After Kumar Rocker pitched Friday for Vanderbilt, ECU was hoping for a better chance to get some hits Saturday, with the aim of forcing a deciding Game 3 in the teams’ best-of-3 NCAA Super Regional.
Instead, the Commodores threw the Pirates a heavy dose of their second staff ace, sophomore Jack Leiter.
Rocker and Leiter entered Saturday ranked first and second in total strikeouts thrown. Like Rocker, Leiter is a highly rated prospect at pitcher. And like Rocker, Leiter, for the most part, shut the Pirates down.
The Commodores pushed across a pair of runs in the fifth inning and another pair in the ninth, and Leiter’s only blemish was a solo home run by ECU’s Josh Moylan in the seventh as Vanderbilt won, 4-1.
“Rocker and Leiter were just a little bit better than Gavin (Williams), (Carson) Whisenhunt and our bullpen,” ECU coach Cliff Godwin said. “And their bullpen guys, too, they were just a tick better.”
The starting pitcher for ECU in this game was freshman Whisenhunt. The lefty entered the game with 76 strikeouts and a 6-1 record on the season, and he was effective against the Commodores early.
Similar to the first game, runs were not easy to come by for either team. Both teams did well in the field. When Vanderbilt did get a hit, it could not capitalize and convert them to runs.
On the mound, neither pitcher made it easy for the opponent. Whisenhunt closed the top of the first with a strikeout, and Leiter would do so in the bottom. Both pitchers kept the otherwise productive opposing batters at bay.
After Whisenhunt was replaced in the fifth inning, Vanderbilt struck first. Carter Young ripped a ball into right-center to score Javier Vaz and Jayson Gonzalez.
Leiter reached 10 strikeouts during the sixth inning, surpassing his teammate Rocker for the most strikeouts on the season. In the seventh inning, when the Commodores looked to add to their lead, sophomore outfielder Lane Hoover saved a potential home run with a leaping catch.
In the bottom half of the frame, the Pirates showed some life. In the first at-bat of the seventh, Moylan, a freshman, hit a home run to cut the Vanderbilt lead to 2-1. It was the sixth of the season for Moylan. Vanderbilt closed out the inning with a double play, however.
Leiter finally came out in the eighth, replaced by sophomore Nick Maldanado.
In the top of the ninth, ECU went to Cam Colmore to close out the game. Colmore, who came in with a 7-1 record, faced Enrique Bradfield Jr. with two on base. Bradfield doubled, scoring CJ Rodriguez and putting Vanderbilt up 3-1. The team was visibly energized after the play, which Bradfield spoke to after the game.
“That’s just who I am as a person,” Bradfield said. “When I’m on the field, the competitor in me comes out to the fullest. And it’s gonna be there whether things are going good or when things are going bad.”
With two outs and the bases loaded, Colmore walked Dominic Keegan on a borderline pitch, and the Commodores led 4-1.
Freshman AJ Wilson came in to replace Colmore late in the inning, once again with two outs and the bases loaded. Wilson took care of business, not allowing any additional scoring from the Commodores.
East Carolina had one more shot in the bottom of the final frame, but Maldanado closed out the inning quickly, capping the ninth with a strikeout to give Vanderbilt the victory and berth in the College World Series.
“We went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the country,” Godwin said. “We just weren’t quite as good as them.”
As for the Commodores, Leiter and the rest of the team look forward to Omaha.
“That’s why you come to come to Vanderbilt,” Leiter said. “You have to get through a really difficult season in the SEC and then really good teams in the regional and Super Regional. It’s definitely not easy to do, and we’re not going to take that for granted. But I’m really just happy for all of us.”