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The legend of Vanderbilt's Kumar Rocker has just begun

UniqueThis 1 Jun 18
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Vanderbilt's Rocker pitches no-hitter, striking out 19 batters (0:42)

Kumar Rocker completes a no-hitter vs. Duke in the Nashville Super Regional, striking out 19 for the first individual no-hitter by a Vanderbilt pitcher since 1971. (0:42)

Jun 19, 2019

OMAHA, Neb. -- The whole place waited. Rain came, the tarp went down, and the legend of Kumar Rocker only grew.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Rocker was spotted in the lobby of the downtown Omaha Hilton on Monday afternoon, 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, a redwood on the prairie. A group of kids approached him for autographs, and "Rock" signed every one of them. The weirdest thing in the dizzying days since the no-hitter, Rocker said, is how many body parts he has been asked to sign. "It's going to wash off soon," he said. "They don't seem to care."

Fame is never indelible. A couple of weekends ago, Kumar Rocker was a freshman pitcher on a Vanderbilt team that was on the verge of being eliminated in the super regionals. Tuesday, Rocker on the mound against Mississippi State at the College World Series was the most anticipated moment in college baseball. It was put on pause for a day because of an unrelenting afternoon rain.

Rocker hasn't pitched since June 8, when he rescued Vanderbilt, striking out 19 Duke batters in just the eighth no-hitter in NCAA tournament history. Nobody -- not even Nolan Ryan or Max Scherzer -- had fanned 19 over the course of a no-hitter.

Before he could even take off his cleats, Rocker's name was everywhere. Vandy alum David Price gushed over him on Twitter: "I tip my hat to you sir!!" In this era of hyperbole, the no-hitter was dubbed the best outing ever by a college pitcher.

"I'm glad other people think that," Rocker said. "But for me, that was just a good outing and I've got to move forward. It doesn't do me any good right now."

Hyperbole might not do justice for "Rock." He mentioned in passing Monday that he was actually sick during the no-hitter with either food poisoning or a stomach bug. He threw 131 pitches and touched 97 mph in the ninth inning.

Philip Clarke, his catcher, ran to the mound to celebrate with him when it was over, but Rocker left him hanging. He wanted to just head for the handshake line.

"I was like, 'Whatever, man,'" Clarke said. "Some people have said he was in shock. But I think he was just trying to downplay it. That's just how he is."

Rocker's high school coach in Bogart, Georgia, isn't surprised by any of this. Rocker has had all eyes on him since just about birth. His dad is Tracy Rocker, a former NFL defensive tackle who is now an assistant football coach at Tennessee. North Oconee High has had its share of coaches' kids on its baseball roster, but none with the fanfare of Rocker.

He was getting autograph requests by the time he was 16, and scouts followed him everywhere.

"Every time he threw it was a packed house," North Oconee coach Jay Lasley said. "The other teams knew who he was. He never wanted to be treated special or different. He just wanted to be one of the guys."

In the nomadic world of college coaching families, that would never be easy. Rocker moved through seven states as a kid. The longest stay was seven years in Arkansas; the shortest was 11 months in Oxford, Mississippi.

"Moving definitely made me the person I am today," Rocker said. "It showed me how people act and go about their business. I took a little from each person in each of those seven states and put it in myself."

Tracy Rocker, according to Kumar, doesn't like to talk a lot, and his son is the same way. But they call each other at least once a week, and Tracy "keeps my head on straight," Kumar said.

His mom is the one who convinced him to go to college. He could've been a first-round draft pick out of high school last year, but Lalitha Rocker wanted him to get an education. She was in the stands for his no-hitter; Tracy Rocker missed it. He had a recruiting dinner at Tennessee, Kumar said.

Though varying media accounts from June 8 depicted Rocker with ice water running through his veins, he admits now that he was nervous pretty much the entire game. Clarke made a point not to talk to him in the dugout out of fear he'd jinx him.

Rocker kept repeating his favorite line to himself on the mound.

"This is why I play the game."

Joe Rexrode, a columnist for The Tennessean, wrote last week that Rocker's no-hitter might have been one of the best individual performances in Nashville's history. It's hands-down a football town, but Rocker has the people there captivated right now. Rexrode said everything that has been written about the pitcher in the past 11 days "has gone nuts" in terms of page views.

"I think when he pitches at home now, the place will fill," Rexrode said. "This is a major sports figure in Nashville.

"He's had this moment, and there's going to be massive anticipation every time he throws."

Wednesday, after a very long wait, Rocker will get the start. He knows how much is on the line. He knows he can't possibly top himself.

"It's definitely been a lot," he said. "Personally, I think I handle it well. I don't really change. I stay pretty consistent as a person."