Despite the outcome of Wednesday’s 9-0 loss to Mississippi State in the College World Series, Vanderbilt ace Kumar Rocker may have just ended the most impressive amateur career the Commodores have ever seen.
A projected top-10 pick in the upcoming MLB Draft, Rocker’s resume is second to none. He set the bar absurdly high during his freshman year, throwing a 19-strikeout no-hitter in an NCAA Super Regional en route to winning a national championship and College World Series MVP.
“What Kumar did his freshman year, you don't do that,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “People don't do that. He's the 0.5 percent. That doesn't happen.”
Rocker’s junior season wasn’t nearly as impressive, but the 6-foot-5 righty did lead the NCAA with 14 wins and he tied teammate and fellow projected first-round pick Jack Leiter for the national lead with 179 strikeouts.
His final college start was anything but memorable — he gave up six hits and four earned runs and had six strikeouts over 4.1 innings — but that doesn’t detract from Rocker’s full body of work. For the last three seasons, the junior hurler has been the face of Vanderbilt baseball. In a long lineage of some of the best college pitchers in NCAA history — David Price, Walker Buehler, Carson Fulmer, Mason Hickman and others — Rocker may just be better than all of them.
“He's just a one-in-a-million kid,” Corbin stated. “He's connected to his teammates in such a way that just the ultimate college pitcher, ultimate college teammate. Ultimate college baseball player. He'll go down as one of the very best we've had at Vanderbilt.
"I don't like to categorize the kids because I don't want to slight anyone, but my gosh, this kid — he's meant so much to our program. He's meant a lot to college baseball. He's meant a lot to the SEC.”
Added Rocker: “[It was the] biggest growth period of my life so far. And I dedicate all that to coach Corbin and the Vanderbilt family.”
Although he didn’t have his A game, Rocker was far from Vanderbilt’s biggest problem Wednesday night. The Commodores committed three errors over nine innings and mustered just one hit, which didn’t come until the bottom of the eighth.
Their inexperience in big-game situations came out in full force. The ‘Dores committed 13 errors — including four games with at least three errors — and they were held to four hits or fewer in three of their seven games at the College World Series, a surprising statistic considering Vanderbilt had the fourth-most hits in the country this year.
Rocker was one of just seven holdovers from Vanderbilt’s 2019 national championship team. That reason alone may have contributed to the team leaning too heavily on him to repeatedly pitch on a superhuman level.
“Before the season started, I said to myself that I want these young guys to experience exactly what I experienced (winning a national title in 2019),” Rocker said. “And I came a game short of that.”
While surprising that Vanderbilt lost so emphatically in back-to-back games, it was also surprising that Vanderbilt made it to the College World Series final in the first place.
Yes, the Commodores had perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the NCAA in Rocker and Leiter, but they struggled to back that up elsewhere. Christian Little, Patrick Reilly and Thomas Schultz were maddeningly inconsistent through the regular season, and the ‘Dores never truly found their No. 3 starter.
The offense, while good during the regular season, ranking fourth in hits (652), sixth in home runs (92) and 12thin runs scored (454), was virtually nonexistent when it mattered most.
Next year, Rocker and Leiter will be gone, and Vanderbilt won’t be able to coast through the postseason on the backs of two players alone. But in losing in the CWS final, Vanderbilt positioned itself to potentially compete for another national title next year on the merits of its 30-plus returning underclassmen, all of whom now have that coveted postseason experience to draw from.
“I mean, to come here, No. 1, it helps you,” Corbin said. “It helps your confidence. To come here and get in a game helps you. And certainly, playing as long as we did (helps too). We played a lot of tough baseball games out here… And that certainly is going to help the kids moving forward.”
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