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Kyle Wright Gets Measure of Redemption By Beating Clemson

CLEMSON, S.C.—This time last year—almost a year to the day—Kyle Wright was just trying not to cry.

He hadn’t slept. No one had. Back-to-back nights, head on the pillow at 4 a.m. It wasn’t baseball anymore. It wasn’t fun. Wright took the pitcher’s mound on June 4, 2016 with his team facing elimination in an NCAA regional at home. All the weight of Vanderbilt’s season was resting on his shoulders, and the sophomore righthander was trying to focus. He really was. But his thoughts kept drifting back to Donny. To No. 41.

Two days before, the Commodores had lost their freshman teammate Donny Everett to a tragic drowning accident—a nightmare that still hadn’t fully set in. And now, somehow, Wright had to pitch? And worse yet, had to stave off elimination?

It was an impossible feat. Though he started off strong, Wright wound up surrendering seven runs. His last memory of that game is teammate Ben Bowden putting his arm around him and telling him, “It’s not your fault.” Vanderbilt’s season ended.

Three hundred sixty-four days later, Wright took the mound again in an NCAA regional on Saturday night. And the mood, the circumstances—everything about it—were entirely different.

Baseball for Wright, and the Commodores, is fun again. It’s not that they aren’t thinking about Everett—Wright tweeted a picture of himself and Everett at a Tennessee Titans game on Friday, a day before his start, with the caption: “Miss the Don everyday, lucky to have had such a special person in my life. Love ya always kid!”

The thoughts are still there. They’ll always be there. But they’re no longer consuming. They aren’t defeating.

Compared to last year, there’s an undeniable looseness in the Vanderbilt dugout. Wright took the mound Saturday night with a thin mustache stretched above his lip. A playoff ‘stache. He and his teammates started growing them a week ago. He was calm, poised. He wasn’t facing elimination, but he was facing a potent Clemson lineup and pitching in front of a vicious Clemson crowd on the road.

He wasn’t fazed.

Wright threw seven strong innings, allowed just three runs and led the Commodores to a 9-4 win over the host Tigers, pushing them into the Clemson Regional finals.

When Wright walked off the mound, he didn’t come back to a dugout of somber faces. He was greeted by high-fives. Fist bumps.

After the game, there was nothing but smiles. Wright said he thought about last year—it crossed his mind—but more than anything, he was just trying to have fun.

“I just didn’t want to pitch as bad as I did last time,” said Wright, smiling under his light brown ‘stache. “(Last year) was a little bit of a motivating factor, but at the same time, I didn’t think about it too much just because it’s a new year, different situation.”

And in some ways, it’s a new Wright.

While Saturday night marked redemption for last year’s regional, it also was a redemptive statement in the context of Wright’s season. The junior righthander struggled early this spring, in his draft year, and saw his stock slip as his command eluded him. He simply couldn’t put the ball where he wanted to. His stuff was the same; he was throwing just as hard, but he couldn’t hit the mitt. He knew something had to change.

On Monday, April 10, he found that something. At practice that day, coming off a series win at South Carolina, pitching coach Scott Brown and teammate Matt Ruppenthal picked up on an anomaly in Wright’s delivery.

“I was turning my hips too fast, which was leaving my arm behind,” Wright said, “I was never really on time, which kind of led to some struggles. And I just kind of slowed those down a little bit and allowed my arm to work and my body to work like it should.”

Wright made a slight mechanical tweak, and the adjustment paid immediate dividends. In his very next start, against Florida, Wright threw a 99-pitch three-hitter. He posted a career-high 13 strikeouts and, perhaps most importantly, walked none.

Wright’s stuff and his command were finally back in sync—and that’s meant bad news for teams down the stretch, as Wright carved through the back half of the SEC season. His draft stock has risen accordingly. He’s projected as the No. 1 overall pick in the latest mock draft and is certainly in play for the Twins come draft night.

On Saturday against Clemson, Wright displayed his growth in front of a gaggle of scouts. He touched 97 mph early and consistently sat in the low-90s, mixing and matching two-seamer and reaching back for 95-96 mph four-seamers when needed. He commanded his 78-82 mph breaking ball throughout the night, throwing two different variations—a more vertical, curve-like pitch and a more horizontal, slider-like pitch.

His changeup was particularly effective, thrown with the same arm-speed as his fastball. He picked up a couple of strikeouts with it, namely a strikeout of Clemson slugger Seth Beer on a 3-2 pitch that darted below the zone at 84 mph.

Wright was by no means perfect, coughing up three runs in a rough six inning. But he bounced back to throw a perfect seventh, finishing with 114 pitches and nine K’s.

He had more than enough run support from the Vandy offense, which peppered Clemson ace Charlie Barnes for seven runs on 13 hits.

“Kyle needed to put us in good position, which he did,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “I thought he was very good for seven innings, which is really important in this environment. He gave us seven strong innings, and his last inning was very good.”

Wright was somewhat self-deprecating after his start, saying he pitched behind in the count too often and benefited from some flashy defense. But he could also appreciate how much better he felt after Saturday’s start than he did this time last year.

The pressure was off.

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“I could kind of feel the experience take over,” Wright said. “It was a really big game, but I think I was just trying to go out there and have fun. Getting to play postseason baseball, there’s nothing a whole lot better. So I think being a year older, I was able to understand that more.”

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