NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Two runs kept East Carolina two wins in two days away from the College World Series.
Host and No. 4 national seed Vanderbilt had to really earn those runs, but it did in a 2-0 pitchers’ duel victory on Friday during Game 1 of the ECU-Vandy best-of-three NCAA super regional series. Vandy scored during the second inning against ECU ace Gavin Williams on an RBI groundout off the bat of by Javier Vaz. Speedy Enrique Bradfield slithered and slid under a tag at home plate on another infield grounder in the eighth inning for the second run.
Vanderbilt ace Kumar Rocker left the game to a standing ovation at Hawkins Field with two outs in the top of the eighth and ECU’s Connor Norby standing on first base after hitting a single to right field. It was the Pirates’ third and final hit of the game, which were all singles to right field.
Rocker struck out 11 batters with three walks and three hits yielded in 7.2 innings to make Game 2 (noon, ESPN2) of the series a possible clinching victory for the Commodores, who won the 2019 national championship behind various Rocker pitching performances.
“Runs were very expensive today,” Vandy coach Tim Corbin said. “We kind of knew that was going to be the deal. ... (Rocker) has never blinked. ... (Williams) didn’t blink either. You had two big league pitchers out there.”
Alec Makarewicz lined a single to start the Pirate fifth inning, which served as the first hit ever against Rocker during a super regional game. He no-hit Duke two years ago in his other super regional outing.
Williams was just as good at times, striking out 13 in in 7.1 innings. He gave up seven hits, including two bunt singles, with two walks.
“Gavin pitched an unbelievable game and gave us every shot to win, we just didn’t do a good job of stringing at-bats together at all today,” said Thomas Francisco, the No. 2 hitter in the Pirates’ lineup who had one of the team’s singles with two outs in the sixth inning and was stranded at second base. “We have to do that if we want to win.”
A one-out double to the left field corner by CJ Rodriguez during the bottom of the second put the Commodores in position to score their first run. It moved Parker Noland to third base.
ECU’s first baserunner came on a Connor Norby walk on four pitches to begin the Pirate fourth. He was caught stealing one pitch after a hit-and-run attempt was fouled off by Francisco, and Rocker struck out Francisco and then Josh Moylan for his fifth and sixth Ks of the day. ECU (44-16) got a runner to second base in the fifth and sixth innings, but no further.
“No, but I thought it would take a big swing, like a two-out RBI or a ball-in-the-gap double,” ECU coach Cliff Godwin said when asked if the Pirates needed a home run to beat Rocker. “When you hit three or four singles like we had, it’s just tough. He’s really good and controls the running game. We had an opportunity to make something happen with Norby, but Norby got a bad jump and kept running. That’s just us trying to do too much right there instead of just sticking to our keys if we get a bad jump.”
The Commodores (44-15) finished with seven hits. ECU had three.
Vandy used two relievers, bringing in Nick Maldonado in the eighth to replace Rocker before Luke Murphy retired all three Pirates in order in the ninth. Norby was on first base when Maldonado threw three opening balls to Thomas Francisco, who then popped up to third base on a 3-0 pitch.
Rocker retired each of the Pirates the first time through their lineup, including four strikeouts in the first three innings. Williams had six Ks during the first three frames.