Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker (right) gets congratulations from catcher Philip Clarke after a successful inning against Mississippi State.

OMAHA — Vanderbilt got the performance it needed from Kumar Rocker, the Commodores’ other-worldly freshman pitcher, in a 6-3 victory over Mississippi State Wednesday afternoon.

Now then, State needs a similar performance Thursday night from its prized freshman, JT Ginn, in an elimination game against Louisville Thursday night at 7 p.m.

“We need JT to step up tomorrow night and give us a few zeroes,” Jake Mangum, the Bulldogs center fielder. “I’ve got all the confidence in the world in him. He’ll step up. He has all year. We need him to because we all want another shot at Vanderbilt.”

Both Rocker, the 6-foot, 5-inch, 245-pound son of former football star Tracy Rocker, and Ginn, a first round draft choice of the Los Angeles Dodgers out of Brandon, would appear to have bright, lucrative futures in Major League Baseball. Both make throwing 95 mph fast balls look exceedingly easy. Both have breaking pitches that often make batters look silly. But their circumstances are entirely different in this College World Series.

Rick Cleveland

Rocker was coming off perhaps the greatest performance in NCAA post-season history – a no-hitter with 19 strikeouts against Duke in a Super Regional. Meanwhile, Ginn has been on the shelf since pitching the first game of the Starkville Regional on May 31. He pitched effectively for three innings in that one, but left before the fourth inning with arm soreness.

State coach Chris Lemonis has been careful with Ginn since. Nevertheless, Ginn will enter the most important game of his life with an 8-4 record, a 3.36 earned run average and 103 strikeouts (compared to just 18 walks) over 80.1 innings.

Ginn, just turned 20, is a young man of few words. Consider this interview:

Are you ready to get back out there?

“Yes sir, it’s been a while since I’ve been on the mound. I’m ready to pitch.”

How’s the arm?

“It’s good.”

What’s the biggest stage you’ve ever been on before this tomorrow?

“Probably the regional.”

You looking forward to this?

“Yes, of course.”

Said Mangum, “JT’s a quiet guy, but he’s a very confident guy. He’s ready for this.”

He’ll be facing an outstanding Louisville team that won its 50th game earlier Wednesday, a 5-3 victory that sent Auburn home with two straight losses. Louisville had lost its CWS opener to Vandy 3-1.

Louisville plans to pitch junior left-hander Nick Bennett, 7-3, a sixth round draft choice of the Milwaukee Brewers. And Bennett has pitched here before, giving Louisville a quality start against TCU two years ago.

“He’s chomping at the bit,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said of Bennett.

“Polished,” is the word pro scouts have used to describe Bennett, who has a 20-6 record over three seasons at Louisville. He’s not overpowering but mixes his pitches well and gets top marks for command and control.

Vandy’s Rocker is a power pitcher, who reached 97 on the radar gun Wednesday. But if you sit on that fast ball, you likely will see an 80-82 mph breaking pitch that breaks quickly and downward. State players called it a slider. Rocker refers to it as a curve. His teammates call it McNasty.

“He throws it from the same slot as his fastball and that’s what makes it so hard,” Mangum said. “It just falls off the table.”

Vandy’s Stephen Scott (49) receives congratulations after his second home run.

Asked what makes his breaking pitch – whatever it is – so effective, Rocker answered, “You’d have to ask Duke and State that. I couldn’t tell you. I just throw it.”

Rocker went six innings against State, allowing five hits and one earned run while striking out six and walking one. He left with a 6-0 lead, thanks mainly to Stephen Scott’s two home run blasts, one a solo shot off State starter Peyton Plumlee in the first and then a three-run back-breaker off Trystin Barlow that highlighted a 5-run Vandy fifth inning.

Plumlee battled and gave the Bulldogs a good start, and Keegan James, who entered the game in the fifth, gave the Bulldogs 3.2 innings of scoreless relief.

The Bulldogs find themselves in the losers bracket and must win against Louisville to extend the season, but it could be worse. They’ve got a first-round draft choice starting and every reliever, except perhaps James, available in the bullpen.

But it’s an up-mountain climb to a national championship now. Should they defeat Louisville, the Bulldogs must then beat Vanderbilt twice to advance to the championship series. The Commodores, 56-11, have not lost two straight games since the first week of April.

Keegan James gave Mississippi State 3.2 innings of scoreless relief, but it was too little, too late for the Bulldogs.

 


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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 12 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.