VandyBoys win SEC opener 3-2 over South Carolina

Kumar Rocker’s 14-strikeout outing gave Vanderbilt its first SEC victory on Friday.


Kumar Rocker against South Carolina on March 19, 2021. (Twitter/@VandyBoys)

Simon Gibbs, Sports Editor

Vanderbilt baseball kicked off its Southeastern Conference (SEC) season at Hawkins field on Friday evening, as the No. 2 Commodores played host to the No. 14 South Carolina Gamecocks in the first leg of a three-game series. In a pitcher’s duel, Vanderbilt ultimately prevailed by a narrow 3-2 margin.

“It was a very difficult game,” head coach Tim Corbin said after the game. “It was a very good college baseball game. If you look at the arms out there—I’ve coached here a long time, and every single guy that stepped on the mound tonight is a high-level guy.”

Vanderbilt put its best foot forward, starting its star pitcher Kumar Rocker on the mound. Rocker dazzled through the first five frames; in fact, the Gamecocks didn’t log their first base hit until the fifth inning, with Rocker taking a no-hit bid through four and a third. 

But as the Commodore pitching dazzled, so too did the Gamecock staff. South Carolina started its own ace, redshirt junior Thomas Farr, and he delivered four and a third of no-hit innings to match Rocker’s. 

By the time the fifth inning rolled around, each team had logged just one baserunner: freshman center fielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. drew a walk for Vanderbilt in the third, but he was caught stealing for the first time all season—breaking his NCAA-best streak of 13-straight swiped bags. For South Carolina, it was junior first baseman David Mendham drawing a walk off Kumar Rocker in the second inning. Neither base runner advanced past first.

“Runs were just expensive to come by,” Corbin said. “When you get pitching like that, it negates good offense.”

Eventually, in the bottom of the fifth inning, Vanderbilt plated its first two runs of the game. The rally kicked off with junior right fielder Isaiah Thomas knocking a single out to right field, then advancing to second base off a passed ball. Next, sophomore catcher CJ Rodriguez delivered, breaking the game’s seal with a double to left field, bringing home Thomas and giving Vanderbilt a 1-0 lead. Though the Commodores were able to score one more—as junior second baseman Tate Kolwyck singled to center, then Bradfield Jr.’s single to center allowed Rodriguez to safely reach home—Vanderbilt’s rally proved short-lived.

The Commodores had amassed a 2-0 lead through five, but they stranded runners on first and second base. 

In the next half inning, South Carolina was able to knot the game up at two apiece. A single, double and a pair of fielder’s choices—both the result of decision-making from Vanderbilt’s senior third baseman Jayson Gonzalez—had tied the game at two, and gave Rocker two earned runs. Those would be the last earned runs of Rocker’s outing, though.

Rocker ended up taking his start well past 100 pitches. He cruised through eight innings for the second consecutive start, and put an exclamation point on his stellar outing by striking out three-straight batters in the top of the eighth. His day ended after 116 pitches, which he used to notch 14 strikeouts, allowing just two earned runs off three hits and two walks.

“Outstanding. I mean—outstanding,” Corbin said of Rocker’s performance. “A gut check. He wouldn’t come out of the game. After the long inning in the bottom of the seventh, I went over to [pitching coach Scott Brown] and said ‘that’s going to be it, right there.’ I didn’t want him sitting in the dugout for too long after throwing 90-something pitches. Brownie went over to him, and he wasn’t coming out of the game.”

To put a bow on his night, Rocker was even able to get the win, despite pitching the majority of his outing tied at either 0-0 or 2-2—in the bottom of the seventh inning, a pair of walks from Rodriguez and Gonzalez brought up senior left fielder Cooper Davis, who provided the eventual game-winning run. Davis singled up the middle, allowing Rodriguez to score. Vanderbilt had taken a 3-2 lead after seven, though it stranded two more runners. 

South Carolina was awfully impressive on the mound, too, striking out 13 total Commodores and allowing just five hits on 28 batters faced. But ultimately, Rocker’s start—and junior Luke Murphy’s subsequent ninth inning save, his first since returning from COVID-19-related contact tracing—gave Vanderbilt its first SEC win in its first try.

The VandyBoys win moved them to 14-2. They’ll face the Gamecocks again on Saturday, with first pitch scheduled for 11:00 a.m. CT.