Commodore Baseball Takes Step Forward in 2003 5/29/03

With its first appearance in the Southeastern Conference Tournament in seven years, a second-place finish in the SEC Eastern Division and several series victories over nationally ranked league opponents, the Vanderbilt baseball team gained a measure or respect during the 2003 season. Led in part by a talented pitching staff, a stingy defense and a workman-like attitude, Vanderbilt amassed a 27-28 overall record and a 14-16 league mark while narrowly missing the squad’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 23 years.

Strong Pitching
• Second team All-SEC hurler Jeremy Sowers (7-5, 2.50 ERA) won his last seven regular-season decisions while leading all SEC pitchers with 116 strikeouts and tied for league-high honors with a 2.40 ERA and 108 and two-thirds innings pitched. The sophomore left-hander finished the year with 123 strikeouts - second most in a single season at Vanderbilt.

• Robert Ransom closed out his junior campaign with strong outings in each of his last four starts. The right-hander posted a 1-1 mark and 0.93 ERA with two no decisions in his final 29 innings of work, striking out 26 and walking seven. On the year, Ransom enjoyed his most productive season as a Commodore with career highs in strikeouts (74) and innings pitched (92.2).

• Ryan Mullins contributed a dependable freshmen campaign. The lanky left-hander logged the third-most innings on the team (88.0 IP), making 13 starts in 15 appearances. His 64 strikeouts ranked among the top freshmen pitchers in the SEC. He struck out a career-high eight at South Carolina and went 2-0 with a no decision in key VU wins over Florida, Auburn and Tennessee.

• The bullpen duo of Jensen Lewis and Matt Buschmann provided an added spark for the Vanderbilt pitching staff. The pair of right-handers combined for 46 appearances (23 apiece) and 13 saves (Lewis-8, Buschmann-5) on the year. Buschmann’s 26 regular season appearances tied for fourth-most in the league. His 24 games in relief ranked fifth in the league. Lewis recorded a team-best eight saves, fourth-best in the SEC, while his 15 regular season games finished were sixth-most in the conference.

Solid Defense
Vanderbilt played outstanding defense behind its pitchers, recording the highest fielding percentage (.972) in school history. The old record was a .970 fielding percentage set in 2001. The Commodores committed one or fewer errors in 69 percent of their games and were error free 19 times during the year.

During the regular season, Worth Scott tied with the top outfielders in the league with a 1.000 fielding percentage. The junior did not commit an error in 79 chances. Cesar Nicolas led all SEC first basemen with a .995 fielding percentage. The junior committed only two errors in 497 chances. Other Commodores who ranked among the league leaders at their position included catcher Jonathan Douillard (second - .993), shortstop Ryan Klosterman (fourth - .953) and second baseman Zach Simpson (fifth - .970).

Blue-Collar Effort
Despite returning only two starters at the same position from a year ago (Douillard at catcher and Worth Scott in right field), and mentoring a roster that included 20 underclassmen, six juniors and a senior, Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin motivated the Commodores to overachieve in 2003.

While the offense suffered at a .258 clip on the year, dependable pitching, solid defense and a will to win enabled Vanderbilt the record its highest number of wins in a season since 1997. The Commodores took part in 32 games decided by two runs or less. Vanderbilt was 12-5 in one-run games and 5-10 in two-run contests.

The Commodores generated most of their offense with timely hitting and aggressive base running. Ryan Klosterman ranked second in the SEC with 28 stolen bases in the regular season. His average per nine innings (0.57) ranked among the top 25 in the nation.

Vanderbilt’s lone senior John Kaye lead all Commodores with a .316 average at the plate. Junior Cesar Nicolas claimed team-high honors with seven home runs and 33 RBI. He also recorded a team-best 21 multi-hit games. Freshman Warner Jones led Vanderbilt with 70 hits. While junior Tony Mansolino’s 13-game hit streak was the longest by a Commodore.

Mid-Season Run Keys SEC Tournament Berth
The Commodores moved the baseball program a step forward in 2003, beginning with a surge of outstanding mid-season performances at Hawkins Field. During the month of April, Vanderbilt recorded series home wins against then-No. 13 Florida,, then-No. 7 LSU and then-No. 8 Auburn and positioned itself near the top of SEC Eastern Division standings.

The Florida Series
The run began April 4-6 when Vanderbilt swept then-No. 13 Florida, marking the Commodores first three-game sweep of a league foe since 1997. Commodore hurlers registered a 3-0 record and 1.33 ERA with 29 strikeouts and only six walks against Florida, the league’s top offense entering the weekend.

The LSU Series
After a 2-1 series loss at Arkansas, the Commodores returned to their winning ways at home, taking two of three from then-No. 7 LSU. The series defeat for LSU snapped a string of 10 consecutive SEC series wins. Freshman Warner Jones went 3-for-4 with a solo home run and senior John Kaye knocked in two runs and Vanderbilt took game one, 4-2. Cesar Nicolas gave the Commodores the series win on Saturday en route to SEC Player of the Week honors with a walk-off single in the 10th inning for a 5-4 victory. In the series, Commodore pitchers limited the SEC’s top home-run hitting team to one long ball in series. It came in the series finale, helping LSU avoid the series sweep.

The Auburn Series
The following week saw another highly ranked SEC opponent come to Nashville in then-No. 8 Auburn. But again it was Vanderbilt who exited with the series win. The Commodores claimed their first series win over Auburn since 1988 by scoring 14 runs on 14 hits during the weekend. The Commodores hit five home runs against the Tigers - a series high in 2003. On the flip side, Auburn recorded 35 hits in the series but left 36 men on base. Jeremy Sowers struck out 12 in leading VU to a series-opening 7-4 win Friday. After the Tigers took game two 7-4, three Vanderbilt freshmen pitchers combined for a 3-0 shutout to give the Commodores the series win. The 3-0 blanking marked Auburn’s only shut out loss of the regular season.

Perfect Game Highlights Seven-Game Road Trip
The trio of series wins in April helped keep Vanderbilt afloat in the SEC Eastern Division standings and weather what proved to be a difficult seven-game road trip in the first two weeks of May. On the road swing, the Commodores suffered series setbacks at struggling Georgia and Kentucky, winning only one of six contests.

Sandwiched in between the SEC road series was a mid-week trip to Western Kentucky on May 6. Though Commodore pitchers labored through most of their non-conference games during the season, four Vanderbilt hurlers were flawless against the Hilltoppers in a 4-0 win. Starter Jensen Lewis and relievers Nick Pilkington, John Scott and Matt Buschmann combined for the first perfect game in Vanderbilt history and only the eighth in SEC history.

The Tennessee Series
The series losses at Georgia and Kentucky turned Vanderbilt’s regular season-finale with Tennessee into a must-sweep series for any hopes for postseason play. Sowers got the Commodores off on the right foot in the series opener. The left-hander struck out 10 and won his seventh consecutive decision in sending Vanderbilt to a 7-4 win in front of a Hawkins Field record crowd of 1,811 fans. Game two saw Jones record a season-best 4-for-4 effort at the plate. His bases-loaded RBI single sparked a three-run seventh that pushed the Commodore lead to 7-1 on the way to a 9-1 victory. Junior Robert Ransom was stellar on the mound, tying a career-high with eight strikeouts. He allowed one run (earned) and three walks with eight hits.

The pair of wins coupled with Kentucky’s 7-5 upset of Florida midway through the Vanderbilt-Tennessee finale turned Sunday’s contest into a play-in game for the SEC Tournament. Amidst a playoff atmosphere, the lead switched hands four times heading into the ninth inning. With Vanderbilt trailing 5-4 in its last at bat, Jones hit a one-out single to left field. He then broke up a potential game-ending double play off the bat of junior Jonathan Douillard, extending the inning for Worth Scott. Scott soon after took a 1-0 pitch inside the right-field foul pole for a dramatic two-run walk-off home run that gave Vanderbilt a ticket to the SEC Tournament. The homer gave the Commodores its first series sweep of Tennessee since 1989 and a second-place finish in the Eastern Division - Vanderbilt highest since the conference divided into two divisions in 1992.

The win also gave Vanderbilt a 19-10 record at home, setting a two-year high for victories at Hawkins Field. The three-game Tennessee series attendance total of 5,185 fans set a stadium record. On the year, Hawkins Field recorded six sellouts and averaged 1,521 fans (97 percent capacity) over its final 10 home games.

YES! YES! YES! Click here to listen to Joe Fisher's call of the dramatic homerun | Download the free Real player here

The Southeastern Conference Tournament
Vanderbilt lost both of its games at the conference’s double-elimination tournament in Birmingham, Ala. The Commodores managed only five hits off Auburn in a 3-1 loss in the tournament opener (May 22). A Vanderbilt rally fell short in its second game, a 3-2 loss against South Carolina (May 23).


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