Press conferences with Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin are often entertaining.
The 59-year-old coach didn’t disappoint on Wednesday morning when speaking to reporters about the Commodores being favored in their upcoming Super Regional series against East Carolina at Hawkins Field starting on Friday.
“I don’t buy into any of that crap; that’s just someone’s narrative,” Corbin said. “There’s no such things as an underdog, not in sport. It doesn’t matter. There’s two really good teams. The team that plays better will be the one that moves forward. It doesn’t have anything to do with the underdog, super dog, whatever…hot dog, no dog.”
While technically the underdog according to most betting lines, East Carolina (44-15) is no slouch. The Pirates swept the Greenville Regional with wins over Norfolk State, Charlotte and Maryland. ECU was the strongest team this year in the always-competitive American Athletic Conference, which includes Houston, Tulane and Wichita State, programs that have enjoyed national success over the year. And this year, the AAC's South Florida is still playing in the NCAA Tournament.
ECU ace Gavin Williams is as tough a pitcher as the Commodores have faced this year. They will see him in Game 1 on Friday at 11 a.m. in Nashville. The towering junior righty is 10-0 with a 1.84 ERA and 117 strikeouts in 11 starts. He has allowed two runs or fewer in 13 of his 14 appearances this year and has walked only 19 batters.
“He’s 6-foot-6, 235 pounds, looks like Paul Bunyan and throws the ball 97 miles an hour,” Corbin said of Williams. “He doesn’t back off; he holds his velocity, and we haven’t seen a lot of people hold their velocity that long. This kid [is] a freak. He doesn’t give up extra base hits, he throws a lot of strikes, he can command several pitches beyond a fastball, and he competes … on a high level.”
As good as Williams is on the mound, ECU is just as dangerous at the plate. The Pirates have five batters who hit .300 or better and three players — Connor Norby, Thomas Francisco and Seth Caddell — who have at least 13 home runs and 47 RBIs or better.
ECU batters have combined for 97 extra-base hits and the team has four players with seven or more stolen bases.
“It’s more than just hitting with them,” Corbin stated. “It’s really an offensive package because they do a lot of different things. If they get on base, they push a lot of buttons. They’re very active in terms of running…You just have to prepare for that. I think the simplest way is trying to get the leadoff out as quickly as you can. That’s a big deal. If you don’t, they like to force pressure on you.
“They’re probably as unique a team as we’ve faced all year. When I was talking about them to the kids, ... there’s no one that compares to them in terms of the balance of the hitters, the power, the speed. They just play a brand of baseball that’s completely different [from what we've seen this season].”
Vanderbilt will likely throw Kumar Rocker in Game 1 opposite Williams and Jack Leiter in Game 2, likely against ECU’s Carson Whisenhunt. Should Game 3 be needed on Sunday, Christian Little is an option for VU. He exited his last start in the SEC Tournament in the sixth inning after battling cramps.
The Commodores last played four days ago — a five hour and 10-minute marathon against George Tech that took 11 innings and ended at 1:10 a.m. The game saw six lead changes and had 14 different pitchers used. That outing, however, prepared the inexperienced ‘Dores for the rigors that will come with a tough schedule should they make it out of the Super Regional and advance to the College World Series.
“I think I saw some growth,” Corbin said of VU’s 14-13 win over Georgia Tech. “A lot of the kids that were on that field haven’t been there before. So, to play in that environment for the first time, to play with deficits to counter-punch, to respond, ... that was pleasing to them. I’m sure in a lot of ways it was empowering. I think you need to go through those experiences in order to grow as a team.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_