By CHIP CIRILLO
Shortly after Vanderbilt’s 2018 season ended one win short of the College World Series with an extra-inning defeat, Philip Clarke changed the background on his cellphone to TD Ameritrade Park Omaha.
Clarke and the Commodores will depart for the stadium pictured on his phone Wednesday after winning the Nashville Super Regional three days earlier.
The motivational ploy seemed to work for the Vanderbilt catcher from Christ Presbyterian Academy.
“Just trying to do it for the team, trying to get there,” Clarke said.
Getting to Omaha has become the expectation every season for the Commodores (54-11) in the Tim Corbin Era.
“You’re always expecting to play as long as you can and I remember sitting at Hillsboro Village watching Vanderbilt play in Omaha when I was a freshman in high school, and just saying I want to go there one day,” Clarke said.
No. 2 Vanderbilt faces No. 7 Louisville (49-16) in the first round on Sunday.
Unranked Michigan eliminated No. 1 UCLA in the Los Angeles Super Regional on Sunday night, making Vanderbilt the CWS favorite.
It’s a role the Commodores are accustomed to after starting the year ranked first in two preseason polls.
“We’ve kind crossed that path many times during the course of the year,” Corbin said. “To be a preseason No. 1, well, forget it. You might as well be (Osama) bin Laden. You’ve got a target on your back the entire year and you’re having to be the target on Tuesday, Wednesday night, Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, so it just doesn’t matter.”
Clarke caught Kumar Rocker on Saturday night when the 6-foot-4 freshman enjoyed one of the best pitching performances in college baseball history with a 19-strikeout no-hitter in a 3-0 win over Duke in Game 2 of the Super Regional.
“It’s started to soak in how incredible that was,” Clarke said. “I told Kumar I had the best view in the park. It’s definitely something I’ll think of for the rest of my life.”
Clarke ran to the mound to celebrate with Rocker after he struck out the final batter, but the freshman seemed nonchalant. Stone cold almost.
“That’s just him, you know,” Clarke said. “He’s like that, so I tried to bring in out of him. It didn’t work. I think I was a lot more excited than him, but I think the next day he was in a good mood. I just don’t think he really realized it at the time.”
Rocker’s fastball was being clocked in the high-90s and his slider was dropping out of the strike zone, making it unhittable.
“If it’s that hard to catch, it’s that hard to hit,” Clarke said. “It made it fun. I had to be locked in every pitch.”
Clarke said Rocker’s slider looked impressive in the bullpen before the game, which seemed like a good omen.
Vanderbilt needed a win to keep its season alive after getting routed by Duke 18-5 in Game 1.
“It’s going to be regarded as one of the better outings that – I don’t care what level,” Corbin said. “Whether it’s Don Larsen’s perfect game or whether it’s Jack Morris’ 10-inning shutout in the seventh game of the World Series, it’s all up to the beholder, really.”
Rocker had to sit in the dugout watching 18 Blue Devils crossing the plate Friday night.
“And you wonder what that’s ever going to do to anyone, let alone a freshman,” Corbin said. “And then he hits the second batter in the game in the head and you wonder what that’s going to do to a freshman, but he just continued to pitch so well.”
Rocker struck out 12 of the last 15 batters to put an exclamation point on his gem.
“It was just a special performance,” Corbin said. “The thing you want to see out of your kids the most is when someone’s done competing, how everything out of their body has just left them. And that was the best thing to see: his shirt was unbuttoned and you could tell all his energies were just left on the field.”
As spectacular as Rocker was, he’ll have to push himself even harder on college baseball’s biggest stage in his next start.
“Better be 20 strikeouts and another no-hitter,” Corbin kidded. “He just wants to win, so he’s going to do the best he can. I know when you pitch like that one time there’s a certain level of anticipation, but he’ll handle it well.”
Rocker threw baseballs to Corbin during fielding drills with the fungo bat the following day and the veteran coach could tell he’d moved on.
“We had dinner with him before he came (to Vanderbilt) with his parents at Calhoun’s in Knoxville and he didn’t say anything,” Corbin said of a recruiting visit. “And I was wondering at that point if he was even engaged. And when the conversation was done, just before we got up and paid the bill he said to me, ‘I’m going to be one of the best teammates you’ve ever had in your program.’ … I’ll just never forget that.”
It was the eighth no-hitter in NCAA tournament history as Rocker walked only two during his 131-pitch marathon.
“That was an awesome performance,” Commodores shortstop Ethan Paul said. “And it was a huge time. We couldn’t have needed it more in that situation.”
Clarke is paired with Rocker (10-5) and Drake Fellows (12-1). Catcher Ty Duvall is behind the plate for Patrick Raby and Mason Hickman.
Clarke and Duvall are usually the designated hitter on days when they’re not catching.
It’s been a memorable two-week stretch for Clarke, who delivered the winning hit in the bottom of the ninth inning in the Southeastern Conference championship during an 11-10 win over Ole Miss on May 26.
Then Minnesota drafted the sophomore in the ninth round on June 4. Clarke, whose family lives in Franklin, is hitting .303 with 68 RBI.
All-Americans: Baseball America named Vanderbilt right fielder J.J. Bleday and leadoff hitter Austin Martin (designated hitter) first-team All-Americans on Monday.
Bleday leads the nation with 27 homers and Martin ranks sixth in the NCAA with a .414 batting average.
Photo by Vanderbilt Athletics.