Former Vandy star Kumar Rocker back on the mound in minors

TROY, N.Y. (AP) — Kumar Rocker was back where he belongs, on a pitcher’s mound throwing his blazing fastball in a live game after being idle for nearly a year.

The former Vanderbilt star right-hander started on Saturday night for the Tri-City ValleyCats of the independent Frontier League, and his first experience as a pro ended after four innings of work, the first three nearly flawless.

“It was a long year, a lot of work put in,” said Rocker, whose parents were there to take it all in. “I’m glad to see good results. I had a process. When I got the start date, it was attack, attack, attack — go out there and do my thing.”

With a slew of major league scouts and a near sellout crowd of 4,088 at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium on hand to get a glimpse of Rocker’s first game since last June 30, the hard-throwing, 6-foot-5, 245-pounder breezed through the first three innings against the Trois-Riviéres Aigles, his fastball topping out at over 98 mph to go with an effective changeup, curveball, and a sometimes nasty slider. He threw 38 pitches and struck out five, all but the first one swinging, and allowed just a bloop single to left field by the second batter he faced, second baseman Ricardo Sanchez.

“I thought he pitched great for a guy that hasn’t pitched in a year,” Tri-City manager Pete Incaviglia said. “He had good command. I think he made one mistake. Everything else was really good. I was thoroughly impressed. For him to go out there and pitch the way he did with the command he had for not pitching for a year, you’ve got to tip your hat.”

Rocker ran into trouble in the fourth, hitting the leadoff batter and tossing a wild pitch that prompted Incaviglia to make a brief visit to the mound with cleanup hitter Carlos Martinez in the midst of a long-at bat. Rocker stayed in and allowed a homer to left field to Martinez on a 3-2 slider as Trois-Riviéres took a 2-0 lead.

That was it for Rocker, whose new teammates bailed him out, rallying for a 10-2 victory. He faced 16 batters, threw 60 pitches, 43 for strikes, struck out six, did not walk a batter, and allowed three hits and two earned runs.

“He’s very intense when he pitches, but he’s very laid-back and you hardly know his heart’s beating when he’s in the clubhouse,” Incaviglia said. “We’re fortunate to have him. We’re trying to get him ready to get to the big leagues … not to just get drafted but to be ready to pitch in the big leagues when he does get drafted.”

Three years ago, Rocker led Vanderbilt to a College World Series title as a freshman and as a junior was drafted No. 10 overall last year by the New York Mets. He then walked away from the Mets when the two sides failed to reach an agreement by the August deadline because of concerns over the health of Rocker’s right arm. He was the only first-rounder not to sign.

Now 22, Rocker signed a minor league contract with Tri-City in mid-May that will keep him active until the MLB draft in July.

“He should’ve been back a long time ago,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said Saturday at the NCAA Tournament in Oregon. “All he did for our school was compete. And I’m just glad he’s getting to play and get out there and refresh himself a little bit. He looks great.”

At Vanderbilt, Rocker was a three-year standout and posted a 2.89 ERA in 42 games (39 starts), leading the Commodores to a national championship in 2019. He was named MVP of the College World Series, racking up 44 strikeouts in 28 postseason innings, including a 19-strikeout no-hitter in the NCAA Super Regional against Duke. His ERA was a microscopic 0.96 in four postseason starts.

He went 28-10 for Vandy and opted not to go back to college after not signing with the Mets, training instead on his own. The short stint with the ValleyCats will allow him to get back in the groove of live action.

“He’s the real deal,” Incaviglia said. “It’s not just his stuff that makes him, it’s his will to compete. He loves to compete. He loves to take the ball every day. Those guys are special.”

Rocker’s draft prospects are uncertain since scouts haven’t been able to see him throw until now, but he still could go on the first round again, though not as high. He’s expected to make at least three more starts in June for the ValleyCats.

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AP Sports Writer Eric Olson contributed to this report.

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