What separates the good from the great is the ability to perform at a high level, consistently. What separates the great from the legends is the ability to consistently perform at that high level in the biggest moments.
Kumar Rocker fits the legend category. Just over two years after twirling a no-hitter in his first ever super regional, Rocker (13-3) delivered another Herculean effort Friday morning in the final start of his career at Hawkins Field, striking out 11 batters over 7.2 innings of work, allowing just three hits and three walks in Vanderbilt’s 2-0 win over East Carolina. The junior right hander rose to the occasion when the lights were brightest yet again throwing 118 pitches and picking up the Game 1 win, etching another storybook moment in what has been a storied career.
“To get a front seat to watch this kid compete has been special. He gives us everything he’s got. He did what he needed to do; he was efficient with his pitches and he commanded his heartbeat in such a great way,” Tim Corbin said of Rocker after the game.
It was an early 11 a.m. CDT start in Nashville, kicked off by a national anthem performance from Vanderbilt men’s basketball coach Jerry Stackhouse. Rocker gave the East Carolina Pirates a taste of what was to come in the top of the first, working his way out of the frame in just six pitches.
But what made this performance even more impressive from Rocker and Vanderbilt was the work of ECU starter Gavin Williams, who valiantly battled Rocker inning for inning. The Pirate junior finished his day with a line of 7.1 innings, 13 strikeouts, seven hits, and two earned runs. Williams used an impressive mix of a big fastballs—up to 97 MPH on the gun—and plus changeups and curveballs that dropped out of the zone seemingly all day.
“He pitched so well. He attacked with his fastball early and he started landed two breaking balls. He throws a lot of strikes and he didn’t blink. You had two big league pitchers out there,” Corbin added on Williams.
Nevertheless, the Commodores were able to scratch across a run in the bottom of the second inning behind a double from CJ Rodriguez that was ripped to left field. That moved Parker Noland, who was on first via a bunt, to third. Javier Vaz poked a ball to the right side of the infield to score Noland from third and give Vanderbilt a 1-0 lead that would be all it needed. Vaz, who had just recently been plugged into the starting lineup, proved to be yet another masterful chess move from head coach Tim Corbin after the clutch RBI and a double later on.
Rocker continued to mow down Pirate hitters through three innings and didn’t allow a baserunner until the fourth, when he walked Connor Norby. Rodriguez, though, promptly gunned Norby down trying to steal second base and Rocker worked his way out of the inning.
The Vanderbilt offense tried to get things going in the bottom half of the fourth, as Isaiah Thomas smoked a double to left field with one out, followed up by a Noland walk. However, Rodriguez grounded into a double play to get Williams and the Pirates out of the inning.
Rocker ran into a mini jam in the top of the fifth, giving up his first hit of the day and letting two Pirate baserunners on. However, he got Seth Caddell to roll over a ball to third base and worked his way out of the inning, tallying seven strikeouts through five innings. Vaz ripped a liner off the foot of shortstop Zach Agnos for a peculiar double to get things started in the home half of the fifth, but Williams struck out the Commodore side.
Rocker continued that trend to start the sixth, fanning all three Pirate hitters in the top of the inning. The two pitchers really started to go punch for punch at this point in the contest, with a bit of help from an expanded strike zone, as Williams struck out two more in the sixth.
Vanderbilt had another opportunity in the bottom of the seventh as Vaz had a perfect bunt with one out to reach first after a Rodriguez single. However, Jayson Gonzalez ripped a liner directly into the shift for an easy double play for ECU to get out of the inning.
The eighth inning marked Rocker’s final frame, as he worked two quick outs from the Pirate side to start the frame. Norby tagged a fastball though with two outs and Corbin elected to turn to Nick Maldonado out of the pen, with Rocker finishing his outing at 118 pitches. The junior walked off the mound for the final time at Hawkins Field to a standing ovation from the 100-percent capacity crowd.
The Commodores were finally able to turn their offensive pressure into runs in the top of the eight inning, when leadoff hitter Enrique Bradfield Jr. took over on the base-paths. Bradfield Jr. led off for Vanderbilt and hit a chopper to second base, which pulled the East Carolina first baseman Thomas Francisco off first. The speedy freshman then dove into first base to beat a scurrying Williams, who was attempting to cover first from his spot on the mound.
A passed ball moved Bradfield Jr. to second and Carter Young bunted him over to third. East Carolina moved their infield in and Dominic Keegan hit a high hopper to shortstop. Agnos sniped a throw home to cut down Bradfield Jr. at the plate, but the freshman immediately popped up wanting a review from the umpires despite originally appearing out. Upon further review, Bradfield Jr. somehow snuck his hand in before the Pirates were able to lay down a tag, providing a massive insurance run for the Commodores.
“He’s the fastest guy we got. Runs were expensive today. We did what we needed to do to score those runs. That was a hell of a slide [from Enrique],” Corbin said.
Yep. He was safe.
— Vanderbilt Baseball (@VandyBoys) June 11, 2021
“He’s Deion Sanders out there,” East Carolina skipper Cliff Goodwin said of Bradfield after the game.
Luke Murphy came out of the bullpen for Coach Tim Corbin in the top of the ninth and worked a 1-2-3 off the win for the Commodores.
The Game 1 win was massive for Vanderbilt; 80-percent of teams that win game 1 of a super regional have advanced to Omaha since the induction of the 64 team bracket. For Rocker, it was his sixth postseason win as a Commodore with zero losses. It was Gavin Williams first loss of the season for the Pirates. Vanderbilt is just one win away from advancing to Omaha and Jack Leiter will take the bump tomorrow at 11 a.m. CDT.