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Kumar Rocker Throws Dominant No-Hitter In Super Regionals

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Vanderbilt righthander Kumar Rocker (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

With the way he threw late in the season, it was clear that Vanderbilt’s freshman phenom, Kumar Rocker, was positioned to be a weapon in the postseason.

In the second half of the season, he shut out Arkansas over seven innings, struck out 10 against Auburn, held Louisiana State to one run over five innings and then limited Indiana State to one run in 6.2 innings in the Nashville Regional.

But even the most wide-eyed optimist couldn’t have seen this coming.

On Saturday, in a 3-0 win against Duke, Rocker was truly dominant. He struck out 19 batters in a no-hitter, the first ever in a super regional game and the Commodores first since 1971. But it wasn’t just that. This was a no-hitter in a game in which Vanderbilt’s was facing elimination, having lost Friday’s opener in blowout fashion.

Rocker’s 19 strikeouts were two shy of the all-time record for strikeouts in any NCAA Tournament game and breaks Vanderbilt’s record for strikeouts in a postseason game, surpassing David Price’s 17. Price took to Twitter to praise Rocker.

For much of the game, the gaudy strikeout total was of more note to Rocker than the fact that he had a no-hitter going.

“To be honest, I was looking at the strikeouts,” Rocker said. “I was like ‘I’m about to try to get to 10,’ so I kept peeking at the K, and then, I guess, no hits came with it.”

The righthander had his usual electric fastball at his disposal, working it in and out, up and down with mid-90s velocity, but it was the breaking ball that was the real weapon on this night.

Although the offering often ended up in the dirt, forcing catcher Philip Clarke to smother them repeatedly for the purpose of coming up with the ball to finish off strikeouts with throws to first base, Duke batters, one after the other, swung and missed wildly. The pitch was rarely put in play at all, much less put in play with any authority.

“After the first inning, I went up to him and I said, ‘Man, your breaking ball is really tight tonight,’” Clarke said. “He was like, ‘Don’t jinx it,’ so then I shut up. But his breaking ball, it was different tonight, I think, than it has been all season.”

Rocker used that pitch, mostly, to spend a good portion of his evening on cruise control. Between the third and seventh innings, a span of 17 batters, Rocker struck out 13, including four in the fifth inning, when Duke’s Ethan Murray reached first on a dropped third strike.

Rocker did walk two and hit one batter, but those runners never led to any sort of Blue Devils rally. In all four instances of a Duke batter reaching base, the runner never advanced past first base.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle he faced was mental rather than physical. One of the baserunners he allowed was in the first inning, when an errant fastball caught Duke center fielder Kennie Taylor in the face, forcing him to leave the game.

For any pitcher, but especially a young one like Rocker, that type of thing can test your focus, and at worst, shake you up enough to make you lose your edge. But instead, he struck out the next batter, Matt Mervis, and the pinch-runner, Damon Lux, was erased on the same play trying to steal second base.

“For Kumar, when he came off the field (after the first inning), you could tell he was a little bit shaken,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “When he comes in, he slams my hand every time he comes in, and he didn’t. And I was thinking that I hope he can get through that moment, and he did.”

As the game grew old, it appeared all but certain that Rocker would leave without allowing a hit to a Duke batter, but the question was whether or not he had enough rope to finish the game off, especially because his pitch count this season had topped out at 105.

He was over the 100-pitch threshold for the last two innings of the game, and as that number moved from 110 to 120 and then eventually got up to 130, with the game still in question, he was likely one base runner from seeing his night end.

Not surprisingly, he wasn’t having it. Rocker sprinted through the finish line, retiring the last ten batters he faced, including the last four via strikeout.

Fair or not, with the way Vanderbilt has played down the stretch, getting to Omaha and putting itself in position to win another national title is the expectation for this team. On Saturday, the Commodores were one loss away from falling well short of that, but Rocker put the team on his broad shoulders and made certain that wouldn’t happen.

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