The way Mississippi State is playing, it’s unlikely the Bulldogs are going to be intimidated by anyone. But if any team in the country has a fear factor on its side, it’s Vanderbilt, State’s opponent tonight in the College World Series. Vandy, the SEC regular season and tournament champion, is the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, is ranked No. 1 in one national poll, has won 15 of its last 16 games, has set a school record with 55 victories and, most significantly for tonight, is sending to the mound a touted freshman right-hander who appears to be peaking. Kumar Rocker is an imposing 6 feet 4, 255 pounds and can touch 98 mph with his fastball. He has won his last three starts, beating LSU in the SEC Tournament, Indiana State in the Nashville Regional and Duke in a must-win Super Regional game. That was the 19-strikeout no-hitter you might’ve heard about. Rocker, son of former Auburn and NFL star Tracy Rocker, was one of the top recruits – and pro prospects — in the country last year. He was not an immediate success at Vandy. He got shelled in his college debut and lost his first SEC start. He has had other rough spots, as his 10-5 record and 3.50 ERA would suggest. But the Super Regional no-no generated national fame and certainly raised expectations. As Vandy coach Tim Corbin told the Nashville Tennessean: “I know when you pitch like that one time there’s a certain level of anticipation. But he’ll handle it well.” The Bulldogs are one of the best hitting teams in the country, making for a most intriguing matchup. P.S. Here’s an obscure Mississippi connection in Omaha (as noted by Doug Shanks): Michigan coach Erik Bakich played for the Greenville Bluesmen in the old Texas-Louisiana League. A third baseman, Bakich played nine games for the independent club in 2001 during his brief pro career. His Wolverines are 2-0 in the bracket opposite State’s.
If you have an itch for pitching, this weekend’s Vanderbilt-Mississippi State series is for you. Here are the matchups: Tonight, MSU’s Preston Brown (0.75 ERA) vs. Vandy’s Tyler Beede (0.84); Saturday, Ross Mitchell (1.50) vs. Jared Miller (0.57) in a battle of lefties; and Sunday, Trevor Fitts (3.55) vs. Tyler Ferguson (1.63). Oh, and both teams have excellent closers, too (Jonathan Holder and Brian Miller). The Commodores, who always seem to have great pitching, come to Dudy Noble Field in Starkville with a 19-3 record (2-1 SEC) and ranked as high as No. 3. The Bulldogs, also ranked, are 15-8 and 2-1. Runs will be at a premium, which usually makes for high drama.