<
>

Star-filled roster has Vandy in position to make history

ATHENS, Ga. -- Until three weeks ago, Vanderbilt had never won an NCAA championship in a team sport in the 134-year history of the Nashville school.

Five weeks from now, the Commodores could claim another national championship, and the second one would come with much more fanfare than a title in, ahem, women's bowling.

Vanderbilt's baseball team, which hasn't won an SEC championship in 27 years and has advanced past the regional round of the NCAA Tournament only once, has a four-game lead in the SEC East with six conference games to play.

The Commodores have positioned themselves for the top seed in the SEC tournament later this month in Hoover, Ala., as well as the No. 1 national seed in the NCAA Tournament. Vanderbilt took two of three games this weekend at Georgia, a College World Series participant a year ago, and has won nine of its last 10 games.

The Commodores have the player many consider to be the No. 1 selection in June's amateur draft (left-handed pitcher David Price) and the player who might be the No. 1 pick in 2008 (third baseman Pedro Alvarez). Throw in senior Casey Weathers, the top closer in college baseball and another possible first-round draft pick next month, and left-handed pitcher Mike Minor, one of the country's top freshmen, and Vanderbilt has the ingredients to make a serious run at winning next month's College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

The Commodores started the season 20-0, and their 41 victories are the most regular-season wins in the program's history. They have been ranked No. 1 in the ESPN/Sports Weekly Coaches Poll for six straight weeks, only the third time a Vanderbilt team has been ranked No. 1 in the country. The 1993 women's basketball team was ranked No. 1 for six weeks, and the women's golf team was ranked No. 1 in 2004.

"We're known as nerds," said Price, who has an 8-0 record with a 2.77 ERA and 143 strikeouts in 97 1/3 innings. "We got to places and people tell us we don't know how to play baseball. A team is as good as its individuals. We're athletes, but I guess people look down at us because we're smart individuals."

But the Commodores are pretty talented, too. Price, a 6-foot-6 junior from Murfreesboro, broke a 35-year-old school record with 190 career strikeouts. His fastball tops out about 97 mph and is more effective because of a menacing slider and baffling changeup. Price allowed 12 hits and three earned runs in an 8-5 win over the Bulldogs on Friday night, a game the Commodores won with three runs in the top of the ninth.

"Physically, he's just evolved into a pitcher," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. "He always had arm strength and had the makings of a breaking ball. He's just able to command pitches now. Beyond that, he's got a love of his teammates that I've never seen from a guy like him. The onus is never on him and it's always about what his teammates are doing."

Price's teammates have done plenty this season. Alvarez, a sophomore from New York, was the national freshman of the year last season, after hitting .329 with 22 homers and 64 RBIs. He attended Horace Mann High School, a prestigious New York private school, and grew up close to Boston Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez's childhood home. Alvarez's father, Pedro, is a cab driver and his mother, Luz, is a part-time baby sitter.

Yet, after Alvarez was drafted in the 14th round of the 2005 amateur draft by the Red Sox, he reportedly turned down a signing bonus of nearly $1 million.

"His family probably could have used that money financially," Corbin said. "But I think they saw that going to school to play baseball was a means to an end."

An ending that will be much more rewarding a year from now. Alvarez, 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds, leads the Commodores with 53 RBIs and is second on the team with a .374 batting average and 13 home runs. He still needs to improve his defense; he had two errors in the third inning of Sunday's 15-4 win over Georgia at Foley Field, giving him 15 this season.

"Education has always been important for me and my family," Alvarez said. "It was a substantial offer for my family and financial background. But we always had the mentality that if we weren't treated fairly, I would go to school."

Weathers, in his second season with the Commodores, never could have imagined this kind of ending. A seldom-used outfielder at Sacramento (Calif.) Community College two years ago, Weathers made a bet with a teammate that he could throw harder off the mound. When his junior college coaches clocked his fastball in the low 90s, they converted him to a pitcher the next season.

Weathers signed with Vanderbilt after two seasons in junior college, but wasn't used much until late in the 2006 season. He appeared in 21 games last season, striking out 38 batters in 27 innings, with a 1-1 record and three saves. The Detroit Tigers noticed and drafted him in the 25th round of the amateur draft. But Weathers decided to return to Vanderbilt, where he has a 9-2 record with a 1.49 ERA and five saves. He has 54 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings.

"I try not to think about the draft," Weathers said. "I don't want to think about anything that takes away my focus from the mound. I just want to win games for Vanderbilt right now."

There is more to the Commodores than their star players. Shortstop Ryan Flaherty has an 18-game hitting streak and .352 average. Second baseman Alex Feinberg went 5-for-5 with a career-high six RBIs in Sunday's game and is hitting .337. Right fielder Dominic de la Osa leads the team with a .378 batting average, 14 homers and 15 stolen bases and should be drafted in the top five rounds of the amateur draft next month. Junior pitchers Cody Crowell, Ty Davis and Tyler Rhoden also should be drafted.

"They've got everything," Georgia coach David Perno said. "They're the best team in our league."

And the Commodores have the right coach pushing the buttons. Considered one of the top recruiters in the country while he was an assistant at Clemson, Corbin surprised many in college baseball when he accepted the Vanderbilt job after the 2002 season.

The Commodores were coming off six straight losing seasons and hadn't finished with a winning record in SEC play in 22 years. Vanderbilt went 27-28 in Corbin's first season in 2003, then won 45 games in his second season, losing to eventual national champion Texas in an NCAA Super Regional.

"I thought it was a great school, and I saw what other schools like Vanderbilt were doing in baseball," Corbin said. "The Stanfords of the world and the Rices of the world were winning. I was told by several other coaches that this was going to be a difficult job and maybe one I shouldn't have taken."

But in only five seasons, Corbin has the Commodores on the verge of accomplishing something only one other Vanderbilt team has done.

And this sport doesn't involve slick shoes and pins.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.