North Oconee High School graduate Kumar Rocker ascended from the earth of average college baseball players and entered the realm of the immortals.
Rocker served up a performance that won’t be forgotten for a long long time.
Rocker toed the mound with the Vanderbilt Commodores’ season on the line in the Super Regionals. He responded 19 strikeouts and the eighth no hitter in NCAA tournament history on Saturday.
The Commodores held on to win 3-0 to force a decisive third game, which they won 13-2 on Sunday to advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
The performance left Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin searching for adjectives to describe it and reference for something he’d seen like it.
“In 17 years I’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that,” Corbin told reporters following the game. “The no-hitter and the strikeouts, but the presence of mind and the control of adrenaline was just off the charts. For a young kid that’s tough to come by…Kumar (Rocker) was more than special and you can use every adjective you want to.”
Rocker, only a freshman, exhibited poise above his years throughout the game. Early in the outing Rocker hit Duke hitter Kennie Taylor in the face ending his day for the Blue Devils. Rocker didn’t show any ill effects from the delay that ensued after his fellow competitor was helped from the field.
Later in the game, the Blue Devils called an offensive conference that appeared to be an attempt to disrupt Rocker’s rhythm on the mound.
After another strikeout, Rocker bounced from the mound and sent a few words toward the Blue Devil dugout.
The ability to refocus and settle down in both situations is what set the performance apart for Corbin, a 17-year head coach at Vanderbilt.
“From my eyes and what I’ve seen here at Vanderbilt, that probably was [the best performance], but there was a lot on that game,” Corbin said to reporters in his post game press conference. “That was a very good team he beat. All I care about is that we won the game. In terms of how it was done, how it was pitched, it was one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
For Rocker, the typical superstitions of a no-hitter came into play a bit, but out of necessity. No player really approached Rocker in the dugout and openly mentioned the no-hitter he was throwing. But heading into the game the context of Saturday’s contest was clear. Win or go home.
That was Rocker’s mindset even during the game and the no-hit bid. It was simply about winning the game and giving the Commodores another day of baseball.
“It sounds cliché, but I’m trying to win and get to the next one,” Rocker told reporters after the game. “It worked out well and they put one run on the board... Whenever we got that one run, I was like ‘alright, I’ve got to go shut them down,’ so that we can keep this game rolling and we can get out of here with a win. We got past that inning and I just kept rolling after that... I had to get over that hump in the eighth inning. Once I got through there, adrenaline took me through the ninth.”
While many around the nation try and wrap their brains around what the 19-year-old freshman accomplished over the weekend his high school head coach Jay Lasley isn’t surprised. Rocker won his share of 1-0 games in which he shut down opposing lineups long enough for the Titans to find a way to score the winning run.
“Kumar (Rocker) is a guy that if you put him that moment, with his team’s back against the wall and the team really needs him and for that guy to step up and deliver that performance, that’s not surprising at all,” Lasley said. “That’s the type of young man he is. All of the things he’s been exposed to, Olympic baseball, the Aflac games and all the All-American stuff, the moment doesn’t get too big for Kumar. For a lot of kids, even college kids, the moment can get too big. For him, he’s able to keep everything steady and even. He just goes out there and performs. He is a guy who never gets too high and never gets too low. He pitches with emotion, but he’s never emotional when he’s out there. He’s able to control everything and just go out and pitch his game and be Kumar.”
Lasley has also seen behind the scenes of Rocker’s work habits. He’s handed the keys of the weight room and the school’s baseball facilities off to Rocker plenty of days without a single urge from coach to player.
Throwing 131 pitches and going nine innings in an elimination game in the heat of the spring or summer comes isn’t possible without being physically fit. Rocker took pride in his fitness and getting physically strong enough to handle any workload sent his direction.
“It comes back to all the training and all the work he did in high school and while he’s been at Vanderbilt preparing his body,” Lasley said. “That’s the amazing thing to me. As a freshman at this point of the season they lose their fastball and their bodies start to break down. He’s a guy who has prepared himself and he’s so focused and driven on being the best that he was ready for that moment.”