OMAHA, Neb. – How good is Vanderbilt? Or maybe this is more appropriate – now that the world has seen Kumar Rocker pitch in the College World Series: How scary is Vanderbilt?
The Commodores are now 2-0 in Omaha, after pushing past Mississippi State 6-3 Wednesday. But it’s the way they’re 2-0 that makes you wonder – what will it take to stop them? Brats and steak aren’t the only things on a roll this week at TD Ameritrade Park. So is Vanderbilt.
“We just move the tournament to Friday, that’s all that matters,” coach Tim Corbin said, as the Commodores plowed onward in the winner’s bracket. “We’re not thinking ahead.”
Still, it’s hard not to be impressed.
See No. 80, all 6-4, 255 pounds of him. Is that a tight end who took a wrong turn on the way to the Nebraska football stadium? No, it’s the pitcher in a tight end’s body, which is why Corbin gave him that number. The Kumar Rocker Show took the stage Wednesday to rave reviews. Notice the slider that comes to the plate and then crash dives. This wasn’t the no-hit, 19-strikeout Rocker that Duke saw in the super regional last week, but was plenty good. One run in six innings.
Rocker has now pitched 21.2. innings in the NCAA Tournament. The opposition has scored two runs, managed 12 hits, and struck out 33 times. He’s walked three. Gracious. “I think we’re a confident bunch,” said Stephen Scott. “It starts with the guy on the mound.”
Speaking of which, see No. 19. Scott, Two home runs for him Wednesday. The second looked like a 3-iron as it sizzled into the right field bleachers. This is the third time in a row and fourth in the NCAA Tournament that someone has hit two home runs in a game for Vandy. Their season total is a nation-leading 97. The Commodore Clubbers. “Hitting is contagious,” Scott said. “Maybe the power is, too.”
See No. 51. JJ Bleday. He reaches base as nearly as regularly as the sun comes up. The current streak is 47 games in a row. He took care of continuing that number Wednesday by reaching base four times in a row.
See No. 21. Closer Tyler Brown. You want an industrial strength fire extinguisher out of the bullpen? He’s struck out 61 this season, and walked eight. Just when the Bulldogs seemed on the verge of one of those Mississippi State Miracles Wednesday – “It’s tough to shut them down. You can feel them coming,” Corbin said later – Brown trotted to the mound in the seventh inning to throw a wet blanket over the entire batting order, getting seven outs in 26 pitches, 19 of them strikes.
See the stat sheet. Notice how the offense scored five runs on Mississippi State in the fifth inning Wednesday, as many as any other team has scored in a game in this College World Series so far. How the Commodores have lost three times since April 7. That’s 32 wins in their last 35 games.
“To be honest you could say that fact to the team and they wouldn’t know,” Rocker said. “We don’t keep track of that.”
That’s quite a team statement Vandy has been making. But to be sure, a lot of the college baseball world was looking at one freshman Wednesday. It had been 11 days since Rocker’s masterpiece against Duke, which had considerably increased the noise around him. Add in the normal hubbub of getting to Omaha, and that could make a teenager feel like he’s suddenly waist deep in attention.
“It’s been a lot,” he said. “There’s been a lot of talk about myself, and me just kind of trying to stay away from it. I definitely moved forward from that. You had to, in that environment, facing that team.”
In the past raucous week, here is what Corbin had said to his young pitcher: Nothing.
“I didn’t speak to him this week because if I spoke to him, it would be different than how I approached him or handled him during the course of the year,” he said. Besides, Corbin was confident Rocker could handle all the “barbershop talk,” as the coach called the building acclaim.
“The only thing you can do is control what’s possible for you, and he did that. He’s a very impressive young guy in terms of his training habits and his maturity and how he approaches the game . . . There’s no pomp and circumstance, he’s not trying to posture, he’s not trying to do anything but get out there and compete. He loves to compete, and he loves these moments.”
Yeah, you could tell. Oh, Rocker had a wobbly second or two when he first took the mound, and the majesty of the moment weighed on him. But he comes from a family accustomed to bright lights in sports, Father Tracy was a Lombardi and Outland trophy winner at Auburn in football. He was also in the stands Wednesday, watching his son dominate another tournament opponent.
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“After the first inning, I looked up and said, `all right, I’m good now,’” Kumar said. “The first inning, I was a little bit zoned out. I had to take my time, get my feet under me, and just kind of start cruising. It took me a little while to do that.
“And I wanted to definitely focus on pitching with that lineup.”
As Corbin said, “It’s very difficult to get on the mound for the first time here in Omaha, especially for a young kid.”
Mississippi State was impressed, anyway, especially with how his slider works in concert with his fastball.
“He’s a freshman, that speaks volumes of his last two starts,” said Jake Mangum, who actually singled on Rocker’s fifth pitch. So much for that no-hitter. “When you’ve got two pitches that can move completely different ways at completely different miles per hour, if it comes out of the hand the same way, it’s going to be tough to keep your balance and stay behind the ball.”
And why does Rocker think his slider is so effective?
“You have to ask Duke and State that. I couldn’t tell you, I just throw it.”
Clearly, he’d prefer his pitching do the talking, and it’s been pretty loud. So have Vanderbilt’s hitters. This team has the noisiest numbers in town.