Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin worried when Kumar Rocker came off the mound after a first inning where the freshman pitcher hit Duke centerfielder Kennie Taylor with a pitch near the left eye.
Taylor returned to the Duke dugout after a trip to a hospital for tests.
Rocker settled down and pitched the eighth no-hitter in NCAA Tournament history striking out a career-high 19 as Vanderbilt beat Duke 3-0 Saturday night to force the Nashville Super Regional to a deciding third game.
Corbin called Rocker’s reaction after hitting Taylor the pivotal moment, something most players can’t rebound from during a game. Corbin said he was glad to see Taylor was OK.
“For Kumar, when he came off the field you could tell he was a little bit shaken,” Corbin said. “When he comes in, he slams my hand every time. He comes in, and he didn’t. I was thinking I hope he can get through that moment and he did.”
Rocker tied his previous career best through five innings with 10 strikeouts, and he retired 13 of 15 Duke batters throwing 99 mph in the first inning and 97 mph in the ninth. He struck out four in the fifth with one striking out only to reach first on a wild pitch. He walked only two on 131 pitches with 89 of those strikes.
“Whenever we got that one run, I was like ‘All right. I got to go shut ’em down so like we can keep this game rolling, we can get out of here with a win,’” Rocker said. “Got past that inning, and I just kept rolling from there.”
Rocker (10-5) had not thrown more than 105 pitches in a game, but Corbin said the 6-foot-4, 255-pound pitcher deserved to finish. Rocker struck out the side swinging in the bottom of the ninth. He walked off the mound and bumped fists with catcher Philip Clarke before being mobbed by teammates.
“I have the best view of Kumar pitching in the whole park, so just try not to take that for granted, just try to work with him and help him get whatever he needs to reach that milestone,” Clarke said. “It’s pretty awesome.”
It was the first no-hitter in the NCAA tournament since Florida’s Jonathon Crawford shut out Bethune-Cookeman on June 1, 2012 and first ever since the Super Regional round started in 1999. It was the first no-hitter by a Vandy pitcher since Doug Wessel shut out Belmont April 19, 1971.
Rocker also set a school record for strikeouts in a NCAA Tournament game, topping David Price’s 17 against Austin Peay on June 1, 2007. Price, now with the Red Sox, noted Rocker was trying to keep the Commodores’ season alive.
“To be able to step up that way as a freshman is inspiring!!! I tip my hat to you sir!!” Price wrote on Twitter.
Now Vanderbilt (53-11) will play Duke on Sunday trying to reach its fourth College World Series and first since 2015, while the Blue Devils (35-26) haven’t been since 1961.
“Candidly, Kumar Rocker was just better than us tonight,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said of Rocker.
Kennie Taylor went down with the sellout crowd silent while trainers treated him. Fans gave him a standing ovation when Taylor sat up, then stayed silent until he stood up and walked off the field. Taylor was back in the dugout icing the left side of his face by the eighth inning.
“We got a good report,” Pollard said.
Damon Lux replaced him as a runner, and Rocker struck out Matt Mervis with Philip Clarke throwing out Lux at second.
Bryce Jarvis, MVP of the Morgantown Regional after striking out 11 for Duke, grew up a Vanderbilt fan in Franklin south of Nashville. Jarvis (5-2) struck out nine through seven innings.
With two out in the fifth, Ethan Paul singled, stole second and then advanced to third on a wild pitch by Jarvis. He scored when Clarke poked a single into right field for the only run Rocker needed. Pat DeMarco thought he had a 2-run home run to follow only to be robbed by Lux with a great catch at the wall .
Rocker struck out side in the fifth, though Ethan Murray reached base on a pitch Clarke couldn’t handle. That also set a Vanderbilt record for most strikeouts in a super-regional game, topping Carson Fulmer’s nine against Stanford in 2014.
Vanderbilt added two in the eighth on a sacrifice fly by Stephen Scott and a squeeze bunt by Julian Infante.
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