The Vanderbilt baseball team has a number of experienced arms to turn to in its SEC Tournament opener on Wednesday night.
In fact, the No. 4 seeded Commodores boast the best 1-2 pitching punch in college baseball. But they are instead handing the ball to 17-year-old freshman Christian Little, who graduated high school a year early to come to Vanderbilt to play in situations exactly like the one he finds himself in Wednesday night.
Little has experienced an up-and-down first year. The 6-foot-4 righty has a 3-1 record with a 5.57 ERA and 37 strikeouts over 32.1 innings. His Wednesday start is serving as an audition of sorts as head coach Tim Corbin continues to search for rotation stability behind aces Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter.
“(Christian) is just getting better and better,” Corbin said. “And we need someone in that (fourth starter) role moving forward.”
Rocker and Leiter have been the workhorses of the VU rotation, starting 14 and 13 games, respectively. But the decision to start Little on Wednesday is a strategic one that would save Rocker, Leiter and Patrick Reilly for later games in the tournament, which follows a double-elimination format.
Although Little has only three wins to his credit, Vanderbilt is 7-1 in games he has started, averaging 9.5 runs per game. In his 11 appearances, Little has allowed more than three earned runs just once.
How Little handles himself against a Rebels team that took two of three from Vanderbilt during the regular season will be something to keep an eye on. Little has pitched into the fifth inning only once, and he’s never thrown more than 73 pitches in any game at the college level.
Wednesday’s outing will be Little’s first true start against SEC competition. He did start against Alabama nearly three weeks ago in place of Leiter, who was given some time off to rest, but he faced only five batters before the game was called due to rain.
The only other SEC experience Little had this year was one walked batter against Tennessee in a relief appearance.
The good news for Little is he won’t have to out-duel either of Ole Miss’ top pitchers, Doug Nikhazy (2.18 ERA) or Gunnar Hogland (2.87 ERA). Instead, the Rebels will throw Derek Diamond, who has pretty comparable numbers to those of Little (3-4, 5.61 ERA, 68 strikeouts, 61 innings).
Vanderbilt plays Ole Miss at 8 p.m. CST on the SEC Network. A live stream can also be found at ESPN.com/watch.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_