Down 1-0, Kumar Rocker finds himself in a familiar position

The last time Vanderbilt stared down the end of its season, Kumar Rocker was historic. Now, the Commodores hope lightning can strike twice.

Game One of College World Series Finals didn’t exactly go as planned for Vanderbilt.

Michigan jumped out to an early lead in the top of the first, and the Wolverines never relinquished that lead in a 7-4 victory to put them one win away from the Big Ten’s first National Championship in baseball since 1966.

“They were the aggressor,” said Tim Corbin of his opponents. “There’s no doubt about that. Our guys know that.”

Now, with their backs against the wall, the VandyBoys need to be the aggressors to save their season and force a deciding Game Three. They’ll turn to freshman right-hander Kumar Rocker to get the job done.

This won’t be the first time Rocker will pitch with the season on the line. His 19-strikeout no-hitter against Duke just two weeks ago came in an absolute must-win game. In spots that leave baseball fans everywhere wondering if the moment is just too big for the freshman, Rocker has looked calm, collected, and right at home.

“He was a freshman in September,” Corbin said. “You know, he’s pitched a lot of baseball games. I think age is really not going to be the factor right now. I think the biggest part of him is he’s been on the mound before and he’s got confidence in himself. But he’s going to have to pitch well against this team. They’re very good.”

Michigan certainly proved that in Game One against Drake Fellows, but Vanderbilt’s rotation isn’t a normal weekend rotation. If anything, things only get harder, not easier, and Rocker is the hottest guy in the rotation.

“Yeah, obviously everybody knows about his performance in the super regional,” said Michigan first baseman Jimmy Kerr, who hit his third home run of the College World Series last night. “Super talented guy, all the tools in the world. But we’re going to break him down tomorrow before the game and see where our game plan goes from there.”

Breaking down Kumar Rocker has been easier said than done as of late. The flame-throwing righty is 4-0 in the postseason, sporting a 1.01 ERA and striking out 35 batters. Chris Lemonis and his Mississippi State team seemed poised to execute their game plan against Rocker in the start after his no-hitter.

Right fielder and cleanup hitter Elijah MacNamee laid off that first two-strike breaking ball in Rocker’s last start, and for a second, it looked like Mississippi State had the formula. The next pitch, though, was another slider right in the dirt, and MacNamee couldn’t duplicate his patience at the plate. He became a strikeout victim.

Again, easier said than done.

“We’ll have our work cut out for us tomorrow because the deal with Rocker is just the breaking ball is tough to pick up and it’s late and it’s got depth,” said Michigan head coach Erik Bakich. “So we know he’s very good.”

If any team can handle Rocker’s slider and force him to adapt, it’s the Wolverines. This is a team that has walked 18 times in its last two games, creating opportunities with its plate discipline.

But Rocker is more than a one-trick pony. The fluidity of his motion at 6’4” 255 lbs and a mid-to-high-90s fastball is what caught the attention of scouts in the first place, and that fastball has been excellent as of late. It might not be his strikeout pitch, but he uses it to get ahead in counts and set up the slider.

This isn’t the same Rocker that got shelled to open the season against TCU. Even an ERA as low as 3.38 doesn’t tell the whole story for him. This is a guy who has been virtually unhittable over the last two months. He’s the guy Vanderbilt wants to send to the mound in a must-win game.

Even going up against a team that’s been as unstoppable as Michigan lately, Vanderbilt can look to Rocker as a silver lining. They can look to the College World Series Finals last year, where Oregon State lost Game One and went on to win the next two, as another. This series is far from over.

There’s a reason it’s a three game series, and Vanderbilt has its ace throwing in Game Two. He’s an ace that nobody seems to have an answer for.

Michigan will look to find that answer tonight when they take the field in Omaha.

If they can’t, we could be looking at Game Three on Wednesday night.