Facing elimination, Kumar Rocker notches historic, 19 strikeout no-hitter
Kumar Rocker will forever be the first player to throw a no-hitter in the Super Regional. When the 'Dores needed it most, he struck out 19 in an untouchable performance. Nearly a week later, The Vanderbilt Hustler revisits the night.
June 14, 2019
Well before he had even arrived on West End, Kumar Rocker was the talk of the town.
On paper, the flame-throwing freshman seemed like nothing short of a mythological figure. At just 18 years old, he was listed at a whopping 6′ 4″, 255 pounds. He even had supernatural powers to match his stature, with a fastball that was rumored to have clocked in at 100 miles per hour in high school.
Scouts would ramble about his size, velocity, and sheer power. But none of them harped on his deadliest weapon: a foolish, yet elegant pitch called “The McNasty.”
“The McNasty is what we used to call his curveball when he was younger,” his mother Lalitha said, trying to hold back laughter. “In middle school, when he would throw that in his travel ball league, if that curveball was on? Nobody could hit it.”
By Saturday, June 8th, Kumar Rocker was no longer the talk of the town. He wasn’t just the talk of baseball. He was the talk of the whole country.
“It was 4 AM and we were in our daily pre-show meeting,” esteemed Vanderbilt Hustler alumnus Skip Bayless recalled. “Then one of our young staff members turned to me and said, ‘my gosh, how about Kumar Rocker?’ This guy, who grew up out here in LA, is a Laker and Dodger fan, was all over it. Within a few hours, that crescendo reverberated all the way from Nashville to our meeting room in Los Angeles. That got me so excited, so proud, and it was all because of that performance.”
Less than a day removed from a devastating 18-5 loss to Duke, Vanderbilt — the No. 2 team in the country — was at risk of being eliminated by an unranked team. A win would keep their season alive. A loss would forfeit their chances of competing in the coveted College Baseball World Series. With pressure mounting, Tim Corbin gave Rocker the nod.
“I never question any decision that Corbin is going to make out there,” David Price, former Commodore and current Red Sox pitcher said with confidence. “Obviously he saw something that Kumar had that was going to give Duke trouble. And the breaking balls he was throwing? I mean, sheesh. Anyone I know would have trouble with that.”
In his first career super regional appearance, Rocker was rockin’.
He went all 9 frames and gave up no hits, etching his name into record books as the only pitcher to throw a no-hitter in a Super Regional game. In the process, Rocker racked up an astronomical 19 strikeouts. Each one swinging. Each one swinging at same pitch.
The pitch heard around the world, The McNasty, was unhittable. It was untouchable. To his family, it even seemed unfathomable.
“You can’t force this pitch organically, only he knows what’s working and what’s not,” Lalitha said. “And on Saturday, that McNasty? Oh my goodness. I’ve never seen anything like that from him, and I mean ever. Tracy and I were just like, ‘who is this kid and what has he done with our child?’ Nobody could hit it. It was like the best pitch you’ve ever seen, just on steroids. It was out of this world.”
On Sunday, the Commodores will face off against Louisville in their first College Baseball World Series game since 2015. Nearly a week has passed, but no one will forget how they got there.
Everyone will remember how Kumar Rocker made this World Series berth possible with one of the greatest pitching performances in College Baseball history.
No Nerves in Nashville
When Rocker emerged from the dugout in the bottom of the first, the sold out crowd at Hawkins Field rose to their feet. They roared in excitement, while crossing their fingers in anxiety. After all, someone had to feel the pressure.
Because Rocker didn’t.
He paced towards the pitcher’s mound, embarking on a journey that seemed like a ten mile hike through a dry, hot desert for Commodore fans.
Yet, with ice in his veins, Kumar stayed composed.
“I think early on, any nerves he had turned into adrenaline,” his father Tracy, now the defensive line coach for the Tennessee Volunteers said. “Lu and I have always said to him before every game, ‘just do your best and make sure you have fun. It’s just a game.’ He understand that there was a lot at stake, but he was born ready for this stage. He’s always known that.”
Duke’s leadoff hitter began the game with a line out to short. One up, one down.
The ensuing batter, Duke’s captain Kennie Taylor, did not go down as smoothly. Taylor was fearless as he stepped into the batter’s box. Unfortunately, so was Rocker. He launched a 90-plus mile per hour fastball high and inside, clocking Taylor right below his eye. The same freak accident had sidelined Duke’s Ethan Murray earlier this season. Only this time, the pitch was harder.
The stadium went silent.
Head Coach Tim Corbin thought Rocker was uncharacteristically quiet, too. He figured the freshman was a bit shaken up after sending a Blue Devil to the nearby Vanderbilt hospital.
Lalitha Rocker saw things differently.
“Let me tell you something. That sort of thing would never rattle him,” said Lalitha. “Of course he hates hitting a batter, but it doesn’t get to him. After the game, we happened to have seen Kennie’s dad walking to the car. I gave him a hug and apologized because I knew how to deal with it. We’ve been through it before. In high school, in game one of a series, Kumar went high and inside, the ball got away, and hit the batter in the arm. I started realizing how hard my boy throws when we returned for game two and that kid shows up with a big cast over his entire broken arm. I apologized to his mother as well.”
Rocker remained mentally tough, despite the freak accident. In shocking fashion, Kennie Taylor returned for game two of the series, a feat that Lalitha deems more impressive than her own son’s grit.
“You can talk about Kumar and mental toughness all you want, but oh boy is Kenny tough. Coming back the next day was unheard of. I was shocked and surprised, but so happy for him.”
After the pinch runner had taken his position, the next batter, Washington Nationals draftee Matt Mervis, was Kumar’s next opponent. Thankfully, Mervis wasn’t hit by a pitch. Instead, he fell victim to the McNasty.
“The first inning I didn’t have that much,” Rocker said. “And then I threw one good curve, and [Clarke] looked at me and he was like, ‘that was sharp,’ and I was like, ‘yeah I guess, we’ll keep throwing that.’”
Surely enough, Kumar kept throwing it. Time and time again, the Blue Devils’ eyes would light up as they saw what appeared to be an incoming strike.
“Nineteen times. Nineteen times they got punked by the exact same curve,” Price said between bursts of laughter. “It just looks like a down the middle, no-doubter strike. That’s what the Blue Devils were seeing. But then, right before it gets to the catcher’s mitt, the bottom just falls out. An imaginary hand pulls away a chair or something. All of a sudden, after swinging, the batter sees dirt fly up in the air. They probably were like, ‘did that just hit the dirt?”
Kumar may get Sword of the Week…. 😂 pic.twitter.com/sRsrsF8QOC
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 9, 2019
After the first inning, Kumar got into a rhythm. He struck out another in the second inning, two more in the third, and two more in the fourth. In the fifth inning, he fooled a batter into swinging at a pitch so far from the strike zone, it ended up at the backstop. The dropped third strike awarded Duke with their first baserunner in quite some time, bringing up the fourth Blue Devil of the inning.
And of course, the dropped third strike allowed Rocker to strike out his fourth opponent of the inning—a perplexing, yet magnificent feat.
Magic in the Making
While her son was amidst the greatest outing in Vanderbilt baseball history, Lalitha Rocker had not the slightest clue. She was worried about one thing and one thing only: winning the ballgame.
“It didn’t occur to me at all. I did not look at the scoreboard once. I did not look at the K’s. I mean normally, I’m looking all around. But I just stayed laser focused on the mound and at the plate. And I’m praying. ‘Please just let him throw strikes. Please just have a little movement. Please don’t let them hit it.’”
After the game, her son reverberated the same concern. Winning was the only thing that mattered to him.
But unlike his mother, Kumar at least knew what a no-hitter was. On the other hand, Lalitha was confused. She didn’t know why Coach Corbin was pushing her son past a reasonable pitch count.
“He had just struck out four, so I figured he’d get his relief in the sixth. I went to use the restroom and relax, and when I came back up, [Harrison Ray’s mother] Tracey said, ‘umm, your baby has his hat on. He’s going back out.’ And I was just like, ‘what in the world? You’re not taking my baby past a certain pitch count.’ Well, he responded with three more strikeouts in one inning.”
He steamrolled through the sixth inning, showing no signs of slowing down. The seventh inning was no different, as he struck out two more. Lalitha was still somewhat puzzled, nervous and worried about her son risking injury by exceeding his normal pitch count. The McNasty was just too good to replace.
Rocker had taken down almost every Blue Devil player three times by the time the eighth inning rolled around. He was making it look easy. With such a high pitch count, Coach Pollard realized one hit would end Kumar’s night. He took matters into his own hands, walked onto the field, and instructed his batter to step out of the box for an ever-so-rare plate visit. He hoped to interrupt Rocker’s flow.
Rocker was not fooled by the same tactic his SEC opponents tried in the regular season. His catcher, Philip Clarke, knew it wouldn’t end well for the Blue Devils.
“I liked it [when they called timeout] because I knew it would make Kumar throw harder.”
Clarke was right. Rocker responded with anger, firing one of the fastest curveballs of the game. The harder they are, the harder they fall: the Blue Devil whiffed in embarrassing fashion, sending him into a whirlwind of frustration.
“I think it’s awesome that they called that little plate meeting pow wow thing,” said Price. Kumar was just out there controlling what he can control. He can’t control useless, unsportsmanlike tactics. He just continues to throw strikes. I bet they felt real smart calling that thing after he struck out.”
Kumar, K #15.
And then screams at the Duke dugout because they tried disrupt his timing by having a "hitter's conference." 🔥 pic.twitter.com/zIukZOCrnj
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 9, 2019
Even if he wanted to, Corbin wasn’t sure he’d be able to take Rocker out of the game.
“Look at him. You see how big he is? I mean, you try and take him out and see how that ends for you.”
After getting over the eighth inning hump, Kumar finally had his eyes on the prize. He was one inning away from history. Once again, Lalitha thought his day was over.
“I wasn’t really relieved because we hadn’t won yet, but it was nice to know my baby’s day was over. I was ready for T-Brown to come save the day. I didn’t know anything about what no-hitter meant or anything like that. My jaw dropped when he came back out after throwing over 100 pitches, and I think I was the only one in the stadium that stayed silent. It just erupted. I was just like, ‘okay, okay, I guess he is pitching pretty well, but there’s no way he has much left in the tank.’ And then at that point, when that happened, everyone around me was educating me. ‘Do you know what’s about to happen?’ I was just tuning out that noise. We still had a game to win.”
Lalitha had finally learned what a no-hitter was. She also heard murmurs of how long it’s been since Vanderbilt last achieved the feat. She certainly didn’t know that it had never been done in a Super Regional game, and her son would be the first.
Three outs away from finishing off the job, Rocker’s first opponent walked up to the plate.
“It was just a historic performance by a young man who took our team and put us on his back and in such a needed way,” Corbin said after the game.
Rocker struck him out. After his 17th of the game, the second batter of the inning, somehow not trembling in fear, dug his way into the box.
“Look, if you have any respect for sports, then this is gold, just legendary stuff,” Price said. “For him to rack up all those K’s, throw a no-hitter in an elimination game as a freshman, I don’t even know what to say. I’m at a loss for words. If they get the ESPY’s right this year, he’s got to be a finalist. I don’t care what the award would be, Best Performance, Best Game, whatever it is. It’d be a mistake for him to be left out of that conversation.”
Again, he struck him out. Good for number 18 on the night. One more out and he would achieve the impossible.
“I was in complete and utter shock. The look on his face, I just broke down crying. It was incredible. That’s my little boy, that’s my baby. That was all that I could think of.”
And one last time, swing and a miss on the curveball. In spectacular fashion, Kumar struck out the side in the ninth inning, completing his 19 strikeout no-hitter.
To Kumar, the no-hitter meant just another win. As Bayless and Price acknowledged, this was way more than just a win for Rocker. It was an epic, once-in-a-lifetime win for Vanderbilt University.
“David Price and Dansby Swanson were both the first pick in the draft,” said Bayless. “And now, JJ Bleday was the fourth pick in the draft. In basketball, Darius Garland could be the fourth pick. In football, Joejuan Williams was a mid-second round pick of none other than Bill Belichick. Tonight was a reminder that Rocker is next. Remember, this is Vanderbilt we’re talking about. That night, Rocker did what he’s done all year. He continued to show athletes throughout the country that what I consider the best college experience in America, Vanderbilt University, and one of the top academic schools, is having this kind of impact in sports, too. It just means more.”
“What stood out to me is the postgame interview. This dude literally said he was ready to go tomorrow if they needed,” Price said. “He had just thrown 130 pitches in one of the best pitching performances I’ve ever seen. That’s the kind of guy you want on your team. That’s the kind of guy that Corbin recruits. That’s why Vanderbilt Baseball is the best baseball program in the country. It’s really why I’m just so proud to be a Commodore.”
As just a freshman, Rocker has at least two more seasons in black and gold.
The memories from this performance, however, will never fade.
Kumar Rocker's 19Ks (No Hitter) in 52 Seconds. pic.twitter.com/tGi9VywIdy
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 9, 2019