the third pitcher taken in the MLB draft. If you hate watching that stupid delivery of his, you're not alone; scouts hate it too, because it's a max-effort delivery that can sometimes jerk his control off track. But it also distracts hitters, and though his walk totals are a touch elevated, Fulmer's allowed only a .186 BA all season.
-- Tuesday: LHP Philip Pfeifer (6-4, 3.77, 112 Ks). Pfeifer missed last season - in fact he failed a drug test and was left off the team - but straightened out and returned to pitch well enough to be drafted in the third round by the Dodgers. He's pitched even better in the postseason, most especially against TCU where he threw seven shutout innings. Pfeifer has a solid curveball, and overall is rather similar to Waddell in that he's probably not going to top about 91 on the gun, at most, and relies on location and command to get hitters out.
-- Wednesday: RHP Walker Buehler (5-2, 2.85, 89 Ks). Buehler's been a bit more hittable and less strikeout-ey than his teammates here, but was nevertheless drafted in the first round thanks to his ability to mix up speeds on his fastball and throw two different breaking pitches. MLB.com describes his change-up as "inconsistent to effective" which is basically just saying "inconsistent." Still, he too shut down the TCU lineup in Omaha and has only allowed one run in two postseason starts.
Let's face it: this is a tall order for UVA. Very tall. So was Florida; so was winning a bunch of regional and super-regional games against ostensibly excellent closers when trailing in the 7th and beyond. Essentially, though, UVA just won a three-game series against Florida. One in which Brandon Waddell got enough rest to pitch twice, sure, but a three-game series nonetheless. Vanderbilt is very tough, but not remarkably tougher than Florida. Slightly worse lineup. Better ace starter, but the next two guys aren't much different.
Still, UVA must go into this probably without Josh Sborz on Monday. Connor Jones needs to go nice and deep into the game. Nathan Kirby presumably starts on Tuesday - that's on fairly short rest and another pitch count limit, after which the bullpen must deliver big-time, again. And if the series goes to Wednesday, Waddell is on fairly short rest too - though he only threw 87 pitches and I mean once you get to Wednesday pitch counts are out the window. Chances are good that someone like Alec Bettinger or Tommy Doyle is going to have to throw some quality innings. That rubber game was a bullpen-killer.
Gotta play the games, though. Vandy's undefeated in the postseason. UVA has yet to be anything but an underdog - even when hosting a fellow #3 regional seed, more experts picked against them than not. And yet UVA's looseness and comfort in the situation is not a cliche. They're the team you watch from the other side of the bracket, hoping someone will take them out because until they're gone, you can't rely on the stats to tell you anything. Now they're here in the finals and you have to do it yourself. That's a great way to make the favorites nervous.