Vandy’s Kumar Rocker on his no-hitter vs Duke
Aiming for history of its own, Duke landed on the wrong side of it Saturday night.
Needing a win to reach the College World Series for the first time in 58 years, the Blue Devils were no hit by Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker in a 3-0 Commodores win in game two of the NCAA tournament’s Nashville super regional at Hawkins Field.
Rocker not only struck out 19 batters while throwing the eighth no-hitter in NCAA tournament history, but he kept Vanderbilt’s season alive. The Commodores (53-11) had to win Saturday night to avoid elimination after they lost 18-5 to Duke in the super regional opener on Friday.
“Just an historic performance by a young man who took our team and put us on his back in such a needed way,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said.
The teams will play a third and deciding game on Sunday at 3 p.m. with the winner advancing to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series. The last NCAA tournament no-hitter came in 2012 when Florida’s Jonathon Crawford tossed one against Bethune-Cookman.
Duke’s only baserunners against Rocker (10-5), a freshman right-hander, came on two walks, a batter hit by a pitch and Ethan Murray reaching when Rocker threw a wild pitch on strike three with two outs in the fifth.
Only two Duke batters hit the ball out of the infield in fair territory. Rocker struck out the last four batters he faced. The Blue Devils never advanced a runner safely beyond first base.
In addition to Rocker’s mid-90s fastball, Duke coach Chris Pollard said his players couldn’t identify Rocker’s off-speed pitches in time to put a good swing them.
“When a guy is throwing 94 to 98 and it comes out of the hand and you recognize fastball, you’ve got to make an early commitment to that pitch,” Pollard said. “You are going to see some swings like that because you are geared up to fastball, you recognize fastball, your timing is set on fastball and all the sudden 30 feet from the plate that pitch drops out of the fastball tunnel. That’s what he did a really good job of tonight.”
Rocker said he realized early his breaking ball was particularly solid and he should take advantage of it.
“That was the most command I’ve had of it,” Rocker said. “In the first inning I didn’t have that much and then I threw one good one.”
Rocker said catcher Philip Clarke saw that good breaking pitch and told him how sharp it was.
”I told him we’d keep going with that,” Rocker said.
After freshman Damon Lux drew a walk with one out in the sixth, Rocker retired the final 10 Duke batters in succession.
Duke (35-26) lost senior captain and center fielder Kennie Taylor for the game when he was hit by a Rocker fastball in the face in the bottom of the first inning. Taylor sprawled to the artificial turf in pain, covering his face with his hands after he was hit.
He was examined by medical personnel on the field before standing up and walking off the field under his own power.
He had his vision checked and also underwent an X-ray and a CT scan before returning to the Duke dugout during the seventh inning. He held ice on the left side of his face attempting to keep swelling down.
It’s the second time in less than three weeks a Duke player was hit in the face with a pitch. Freshman shortstop Ethan Murray had it happen on May 21 at the ACC tournament.
Pollard said after the game that Taylor received a good medical report following his tests. He didn’t rule out Taylor playing in Sunday’s game three.
Corbin said the way Rocker mentally handled that inside fastball that got away set the stage for his stellar performance.
“I thought the pivotal part was when he hit Kennie,” Corbin said. “When he hit Kennie, most kids can’t move on from that moment. That is a very difficult moment. First of all I was glad to see Kennie was OK because that just happened to them a couple of weeks ago with Murray. So that was a scary thing. But for Kumar, when he came off the field, you could tell he was a little bit shaken.”
As well as Rocker was pitching, Duke’s Bryce Jarvis was good too as he held the Commodores off the scoreboard through four innings.
In the fifth inning, Vanderbilt became the first team to take a lead on Duke in the Blue Devils’ five NCAA tournament games.
Jarvis retired the inning’s first two batters before Ethan Paul’s single. With Clarke at the pate, Paul stole second and took third when Jarvis uncorked a wild pitch on the same play.
Clarke’s looping single to right field drove in Paul putting Vanderbilt up 1-0.
Pat DeMarco made an attempt to add to that lead when he sent a Jarvis pitch to the wall in left-centerfield. But Lux, only in the game due to Taylor’s injury, made a leaping catch to end the inning and keep Duke’s deficit at 1-0.
Jarvis (5-2), a sophomore , hurled seven innings, allowing five hits and walking four while striking out nine.
Thomas Girard replaced him to start the eighth inning but only lasted two batters. DeMarco ripped a triple to deep centerfield. After Girard received medical attention for a cut on his pitching hand, former Cardinal Gibbons High School player Stephen Scott’s sacrifice fly to center drove in DeMarco for a 2-0 Vanderbilt lead.
An infield single, a bloop double and a bunt single off Duke’s Jack Carey pushed Vanderbilt’s lead to 3-0.
That was more than enough for Rocker as he threw the first no-hitter in the NCAA’s super regional round, which was instituted in 1999.
“There was a lot on that game,” Corbin said. “That was a very good team he beat. So all I care about is the fact that we win the game. But in terms of what it was, how it was done, how he pitched, it was one of the best ever.”