GOLDMAN: The most important Commodore in Omaha? Still to be named

While stars Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter are the most reliable pair of starters in Omaha, they will not be enough if Vanderbilt wants to defend its title.

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Christian Little delivers a pitch in a game on April 13. (Twitter/VandyBoys).

Jesse Goldman, Staff Writer

Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter are about as incredible a pair of starters as any college baseball team could put together. They are simply dazzling. Both are Golden Spikes award semi-finalists and will be top picks in this summer’s MLB draft, and they are the core of a team that has been one of the nation’s best all season. However, even considering their success, due to the nature of the College World Series, it is likely that neither of these two will be the make-or-break player for the Commodores. 

The natural assumption as to who this key player may be is one of Vanderbilt’s best position players. Freshman phenom Enrique Bradfield Jr., slugger Dominic Keegan or late-season breakout star Troy LaNeve may be the first names that come to mind. While the aforementioned players are important, this team is ultimately built around pitching. Therefore, the most important Commodore heading into Omaha is unknown—it’s whoever head coach Tim Corbin entrusts with being the third starter in the rotation. 

If Vanderbilt were to run the table over the next two weekends, they would play a minimum of five games. The 2019 national champion Commodores played six and used three different starters in those games: Mason Hickman, Drake Fellows and Rocker. Even if Corbin decides to ride the arms of Rocker and Leiter as if they are noodles and send them to the mound on short rest, Vanderbilt is going to need a third starter at some point. 

The problem? Neither the fan base nor the coaching staff seemingly knows with confidence who that third starter should be. While the 2019 team had four players pitch at least 75 innings, this year’s roster—besides Rocker and Leiter—does not have an arm with over 43 innings pitched. Thomas Schultz, Patrick Reilly, Christian Little and Chris McElvain have all been given opportunities to seize that third spot, and all have been incredibly inconsistent. 

Little is the best option to get the call and solve this dilemma. A 17-year-old who enrolled halfway through his senior year of high school, Little is a captivating prospect. He was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Missouri, stands at an impressive 6’4” and already is capable of reaching the mid-to-high 90s with his fastball. He has vastly improved his play since the academic year ended, with less weight on his back and more ability to focus on his preparation and performance, according to Corbin. The coaching staff has already displayed their willingness to put their youngest pitcher in big spots, as he was given the start against Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament, delivering an impressive performance. He may be the rawest of all the options for the third starter spot, but he certainly has the highest upside. The further the Commodores progress, the better their opponents will be, and the team is going to need that upside to get to the final best-of-three championship series. 

Choosing Little also provides long-term benefits, giving a future anchor of Corbin’s rotation invaluable experience on college baseball’s biggest stage. Rocker is a good example of how trusting a young and talented pitcher can pay off down the road. Down 0-1 to Duke in the 2019 Super Regional, Corbin gave Rocker the ball in a must-win game. A freshman at the time, Rocker delivered a 131-pitch no-hitter and received the type of experience that one cannot prepare for. Obviously a no-hitter is not expected of Christian Little, but the opportunity for exposure and building long-term confidence remains. 

There is the possibility that, with no proven third starter, Corbin and pitching coach Scott Brown choose to go with a platoon of bullpen arms, but the team would best be suited choosing one arm and adjusting if necessary. 

There is going to be a quick hook for all pitchers in these games, so if Little struggles, the bullpen will be called into action early regardless. Additionally, the only part of the bullpen that has been consistent throughout the season has been the back end, with Nick Maldonado and Luke Murphy closing games. However, they could very well be unavailable if Rocker and Leiter cannot go the distance, putting the pressure in this situation on options such as Hugh Fisher and Nelson Berkwich. Each holds an ERA under 3.00, but neither has pitched more than 12 innings. Planning on the middle of the bullpen to carry six or seven innings to get to Maldonado or Murphy is not a risk Vanderbilt can afford to take. 

Leiter and Rocker have been truly special this season. The two are a combined 23-6 with 311 strikeouts across 202 innings. Vanderbilt is going to need this continued dominance to have a chance at their third College World Series title in seven years. If one of them falters, which has occurred occasionally this year due to the forfeiting of home runs by both pitchers, the VandyBoys may see their stay in Omaha shortened no matter how well they swing the bats. 

Although Texas and Tennessee came into the playoffs with a higher overall ranking, the Commodores are the consensus favorite heading to Omaha. There is the possibility that Vanderbilt’s two aces dominate every game they pitch, putting up eight-inning, minimal run performances. But considering they will be facing seven of the other best teams in college baseball, they will not be able to do it all by themselves. If Vanderbilt defends their title and returns to Nashville as champions once again, Christian Little very well may be why—whether you realize it or not.