College | Story | 6/25/2019

Rocker, Vandy even CWS Finals

Nick Herfordt        
Photo: Kumar Rocker (Vanderbilt Athletics)

See also: Michigan takes CWS Finals lead

OMAHA, Neb. – The second night of the College World Series Finals featured a pair of freshman hurlers who’d be looking to lead their team to success and etch their names into the school’s renowned annals. In the end Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker continued his incredible postseason run, helping to guide the Commodores to a 4-1 victory while evening the CWS Finals best-of-three series against Michigan to one game apiece.

For the Wolverines the starting selection was more-than-a-bit unexpected as Isaiah Paige was called upon. The unlikely appearance would be his first start since the first week of May when he faced Michigan State in a midweek contest. Additionally he hadn’t thrown more than four innings in a single contest since the middle of March when he earned his inaugural college win against the Manhattan Jaspers.

The young arm on the other side of the diamond was much more anticipated and accomplished. Kumar Rocker’s name had buzzed about town since the Commodores landed in Omaha. While dazzling all season long, his national recognition raised exponentially after throwing a 19-strikeout no-hitter against Duke in Super Regional play. He was a proven big game pitcher who’d had his name penciled in as the game two starter once Vanderbilt clinched their spot in the finals.

Even with stratospheric expectations, Rocker was masterful as anticipated. To open the game he stuck out two of the first three batters which included the Wolverines’ explosive leadoff hitter Jordan Nwogu as well as the Big Ten Player of the Year Jordan Brewer. In the second inning he was equally as dominant. Three Michigan batsmen walked up to the plate and each of the trio returned to the dugout after feeblishly flailing at a third strike.

Nevertheless, Rocker wasn’t the only one rolling.

Michigan’s Paige performed just as well. While his pitches didn’t have the same thrust and velocity, he was just as effective. The touted Vanderbilt batters only managed a pair of singles against the young righthander who repeatedly handcuffed the Commodores. It wasn’t until the fifth inning when they’d create a sustainable scoring threat.

In the top of the fifth Vanderbilt second baseman Harrison Ray, who had been struggling in the series previously, was able to start things off with a single to right field. The knock removed Paige, and his replacement, Benjamin Keizer, induced Ty Duvall to knock a straight back up the middle which dodged the pitcher’s mitt and innocently rolled up the middle for what appeared to be potential double play. However, shortstop Jack Blomgren misplayed the roller and it squirted into the outfield and allowed the speedy Ray to race to third.

Instead of being on the positive end-of-momentum shifting twin-killing, the Wolverines found themselves in a precarious position. Keizer managed a strikeout to take some of the pressure off, but the out also brought up the top of the VU batting order and Southeastern Conference leading hitter Austin Martin and his .405 average strode up to the plate.

Keizer managed to stymie the ever-dangerous Martin, but the batter was able to make enough contact with an offering to send it bounding through the infield. It was brilliantly barehanded by third baseman Blake Nelson who fired it to first for the out, but the exchange allowed Ray to score and break the scoreless deadlock and give Vanderbilt their first lead of the series.

It was an easy decision for Michigan to issue an intentional walk to the Miami Marlin’s first found pick (and fourth selection overall) JJ Bleday to set up a double play, but a passed ball moved the Commodores’ runners to second and third. A second consecutive intentional walk was issued to Ethan Paul to load the bases and bring up cleanup hitter Philip Clarke. Vanderbilt was on the precipice of blowing the game completely open, yet Keizer got the Clarke to ground out to end the inning and keep the game within one.

Meanwhile Rocker continued to keep Michigan off the scoreboard as well. Through the first five innings he increased his strikeout total to nine and only allowed a single hit and a pair of walks. His quick delivery and high fastballs kept the Wolverines off balance batter after batter after batter.

“He hides his curve ball really well,” Michigan outfielder Jordan Brewer remarked after the game. “Once you sit on a curveball he's coming with a 95 mph fastball, either inside or outside. It's hard to see, and it comes out of his hand really well.”

In the top of the sixth Vanderbilt was able to increase their lead. A single to left by Pat DeMarco started the inning and it was promptly followed by a walk to Stephen Scott. A textbook sacrifice bunt by Ray moved both runners 90 feet closer to the plate. The action spurred a pitching change and the Wolverines brought in Jack Weisenburger in an effort to extinguish the combustible Vanderbilt offense. It was the third pitcher of the game for the Wolverines who amazingly had only required the arms of a trio pitchers total in the first four games of the series.

Weisenburger uncorked a wild pitch that advanced both runners and doubled the Vanderbilt lead to two. Ty Duvall walked to keep a pair of runners on. Weisenburger uncharacteristically bounced another pitch, which plated another run, and moved Duvall into scoring position. After yet another walk, this time to No. 9 hitter Julian Infante, the Wolverines brought Angelo Smith in for relief.

In his last three pitching appearances Smith had failed to get a single batter out in two of them. In the third he allowed three runs in 4 2/3 innings (although he did strikeout six). Nevertheless Smith performed admirably fanning the next two batter,s which included über-dangerous Bleday, to squash the Vanderbilt threat.

After six innings it was Vanderbilt 3, Michigan 0.

The Commodores would score for the third inning straight inning in the seventh. The frame started with another strikeout, Smith’s third consecutive K, but Philip Clarke muscled a 2-2 offering into the Vanderbilt bullpen to increase the lead to four. It was Clarke’s ninth homer of the season. Michigan’s Willie Weiss closed the inning without any more box score damage.

Jack Blomgren started the bottom of the seventh inning with a hit to left field, his second of the night against Rocker, but it was only the third of the game for UM. A balk moved him into scoring position, but Rocker responded by recording his 11th strikeout of the game. The third strike was Rocker’s 104 pitch of the night and the decision was made to send in closer Tyler Brown for an extended save.

A base hit by Ako Thomas plated Blomgren and cut the lead to three. Following a walk, Jordan Brewer arrived at the plate and represented the potential tying run. However, he watched a third strike streak across the plate to end the inning.

Just as Rocker did to start the game, Brown dominated the late innings. He put up back-to-back 1-2-3 innings in the eighth and ninth to seal the game for Vanderbilt and send the series to a winner-take-all contest on Wednesday night. It was Brown’s four appearance in Omaha in five games, and he’s yet to allow an earned run in 7 2/3 innings of work.

The unquestioned player of the game was Kumar Rocker who was every bit of advertised and more. Behind his big 6-foot-4, 250-plus pound frame he whizzed pitches past overmatched Michigan batters to earn the win. Even on the limited occasions when the Wolverines were able to advance a runner into scoring position there was little doubt that Rocker wouldn’t be able to finish the frame unscathed. Whenever he needed to come up with a big out he constantly prevailed.

With the inclusion of tonight’s totals, Rocker has amassed a minuscule 0.96 ERA by only allowing three earned runs in 28 total innings in the NCAA postseason. Of the 15 hits he allowed, 12 were singles and only three went for extra bases (three doubles). He has only allowed five walks while incredibly striking out 44 (14 Ks per 9 innings) in his four appearances.

After the game Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin praised his freshman pitcher.

“I attribute it to his maturity and how he prepares,” Corbin stated, “The kid takes initiative of everything he's doing. He's a director. He's not an actor. You don't have to tell him what to do. There's a clear difference. He directs himself.

“When he's coached, he doesn't sit there and just ‘yeah, yeah’ you. He's curious. He asks good questions. He's a sponge. I just see a kid that wants to really learn and wants to really, really be good. He wants to be special. And he's got a chance to, because he pitches for his team. He said that, but that's not manufactured, that's a real feeling.”

Regardless of Rocker’s accomplishments and accolades, his ultimate position in college baseball history remains to be seen. If his Tuesday night win propels Vanderbilt to their second title in six seasons he will be remembered as one of the game’s greats. However if Michigan is able to rebound and win their first national title since 1962, his performance will be little more than a footnote of the 2019 season.

“This is a bounce-back team,” Michigan head coach Erik Bakich reminded reporters post game. “We've had so many bouts of adversity where we've been knocked down … we've got a chance to play again tomorrow, and we'll just have to play better.”

The deciding game three of the College World Series Finals between the Vanderbilt Commodores and Michigan Wolverines will by played Wednesday night.

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