It’s not hard to find evidence of Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin’s New England roots. The left field wall at Hawkins Field is 35 feet high, just two feet shorter than Fenway Park’s Green Monster. Likewise, Corbin has six players from Massachusetts on his roster, more than any other SEC team. One of those players is Mike Yastrzemski, the grandson of Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski.
But most of all, Corbin’s connection to New England has presented itself in his willingness to send his top players to the Cape Cod Baseball League, the Mecca of collegiate summer baseball.
“The Cape Cod League is very representative of the finest amateur baseball that can be played in the summer,” Corbin said. “I have familiarity with the product and the organizations that host the kids. Our players seem to enjoy it and they certainly get challenged by the level of play that exists.”
The results have yielded success in recent years for Corbin’s players and the Commodore program. In the summer of 2010, first baseman Aaron Westlake hit .292 with five home runs and 10 RBIs for the Chatham A’s, earning a selection to the league’s all-star game. That same summer, southpaw Grayson Garvin went 5-0 with a 0.73 ERA for the Bourne Braves, which got Garvin an all-star selection as well as the CCBL’s Pitcher of the Year award. Both Westlake and Garvin proved instrumental for the Commodores in the following season, leading the team to its first trip to the College World Series.
The following summer of 2011 was also productive for shortstop Anthony Gomez. Gomez hit .292 with two home runs and 10 RBIs for the Orleans Firebirds. In his final season at Vanderbilt, Gomez batted .353 to lead a young Commodore team to the regional round of the NCAA tournament.
After the 2012 season, Corbin sent three more of his top players to Cape Cod. Left-hander Kevin Ziomek and outfielder-turned-second basemen Tony Kemp played for the Cotuit Kettleers, while first baseman Conrad Gregor went to the Firebirds.
Following an up-and-down season in 2012 where he went 5-6 with a 5.22 ERA and 79 strikeouts, Ziomek came into his own in Cotuit under the tutelage of manager Mike Roberts.
“Mike Roberts is a great guy. I think he’s pretty well respected up in the Cape,” Ziomek said. “He’s a little old school, but I think it’s nice to play for a guy like that. He respects the game.”
Ziomek went 3-0 with a 1.27 ERA in five starts for the Kettleers in 2012. With 36 strikeouts and just six walks, Ziomek was on track for an All-Star selection before electing to sit out and rest his arm.
While Ziomek is well known for his fastball and breaking ball, the biggest adjustment he made was honing another off-speed pitch under Roberts’ guidance.
“I think the biggest thing for me was picking up a new changeup grip from Coach Roberts,” Ziomek said. “He’s big on the changeup. He works on that with all of his pitchers and being able to pick something up like that is huge.”
A teammate of Ziomek’s both at Vanderbilt and in Cotuit, Kemp hit .343 with three home runs and 29 RBIs in 35 games.
Besides improving his already compact swing, Kemp used his time at Cape Cod to help make the transition from playing the outfield to second base.
“I played (second base) up there in the Cape for Cotuit this summer,” Kemp said. “I’m just getting more comfortable in seeing how much range you have to your left and your right.”
Heading into his junior season, Kemp sees a more level-headed approach at the plate as the key to the start of the 2013 campaign.
“I think just being more relaxed at the plate and not pressing too much is important,” he said. “The guys in the lineup are going to do their jobs just like how I’m going to do my job.”
Slated to be the Commodores’ cleanup hitter this season, first baseman Conrad Gregor was a standout for the Orleans Firebirds, batting .329 with eight home runs and 21 RBIs in 44 games.
While the rigorous schedule of the Cape Cod League is an adjustment for many players, Gregor relished the opportunity and used the extra practice to become a more well-rounded player.
“I think with the competition and the pitching there along with the coaching staff, I progressed for the time I got there,” he said. “Just playing every day, it’s almost like you get a taste of what it’s like to play professional baseball with playing and getting at-bats every day. The knowledge I gained every day allowed me to make vast strides in my game.”
Entering the 2013 season, the Commodores have their best shot to return to Omaha since the departure of Sonny Gray, Grayson Garvin, Aaron Westlake and Jason Esposito after the 2011 season. Holding a mix of young talent and seasoned veterans, Vanderbilt has the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class in addition to a trio of players who benefited from the Cape Cod League. And as long as the formula keeps working, Corbin sees no need to change it.
“Yes, we enjoy sending our players there — it gives me the opportunity to follow them closely because of my contacts and see them as well,” said Corbin. “We use Grayson's experience, as well as many others, as an example of the strides and development that can take place during that time.”