By Arnie Leshin
For unranked Michigan, In quest of its first NCAA Division I Baseball championship in 57 years, it was a good start in the deciding game, but not nearly enough to keep 2nd ranked Vanderbilt from winning its second title since 2014 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday night.
It was a remarkable run by the Big 10 Wolverines, but after winning game one, 7-5, Monday in this best-of-three championship finals, it was all SEC Commodores as freshman right-hander Kumar Rocker evened things in game two with another remarkable start, and the momentum continued for Vanderbilt hoisting its first championship trophy since 2014.
Once again, it was a packed ballpark in a 74thannual World Series final that matched Commodore head coach Tim Corbin and his former assistant coach at Vanderbilt, Erik Bakich.
Michigan (50-22) made its way from being named one of the last schools in the field of 64 to, as the 3rd seed, getting past the regional hosted by defending national champion Oregon State in Corvallis, and stunning top-ranked UCLA in the super regional in Los Angeles.
Vanderbilt, which won all three of its regional tests hosted in Nashville, had a real struggle in its super regional in music city with unranked Duke, the 3rdseed that surprised host Georgia in Athens. The Blue Devils scored a shocking 14-5 win in game one of the best-of-three, but the Commodores dominated game two and won the decider behind a no-hitter served up by Rocker to advance to Omaha, barely.
Then came the key match-up with 7th ranked SEC foe Mississippi State in the Elite Eight. It was again Rocker time and he came through with a shutout through the first seven innings, striking out eight, walking one, and allowing only two hits against a good-hitting Bulldog lineup.
There were other clutch trips on the hill for Rocker, and he responded with a blazing fastball that was high, low or found both corners, and he kept batters in their tracks by serving the change-up.
Finishing at 59-12, Corbin, who was also head coach of the 2014 team that won over Virginia, and the 2015 team that lost to the Cavaliers, knew exactly what he needed to remain in the hunt. Without Rocker, his team might have been heading home sooner than later.
So the strapping 6-foot-4, 250-pound Rocker was usually called on with three or four days rest. He always displayed confidence, leadership, and fired a blazing fastball that was deceptively high, low or catching both corners. He also replied on his change-up that sometimes had batters frozen in their tracks.
He gave up two earned runs and struck out 17 in 12 ½ innings after tossing the no-hitter in the super regional.
He was of course named Most Outstanding Player.
Michigan did cause a stir in its first at bat, with three straight singles bringing in the first run in the top of the inning. But that was it as 6-6 sophomore right-hander Mason Hickman shut the door and retired the next 10 batters. He also got out of trouble when the Wolverines loaded the bases in the fourth. He retired the last six he faced before being relieved by sophomore southpaw Jake Eder, who was just as effective.
But Michigan wasn’t as fortune after a stirring game one start by junior left-hander Tommy Henry. It went with junior righty Isaiah Paige in game two, and against Rocker, that didn’t work. Paige four frames, and in game three, Bakich sent junior right-hander Karl Kauffmann, one of the three mainstays with Henry and sophomore righty Jeff Criswell.
But the 1-0 lead didn’t last long, and Kauffmann gave way to Criswell
after giving up three runs in the last of the third and two more in the fourth. In the second, Pat DeMarco sent a Kauffman slider 407 feet into the left field bleachers.
In the third, Vandy scored with two outs after a pair of walks and a single loaded the bases and Pat DeMarco coaxed a walk to tie it at 1-1 and Stephen Scott singled up the middle for two more runs.
Kauffman just didn’t have it, tying a career high with five walks, four coming in a stretch in which six of seven Commodore batters reached base. It was 6-1 after four and 7-1 when Michigan added a final run in the ninth.
Vanderbilt is the sixth national champion from the SEC since 2009, and 12th overall, second only to the 18 won by Pac-12. The Commodores became the highest national seed to win it all since Miami in 2001. The Wolverines became the first Big 10 school to play in the finals since Ohio State in 1966.
When Ako Thomas flew out to center to end the game and the season, the Vandy dugout and bullpen emptied and catcher Philip Clarke sprinted to the mound.
But unlike the NCAA DI championship basketball post-game, this one was different. No talks of dunks and flashy this and flashy that, and crowning the winner and giving some credit to the losers, this celebration in front of the plate brought the teams together in a mutual admiration society look, Michigan on its own silver stage holding the silver trophy, and Vanderbilt
assembled on its own gold state with the championship trophy.
Most of the crowd had hung around and saved ovations for both teams. Yes, both finalists were graciously honored, former Commodore coaches Corbin and Bakich hugged a few times and the players did the same, as well as serving up high-fives.
But only one can win although only two can get this far.
There was also some sadness for the Commodores. Their freshman Donny Everett drowned three seasons prior to the start of the NCAA tournament, and the seniors on this year’s club were his teammates. In February, former athletic director David Williams passed away.