OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Vanderbilt’s go-to guy throughout the postseason once again delivered a dominant performance.
Freshman Kumar Rocker struck out 11 while pitching 6 1/3 innings of three-hit ball, and Vanderbilt got to Michigan’s shaky bullpen in a 4-1 win in Game 2 of the College World Series finals Tuesday night.
The Commodores (58-12), who set the Southeastern Conference single-season wins record, forced a winner-take-all Game 3 on Wednesday night at TD Ameritrade Park.
“We had the right guy on the mound,” Vandy coach Tim Corbin said. “I haven’t been around him that long, but I know the fibers of the kid. I know how he’s directed. I know how he thinks. I know how he attacks.”
Rocker (12-5), who pitched a no-hitter against Duke in the super regionals the last time the Commodores faced elimination, set the tone in another in a line of strong performances. Ten of the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Rocker’s first 11 pitches were strikes.
Michigan (50-21) failed to score in the opening inning for the first time in its five CWS games, and five of its first six batters struck out.
“He’s as advertised,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “He’s got a special breaking ball that’s tough to see. You try to sit on a fastball, and he throws enough of those breaking balls for strikes. You try to sit on the breaking ball, and he gets you with a 95-mph fastball.”
Redshirt freshman Isaiah Paige (4-1), pitching for the first time since June 8 in regionals, drew the start for Michigan and worked four-plus innings.
The problems for the Wolverines started after Paige departed. The Commodores picked up an unearned run in the fifth and then Jack Weisenberger, who relieved Benjamin Keizer with two runners on in the sixth, let in two runs on wild pitches to back-to-back batters.
Philip Clarke’s ninth homer, against Angelo Smith, made it 4-0.
Other than Jeff Criswell, a starter until the postseason, Michigan’s bullpen hadn’t been tested until Tuesday. The Wolverines used only three pitchers in winning their first four CWS games.
“I thought early we were squeezing it,” Corbin said. “We settled in a little bit better as the game went along, and we took the runs that were given to us. But at the same time, I thought we hit the ball better from the fifth inning and on, after Clarkey hit that home run actually.”
Rocker worked around two singles, two walks and two errors through six shutout innings. Jack Blomgren singled against him leading off the seventh and a balk put him on second. Rocker struck out Joe Donovan and then left to an ovation from the fans behind the Vanderbilt dugout.
“It’s comforting as a team to have a freshman that can do what he does on a daily basis, on a weekly basis,” said Clarke, Vandy’s catcher. “It gives us the energy we need, especially on a day like today.”
Michigan scored its only run when Ako Thomas greeted closer Tyler Brown with a base hit.
Rocker is 10-1 in his last 11 starts, and he’s 4-0 in the NCAA Tournament with a 0.96 ERA, 44 strikeouts, five walks in 28 innings.
The Wolverines had two runners on base against him in three innings, including the fourth, when they stranded men at second and third.
“That was a big moment for me,” Rocker said.
Michigan lost leadoff man and designated hitter Jordan Nwogu to a pulled left quad in the third inning. He was hurt running to first on a grounder and had to be helped off the field.
Dominic Clemente, a .200 hitter who hasn’t had a hit since May 4, took Nwogu’s place and struck out looking in his two at-bats. Bakich said Nwogu probably is out for Game 3 and that Riley Bertram, Miles Lewis or Clemente would be in the lineup.
Michigan is playing for its first national title since 1962, and Vanderbilt is trying for its first since 2014. The Wolverines will send Karl Kauffmann (12-6) to the mound against Mason Hickman (8-0) in Game 3.
Bakich said he isn’t worried about how his team will react. The Wolverines have thrived in high-pressure situations. They avoided going 0-2 in the Big Ten Tournament with a walk-off win over Illinois that helped them secure one of the final four at-large bids in the NCAA Tournament. They also fought off elimination in the regionals and super regionals.
“I think it only seems fitting that our team would go to three games,” Bakich said. “That’s just kind of been our M.O. here in all these rounds. Just seems like we’re very comfortable in that spot. After the game, just sensed a calmness of our team, and they’re excited to play tomorrow.”