Arizona has firmly put itself into the national spotlight after earning a spot into the College World Series, and right out of the gate it will tangle with one of the most well-known college baseball programs in Vanderbilt.
The Commodores (45-15) are the defending national champions, having won the last CWS title back in 2019, and in 19 seasons under coach Tim Corbin have averaged 42 wins per year.
Most UA fans don’t know much about Vandy, which is 5-0 in this postseason and has played in the CWS championship three times since 2014. That’s why we turned to Andrew, a colleague from our SB Nation sister site Anchor of Gold, to give us some insight on the ‘Dores.
In addition to showing us this team has a lot of nicknames, here are his pointed answers to our dull questions:
Vanderbilt features the dynamic pitching duo of Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, the closest thing to household names in college baseball. But that doesn’t mean Arizona fans have watched them pitch, so what makes them so special?
“On the mound, both are bulldogs who can dial it up in the high 90s. Beyond that, both have phenomenal control, especially on their secondary pitches. Most importantly, both have that rare ability of Ace pitchers to make opponents bend to their will. Neither get rattled. Ever.
“Rocker—aka K-Rock, aka White Castle, aka RagnaRocker—has become Mr. June in his collegiate career, as he has a career 6-0 record with an 0.63 ERA in the NCAA Tournament. You likely saw his 19K no-hitter against Duke in the 2019 Super Regionals, as he broke out a Craver Case of Nasty Sliders and broke the will of the Blue Devils in an elimination game. That was when he was a freshman. He’s better now. If you didn’t watch his all-business win over ECU Ace Gavin Williams, I urge you to watch it on repeat on the ESPN App. It’ll tell you all you need to know about him.
“As for Jack “Leits Out” Leiter, that boy’s a damned professional killer on the mound. He also sits in the high 90s deep into games, but is the best collegiate flame thrower I’ve ever seen at spotting his pitches on the corners at the knees. The dude can throw a Greg Maddux comeback special with a 99 mph 4 seamer. I’ve seen it many times, and each time, I can only go, ‘WHAT?!’ Go find some clips of him just standing there, staring bullets into the catcher’s mitt, as opposing batters try to call time and mess with his rhythm. He just can’t be messed with.”
Since it’s no doubt going to be Rocker that Arizona faces, how has he handled when he gets some hits against him? His shortest outing was against Arkansas, a team that hits like the Wildcats.
“That’s kind of tough to answer, as Rocker during the regular season and Rocker in the Tourney are two different pitchers. During the regular season, Rocker experimented with a 4th pitch, and had some arm tiredness from time to time. In the postseason, it’s like a switch flips, and he goes straight into the kill-zone. There’s not really a way to get to him if his arm feels fresh. His struggles this year (and they were not many) were when he was pitching through some arm tiredness. That happened to both Rocker and Leiter (and to many other pitchers across college baseball this year), as last year’s truncated schedule made it so their arms weren’t as stretched out as they otherwise would be. That’s what happened during that Arky game. In fact, as the Dores had already locked up a National Seed by the end of conference play, nearly all of us wanted Corbs to sit both Rocker and Leiter in Hoover (SEC Tourney site), or at least put them on around a 75-pitch pitch count. Corbs acknowledged as much, so you might want to keep that in mind when looking at that game in particular. We were more concerned with Omaha than Hoover, so we opted to keep our arms fresh over the Dave Van Horn ‘Let’s see if we can cause Kevin Kopps’ UCL to turn into a jelly’ lunacy.
“The best approach against Rocker (as it is the best approach against any truly elite pitcher) is to be patient at the plate, foul some off, and try to run the pitch count up early. ECU decided to try to attack first pitch fastballs, and that just gave him a 6-pitch inning in the 1st. Like any true Ace, all you’re really trying to do offensively is keep it close and get to the pen early.”
It’s not like the Commodores are winning games 1-0 or 2-1, this team can hit as well. Who are the batters that have been the most consistent, and which ones are getting hot at the right time?
“The hottest batter right now is So. DH/LF Troy “LaLong Ball” LaNeve. He had to battle his way into playing time, as this team is deep, and had veteran players taking his ABs until about midseason. Once he got put in the lineup, you would have had to tear his bat from his cold dead hands. Jr. RF Isaiah “I.T.” Thomas is probably our most talented hitter, and often our most clutch hitter, but he strikes out a bit too much for my liking. We often make the call to Run Support when he’s walking to the plate. Jr. 1B Dominic “Dom Bomb” Keegan is the 3-hole hitter, and is the most professional hitter of the bunch. If he’s on, he’s going to have multiple extra-base hits in the game.
“Of course, our best overall hitter (and best overall position player) is likely So. SS Carter “Mighty Carter Young” Young, though he dislocated his shoulder a few weeks back, and is not at 100%. Oh, and All-World lead-off hitter Fr. CF Enrique “Shockwave” Bradfield, Jr. He’s the fastest man in baseball, and is just a few stolen bags away from the (single-season school) record. When he gets on, you might as well just put him on third, as he’s going to be there in a few pitches, regardless.
“The wild card is Jr. 2B Tate “Tater” Kolwyck. He can flat out rake, but as with many a Commodore this year, had a bunch of injuries. He broke his hamate bone early (while he was putting up unreal power numbers), and missed most of the season. When he came back, he was just starting to regain his power stroke when he tried to turn a single into a double in Hoover and bruised his hand jamming it into 2nd base. He hasn’t played since. If he’s back, he’s a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman with a professional approach at the plate. He didn’t play in Regionals or Supers. No, we have no idea if he will play this weekend, either.”
What about the rest of the pitching staff? Who should Arizona be most concerned with if/when the starter comes out of the game?
“If Rocker goes, let’s say 6 or 7 IP, and has the lead, we’re going to So. RHP Nick “Maldo” Maldonado and Jr. RHP Luke “The Law” Murphy—not necessarily in that order—to shut things down. We basically have three closer-level guys in the bullpen this year, with Jr. RHP Ethan Smith being the third guy. His stats won’t show it, as he had a rough battle with Covid and then some arm issues for most of this season, but since the postseason started, he’s back to spotting his high 90s stuff. We may also go to Sr. LHP Hugh “Big Fish” Fisher, especially for some L-L matchups. Fisher can get wild, but if he’s in the strike zone, he’s basically Andrew Miller. He has a 3/4 release, high 90s heater, and a wipeout slider that’s just not fair against lefties.”
What is Vandy’s biggest weakness?
“Injuries, and, as such, starting pitching after the Big Two, and bullpen depth after the guys mentioned above. Coming into the year, we had stud sophomore RHPs Sam “Perfect Stranger” Hliboki and Michael “Doolin Banjo” Doolin as starting pitching depth after Rocker, Leiter, and Schultz. Both shook hands with Tommy John. Schultz is still there, but he’s moved to the pen, as he tends to unravel after two times through the lineup. Don’t get me wrong, we still have potential Ace talent in 3rd and 4th starters, but they’re young, and, as such, a bit erratic.
“17-year-old early enrollee Fr. Christian “The Answer” Little is going to be our next Kumar Rocker. He’ll be a 1st rounder, and maybe a top half of the first round guy, in the 2023 MLB Draft. Just bank on that. Regardless, he is in college a year early, and has had some growing pains. His most recent start, however, was a dominant effort over Ole Miss—a 5.1 IP 3H 1R 7K 1BB gem that would have gone longer if not for some cramping. He’s currently the No. 4 guy, and I trust him to step up should we need him. The No. 3 guy right now is another freshman—RHP Patrick “Life Of” Reilly. Reilly is yet another Vandy RHP who throws in the high 90s (I know, I know, we’re boring, as all of our guys throw 95mph). He can tend to get a bit wild due to nerves early in games, but once he settles in, he’s very hard to hit. If you see him in Game 3, realize that it’s likely to be a Reilly and Schultz piggyback game, with neither going more than two times through the lineup.”
As defending champions, albeit from 2019, Vandy has plenty of players on this team with College World Series experience. Do you think that provides an additional edge in this matchup?
“You’d actually be surprised how much turnover we’ve had since that 2019 team. That team was veteran heavy, as the majority of starters—both pitching and in the lineup—were juniors and seniors. Rocker was the lone young gun in the pitching rotation (because you try keeping him off the mound). Dom Keegan, our 3-hole hitter and starting first baseman, for instance, was the bullpen catcher and occasional pinch hitter in 2019. Ethan Smith was a middle relief guy and occasional mid-week starter. Hugh Fisher was a force in the pen in 2019, but then shook hands with Tommy John. In short, the entire team culture is one of experience, leadership and poise. Not too many individual players were on that 2019 team, though.”
Arizona (12 games) and Vandy (10) have two of the longest active losing streaks in college football. Which Commodore baseball player should new football coach Clark Lea try to convince to put on some pads?
“Don’t put that feetball juju on our Champion Baseball team, Brian! Interestingly enough, Clark Lea was a baseball player at Birmingham Southern, then transferred to Belmont, and then finally transferred to Vanderbilt to walk on to the football team to play fullback. He was apparently a workout warrior, where he met, and befriended … Tim Corbin. I’m sure Lea would sell a kidney to get Enrique Bradfield, Jr. as a WR/KR, but it ain’t happening.”