In the college baseball national championship game, Mississippi State faces Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker. Here's how they can beat him.

OMAHA — Baseball players call it “spitting on” a pitch. They are not talking about tobacco juice.

To spit on a pitch is to let it go by. To not chase a breaking ball out of the strike zone. Just watch it. Spit on it. Wait for a better pitch in the zone. 

Rick Cleveland

What is essential for Mississippi State tonight in order to win a national championship: Spit on Vanderbilt pitcher Kumar Rocker’s wicked sliders, which often break down and out of the strike zone. Make him throw his 96 mph fastball in the zone. Then, tee off.

Easier said than done.

Said State coach Chris Lemonis Tuesday night after State trounced Vandy 13-2, when asked about Rocker: “One of the keys is to grind him out and make him throw his breaking stuff in the zone. A lot of his breaking stuff is out of the zone. So for us to have good at bats, we have to be locked in, to make him work, which is what we do. That’s usually our goal anyway, but with Kumar Rocker it definitely is. Like I said, he’s one of the best to ever pitch in college baseball.”

Rocker won 14 games and lost just three for Vandy this season. He struck out a whopping 173 in 117.2 innings. Opponents bat just .164 off him. When State faced him on April 23 in Nashville, Rocker was dominant. He pitched the entire nine innings, gave up only three hits and one earned run in a 6-2 Vandy win. Rocker struck out eight Bulldogs. He threw 109 pitches. Simply put, State didn’t spit on enough on those Rocker breaking sliders.

Rocker is not invincible. Ole Miss beat him in Oxford. Arkansas got him in the SEC Tournament, making him throw 86 pitches in just 3.1 innings. The Razorbacks spit on that slider breaking out of the zone, walked four times and bunched five hits to score five runs off Rocker in a 6-4 victory.

The Bulldogs have had no such luck with Rocker. Here, in the 2019 College World Series, they faced him and managed only one run over six innings in a critical 6-3 loss in a winner’s bracket game.

Rocker, like State’s projected starter Will Bednar, will be going on short rest. Rocker threw 111 pitches over six innings in a 3-1 victory over a depleted North Carolina State team on Friday. Rocker got the win but the Wolfpack made him work, extending at bats and getting into the Vandy bullpen.

That’s the State goal tonight. And that’s what Mississippi State hitting coach Jake Gautreau preaches all the time: Make the pitcher work, don’t help him, spit on breaking balls — and for that matter, fastballs — out of the zone. When you see State batters fist-bump their own chests when they get two strikes, that’s what that means: Grind it out, make the pitcher work, extend the at bat and get that pitch count higher and higher.

All that is at stake is a national championship.

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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 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.