Missouri baseball has played 12 consecutive games on the road, but when the Tigers return to Taylor Stadium on Thursday for their first home game since Feb. 28, they won’t have a friendly welcome-home party.
Missouri’s opponent, Vanderbilt, took the top spot from Arkansas in the D1Baseball.com Top 25 this week after winning two of its three games last weekend against South Carolina.
The Commodores are packed with talent, with players such as Dominic Keegan and Isaiah Thomas , who are hitting .514 and .343 so far this season. They have seven players with double-digit RBI, and the pitching staff has an overall ERA under 2.5.
Missouri, on the other hand, has struggled this year. At 8-12, the Tigers have not had the start they wanted. Most of Missouri’s pitchers struggle to keep their ERA under 5, and the staff has given up nearly as many walks as it has strikeouts.
Missouri batters are hitting just .252 this season. The Tigers trail Vanderbilt in almost every offensive category, including runs (146-112), hits (176-165), RBI (134-103), slugging percentage (.403-.374), walks (135-101) and on-base percentage (.410-.357).
Power hitters Luke Mann and Chad McDaniel are both underperforming. Third baseman Mann is tied for the most home runs on the team with three, but also has the most strikeouts with 28. McDaniel has the next most with 17. Mann’s batting average sits below the Mendoza Line and he currently has an OBP of .284.
McDaniel started off hot, going 5 for 10 with a home run in Missouri’s first series at Grand Canyon, but has since slumped. In the Tigers’ last two series, at Illinois State and Kentucky, McDaniel has gone 4 for 25 with only one extra-base hit.
Those are not the stats a team wants to carry into a series against the No. 1 team in the nation.
When Vanderbilt plays, most of the attention is centered on two guys. Pitchers Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter were already high on most MLB Draft boards, but now folks in baseball circles are saying they could be the first-ever teammates to be the top two picks in the draft.
As a junior, Rocker is well-established as a potential first overall pick. In 2019, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound right-hander joined the Commodores as the highest-ranked prep player in the nine-year history of the Baseball America 500 rather than sign with the Colorado Rockies, who drafted him in the 38th round in 2018.
Rocker lived up to the hype, bursting onto the college baseball scene after garnering multiple awards during his rookie season, including freshman of the year for both D1Baseball.com and Baseball America, SEC All-Freshman Team honors and The Tennessean 2019 Sportsperson of the Year accolade. He ended his first season on the highest note in college baseball, winning the College World Series and taking home the series’ Most Outstanding Player award.
In the time since, Rocker has done nothing but further solidify his spot as the top amateur prospect. So far this season, he has a 0.58 ERA over 31 innings, giving up just 11 hits and 10 walks while striking out 48 opposing hitters.
Rocker cuts an imposing figure on the mound and backs up his reputation with a blistering fastball and wipeout slider. He pitches with confidence and has a competitive fire that his coach, Tim Corbin, told MLB Network reminds him of Bob Gibson’s. He is expected to start Thursday against the Tigers.
Leiter, who is expected to take the mound Friday, was ranked on MLB.com as the No. 6 prospect in the country before the season. Since then, the sophomore, who is the son of World Series champion and former MLB All-Star Al Leiter, has done nothing but overachieve, culminating in a 16-strikeout no-hitter last Saturday against the Gamecocks.
All 16 of those Ks came on his overpowering fastball, but Leiter also throws a knee-buckling curveball, a changeup and added a cutter to his arsenal during the lengthened offseason.
Like Rocker, Leiter carries a 5-0 record into the series against Missouri. He has given up just one earned run over 29 innings pitched, striking out 49 and holding opposing hitters to a paltry .076 batting average against.
At 6-foot, Leiter is considered small for a pitcher but has yet to maximize his beautiful high-leg-kick delivery. Along with a new cutter, Leiter worked on increasing his fastball velocity over the offseason, pushing it from 90-94 mph to 94-97 mph. Leiter focuses on an aggressive pull down on his fastball release, which gives the pitch an almost-rising effect.
Missouri has a tough task ahead of itself, but it also has the opportunity to be the first team in 2021 to knock around one or both of the Commodores’ two aces. If the Tigers steal a game from Leiter or Rocker, they would be the talk of the collegiate baseball world.