By reaching College World Series, Vanderbilt steps out of shadow of 2019 national title team
Nick Maldonado struck out the final batter and fell into the arms of catcher C.J. Rodriguez.
Vanderbilt players poured out of the dugout, tossed water into the air and celebrated around second base. Then they took a glorious lap around the warning track, slapping high-fives to every fan hanging over the wall.
Vanderbilt is headed to the College World Series, and it feels like the first time.
That’s because for most of these Commodores — despite being tabbed as the defending national champion — it is the first time. And that makes it even sweeter.
Vanderbilt beat East Carolina 4-1 in Game 2 of the best-of-three series in the Nashville Super Regional on Saturday. Jack Leiter (10-3) pitched a two-hit gem over seven innings, and Carter Young hit a two-out, two-run single in the fifth to punch a ticket to Omaha.
"This is why you come to Vanderbilt," Leiter said. "I'm happy for all of us, the whole team."
Vanderbilt (45-15) will make its fifth appearance in the College World Series, which includes national titles in 2014 and 2019. But that latter championship and the cancellation of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 meant this year’s club carried an NCAA title it didn’t earn but had to defend.
Ten players remain from that 2019 team. But only pitcher Kumar Rocker played in that College World Series. The rest of this club will make their Omaha debut next week.
Carrying the title of defending national champion is quite a burden. But these Commodores can release it now and step out of the enormous shadow cast by the 2019 national title team.
“I'm so happy for the team because this is a completely different team,” coach Tim Corbin said. "This road was not easy by any stretch, and with a lot of kids on the field for the first time. You had some kids that were on the 2019 team, but never on the field.
"So to do it with this group is special."
'Not the same kids'
Corbin doesn’t play favorites.
That’s evident in how he references players from his first season at Vanderbilt in 2003 as much as last year’s team.
But that 2019 national championship team was special to him. It’s undeniable.
That Commodores club had star players, lovable characters and thick skin. It had seniors who suffered through the death of teammate Donny Everett in 2016 and super regional losses in 2017 and 2018.
“(The 2021 team) just hadn’t been filled with the experience that the 2019 group did,” Corbin said before this super regional. “The ’19 group, not only did they go through a human experience in losing one of their teammates, but they also made decisions to come back to school.
“This team has to wear the badge of being a Vanderbilt team, and it’s applied from winning in 2019. But it’s not the same kids. It’s just a group of guys who wear the same colors.”
Paving their own road to Omaha
These Vanderbilt players earned respect with five straight wins to start the NCAA Tournament. That’s better than the 2019 team, which went 5-1 en route to Omaha.
And the Commodores did it with a mix of young and old players, who carry their own storylines.
Leiter presumably pitched his final home game since Vanderbilt is Omaha-bound and he will be a top-10 pick in the MLB draft in July. He followed Rocker’s dominant performance Friday by striking out 10 and allowing only a solo home run in seven innings.
Young delivered the go-ahead hit only eight days after returning to the starting lineup because of a dislocated shoulder. And All-America leadoff man Enrique Bradfield hit an RBI double in the ninth inning for an insurance run.
Leiter and Young are sophomores, and Bradfield is a freshman. They were in high school when Vanderbilt won the national title that they are defending this season.
"We've been (to the College World Series) before with teams past," Bradfield said. "We know how hard this is and what we've gone through as a team. But this is normal for us. This is what we're here to do."
Then there’s Dominic Keegan, whose home run started this NCAA Tournament win streak, and Isaiah Thomas, whose grand slam won the Nashville Regional. They’re juniors remaining from that 2019 team who never played in the College World Series.
But now they can pave their own road in Omaha.
Reach Adam Sparks at email@example.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.