By: Bobby Kent
What a weekend for Vanderbilt Baseball.
Over the weekend at Hawkins Field, the No. 2 Vanderbilt Commodores played host to the No. 16 South Carolina Gamecocks for a three game series to kick off Southeastern Conference (SEC) play. The Vandyboys took two of three from the Gamecocks, including both games Friday and Saturday. Vanderbilt won 3-2 on Friday and 5-0 on Saturday.
Pitching was the main story of the weekend as aces of the Vanderbilt rotation, Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter respectively, had dominating outings. Rocker, the projected number 1 overall pick in this July’s MLB draft, pitched 8 innings, allowing only three hits, two earned runs while striking out a whopping 14 Gamecock hitters. The win moved Rocker to a perfect 5-0 on the young season. His 8 innings pitched was his second straight start going that distance. He used his trademark mix of a devastating slider that clocks in over 80 miles per hour and his elevated fastball, allowing him to keep hitters off balance most of the start. He also threw 116 pitches in the outing, by far the most he has had all season.
While Rocker was definitely impressive, Jack Leiter certainly had the one up on him. In one of the most incredible starts in recent memory in college baseball, Leiter pitched a 16 strikeout, complete-game no-hitter. After issuing a walk to the first batter of the game, Leiter retired 27 straight hitters. Despite his off-speed pitches not working for him in the beginning of the game, Leiter utilized his fastball – topping 95 miles per hour on most occasions – to overpower any Gamecock hitter that challenged him. In fact, after throwing a career high 124 pitches at the end of his outing, Leiter touched 96 on his fastball, showing he only gained strength as the game went on. Even when he allowed contact, only 3 balls went out of the infield and were easily disposed by Vanderbilt fielders.
Vanderbilt Head Coach Tim Corbin had been using the early season non-conference games to get both starters acclimated to the grind of a full season but in their first starts of SEC play (the first ever SEC start for Leiter), he let them go and they did not disappoint.
While pitching stole the show, hitting, especially timely hitting, was impressive as well over the weekend. With the score tied at 0-0 in the bottom of the fifth inning in Game 1, Vanderbilt’s hitters came up big. Right fielder Isaiah Thomas reached base with a single and catcher CJ Rodriguez doubled to score the first runs. Later a single from freshman centerfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. made the score 2-0. Despite South Carolina tying the score at 2-2 later in the game, Vanderbilt responded again, this time senior left fielder Cooper Davis delivered with a clutch single.
In Game 2, 2nd baseman Tate Kolywck hit two home runs, both lasers to left center field to put the Commodores in cruise control. These important runs allowed Leiter to settle in and be aggressive with a lead, ultimately paying off in the form of his almost untouchable performance at Hawkins Field.
While Vanderbilt lost Game 3 of the series to South Carolina 6-5, the weekend was one to remember and will live in Vanderbilt baseball lore for a long time in the future.
After a win over Lipscomb Tuesday March 23rd, Vanderbilt improved to 16-3 on the year and will travel to Missouri to face the Tigers in a 3 game series that kicks off Friday night.