OMAHA, Neb. — Kumar Rocker struck out 11 in six innings and Vanderbilt won 3-1 at the College World Series on Friday against a North Carolina State team without half its roster because of COVID-19 issues.
The Commodores (48-16) forced a second Bracket 1 final Saturday, with the winner going to the best-of-three finals starting Monday.
The Friday game was delayed an hour after the NCAA said it needed time to complete “health and safety protocols.” NC State (37-19) said in a statement that “several players” had entered the COVID-19 protocol.
Only 13 of the 27 players on the travel roster, including four pitchers, were cleared to play. All but one of the 13 played.
Coach Elliott Avent said he found out there was a problem 45 minutes to an hour before the game. He told ESPN during an in-game interview that players not with the team were getting tested Friday afternoon and, if the results were negative, some or all would have a chance to play Saturday.
Facing Rocker (14-3) isn’t easy for any team, especially one with a patchwork lineup and whose four batters at the bottom of the order had combined for 27 at-bats.
Rocker is a projected top-10 pick in the Major League Baseball draft next month and was the CWS Most Outstanding Player in 2019. There was no CWS last year because of the pandemic.
Matched against Rocker was freshman Garrett Payne (0-1), who had thrown a total of 8 1/3 innings in six relief appearances and was called on to fill in for scheduled starter Matt Willadsen.
The Wolfpack were competitive to the end against the No. 4 national seed. The game ended when Luke Murphy, who earned his ninth save, got Devonte Brown to ground out with two runners on base.
NC State had eight hits to Vandy’s six, and the bottom of the order went 4 for 14. Sam Highfill, the starting pitcher in a 1-0 win over Vandy on Monday, was error-free as the fill-in first baseman and went 3 for 4.
Down two runs, NC State had the bases loaded in the seventh with their leading home run hitter, Luca Tresh, at bat with two outs. He popped out.
They left two runners on base three other innings and stranded a total of 12.
The Commodores’s offense has been slow to get started in Omaha, and they were hitless against Payne until they scored twice in the fourth. CJ Rodriguez singled in Dominic Keegan and he came home on a bases-loaded wild pitch.
Payne left to applause from fans and the handful of players and staff in his dugout after he issued a walk to start the sixth. He limited Vandy to two hits in an 87-pitch outing that was his longest of the season.
Dalton Feeney relieved and gave up Parker Noland’s RBI single but worked out of trouble in the seventh when Vandy had runners at the corners.
The Wolfpack’s run came in the fifth on three singles and a sacrifice fly.
Rocker struck out the first six batters — the first pitcher to do that at the CWS since Virginia’s Danny Hultzen in 2011 — before Highfill came to bat.
Highfill hadn’t batted in a college game since March 4, 2020, but was a .360 hitter in high school. He got the Wolfpack’s first hit, swatting a liner down the right-field line leading off the third, and singled again in the fifth and seventh.