Rotation Ready to Roll

Hickman, Rocker, Eder scheduled to start in Arizona

by Chad Bishop

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Vanderbilt will turn to some familiar faces on the mound this weekend as the 2020 season gets underway.

Juniors Jake Eder and Mason Hickman and sophomore Kumar Rocker will be handed the ball as starting pitchers this weekend at the MLB4 Tournament at Salt River Fields. Vandy is hoping the latter two hurlers pick up right where they left off in 2019.

“You always got to respect your opponent,” Rocker said. “But at the end of the game you have to dominate them as well.”

Rocker took the college baseball season by storm late during the 2019 campaign, but it was a start in the same stadium in Arizona that was forgettable. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound righty lasted just 1 1/3 innings, gave up five runs – all earned – on five hits, walked two and hit a batter in what turned out to be a 10-2 loss to TCU.

Those numbers turned out to be a great anomaly in a freshman season that saw Rocker finish 12-5 with a .325 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 99 2/3 innings pitched. Oh, and there was that whole 19-strikeout, no-hitter performance in a Super Regional elimination game against Duke.

Rocker is scheduled to start against UConn at 6 p.m. CT Saturday.

“I left it behind me – but I still remember it. It definitely set the tone early,” Rocker said about the last time he pitched at Salt River Fields. “From just being older, naturally, improvement comes. Then moving forward it’s about winning the game.

“The day you’re supposed to pitch you’re supposed to win that game and that’s your only job.”

Hickman, meanwhile, quietly put together a year better than Rocker’s in many ways. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound right-hander from Hendersonville, Tennessee, held hitters to a .183 batting average, went 9-0 with a 2.05 ERA and fanned 129 hitters in 96 2/3 innings.

The last time Hickman lost a decision was May 6, 2018 at Auburn. He actually came on in relief of Rocker in that TCU loss and surrendered three earned runs on three hits and two walks.

His start at 6 p.m. Friday against Michigan will be his first at Salt River Field – and more notably his first on opening day.

“It’s kind of one of those things that it’s a bucket-list item,” Hickman said. “You feel honored and privileged every time you put on the Vanderbilt uniform.

“To be opening starter on opening day is just another one of those privileges. It’ll be something you always look back on and remember and be thankful for.”

Hickman’s last start of 2019 came against Michigan in the national title-clinching game of the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. His relief pitcher that day? Eder.

Eder is penciled in to take mound at 3 p.m. CT Sunday when the Commodores go up against Cal Poly. A 6-foot-4, 210-pound left-hander, Eder started nine games as a freshman in 2018 before moving to a permanent bullpen role in 2019.

In 29 career appearances Eder is 3-4 with a 4.16 ERA and has thrown 71 1/3 innings.

“That’s what we’ve been training for all fall so it is what it is. I’m just going to go out and compete,” Eder said of the decision for him to start Game Three. “As far as pregame, it’s just the same thing I’ve been doing all fall. My routine is to mess around with the guys and keep it light and as it gets closer and time to start warming up and get going I’ll focus more on getting locked in.

“Then I’ll get in the bullpen, execute every pitch I can, get on the mound and go one pitch at a time.”

Hickman, Rocker and Eder had a combined mark of 23-5 with 284 strikeouts with a 2.71 ERA in 2019. Those are imposing numbers for the opposition this weekend – and perhaps for the weeks and months ahead.

But those are also numbers from 2019. It’s time to start crafting new numbers in 2020 even if the opponent is one from the immediate past.

“I was kind of thinking about it the other day. The two jerseys are the same, but the teams have a lot different identities,” Hickman said. “That’s the type of mentality that we have to come in with. We’re a really different group, they’re also a different group. And we’re going to have different identities that show up to the field that day.

“So we just have to bring our best version of us and hopefully it’s good.”

Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for Follow him @MrChadBishop.