The secrets behind Vandy's 1-2 pitching punch

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While Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker might be college baseball's odd couple, the star pitchers have been winners at Vanderbilt from the get-go. In Leiter's SEC debut earlier this year, he threw a no-hitter. During Rocker's freshman season in 2019, he earned College World Series Most Outstanding Player honors while leading the Commodores to the national title. Oh yeah, he also threw a no-hitter along the way.

"Rock and Leiter don't look alike. They don't pitch alike. They come from two different parts of the country," Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin says. "But they have so much more in common past all of that. They both share a willingness to work, to be smart and to pursue perfection as part of the team."

With the 2019 season on the line against Duke in the super regionals, Rocker shut down the Blue Devils with 19 strikeouts en route to Vanderbilt's first no-hitter since 1971, and, eventually, the national title.In his first career SEC start on March 20, Leiter walked the leadoff batter. No problem, he responded by retiring the next 27 South Carolina batters he faced, including 16 via strikeout.Rocker is 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, but for pitching coach Scott Brown, it's Rocker's competitiveness that stands out. "I saw a guy that just came out, and just said, 'This team's not losing,'" Brown says, looking back on his 2019 run.While lacking Rocker's size on the mound, Leiter seems born for this moment. His father, Al, won 162 major league games and made two All-Star teams over a 19-year career.

Now, Leiter and Rocker look to punctuate the likely end to their collegiate careers with a College World Series title, starting Friday at the Nashville Super Regional against East Carolina (Noon ET, ESPN2 and ESPN App). A series win would have them back in Omaha to defend the Commodores' 2019 crown before heading to the pros next month when they could become the first pitcher teammates to go in the top five of the MLB draft since UCLA's Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer in 2011.

ESPN spoke to the aces themselves, their coaches and teammates to find out what makes them such a rare pair.

Despite being only 6-foot-1, Leiter has thrived in large part due to a power fastball described as a "plus-plus pitch," by ESPN draft expert Kiley McDaniel.

Just ask South Carolina. In Leiter's no-hitter against the Gamecocks, all 16 of his strikeouts came on the fastball, according to Vanderbilt catcher CJ Rodriguez.

What's the secret to the pitch's success?

"People always ask about the rising action my fastball has, and I think that has a lot to do with my lower release point," Leiter says. "The pulldown from that lower point gives it that rising affect."

Thanks in large part to that fastball, Leiter enters the Super Regionals as the No. 3 prospect in McDaniel's draft rankings.

Leiter on his fastball: "I grip it pretty standard, with two fingers over the seams, but I am always very conscious of the width between my fingers. Dad has always said to keep about a pencil's width between the two fingers."Leiter 2021 stats: 9-3, 2.22 ERA, 89.0 IP, 146/38 K/BB. In his first career NCAA tourney start against Georgia Tech last week, Leiter fanned 11 in six innings of one-run ball in a 4-3 win.Rodriguez on Leiter's fastball: "He can dot 95 [mph] on the corner and can pump it up to 97, 98. It's so hard to hit."

When Rocker's fastball is on, it explodes out of his frame and becomes nearly impossible for most college hitters to square up.

This spring, his velocity has been inconsistent, averaging 95.4 mph in some early March outings and 91.4 in a late March start, per McDaniel.

"It's obviously a power fastball that he can use in any count, especially with two strikes," Rodriguez says.

Despite some late-season struggles, Rocker has shown the ability to shut down top-notch SEC competition, as he did in wins against No. 3 Tennessee (seven shutout innings) and No. 7 Mississippi State (complete game, one run) back in April.

Rodriguez on Rocker's fastball: "Everyone knows he has a good slider, but when you can pump a 97 mph fastball, just a power pitch, it's useful in any count."Rocker 2021 stats: 12-3, 2.65 ERA, 98.1 IP, 144/33 K/BB. In the regional against Presbyterian last week, he picked up where he left off in the 2019 postseason, hurling seven shutout innings with nine Ks in a 10-0 win.Rodriguez on a doubleheader featuring both aces: "One of the hitters struck out a couple times against Kumar, and in his first at-bat against Jack is like, 'Jesus Christ, this is not even fair.'"

Leiter credits his father in helping him develop his curveball.

"From a young age, Dad taught me to get on top and see how many times I could make it spin before it got to the plate," Leiter says. "It sounds oversimplified maybe, but it's true. You just want to spin it. Just spin it hard. Don't be thinking, 'OK, I have to try and make this break.'"

For Rocker, it's the slider. "Like a football, get on top of it, and pull it down as hard as I can, create that spin. ... Some call it a slider, some call it a power curve." Call it what you want, just know it's likely going to end in a strikeout.

Rocker on his slider: "My grip is over on the side of the ball, middle finger and thumb against the seams, like a curveball 12-6 grip. You just throw it as hard as you can. This is the pitch I don't mess with."Rocker 2019 NCAA tournament stats: 4-0 record, 0.96 ERA and named College World Series Most Outstanding Player. His no-no against Duke was the first no-hitter in super regional history.Rodriguez on Rocker's slider: "His slider is disgusting. He can use a get-me-over slider early in the count, then rip one. It comes from the same arm slot as his fastball, which makes it so hard to hit."

After late-season struggles against Mississippi State and Florida, Leiter went two weeks before his next start and looked more like himself. He allowed one run in six innings in a 13-2 win against Ole Miss, then threw another six innings of two-run ball in a regular-season-ending win versus Kentucky.

And after the win against Georgia Tech in his NCAA tourney debut, Leiter is looking to keep it going.

Leiter on his curve: "Middle finger lays along the seam, and there's a little bit of thumb play at the bottom. I'll keep [my index finger] way up in the air almost to keep it from getting in there and pulling down, too."Leiter stats: With double-digit K's in eight games (and eight-plus in 12), Leiter has been a strikeout machine this year. He has fanned 41% of all batters faced (146 of 353). New York Mets ace and two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom struck out 39% of batters faced last season.Rodriguez on Leiter's curve: "It's a banger curveball that he uses in the same way Kumar uses his slider. He has a get-me-over one and then one he can bury in the dirt for a strikeout."

If Leiter looks like he has it all figured out on the mound, his fellow ace thinks there's a good reason for that.

"On the mound, he's very mature in a way, because, I mean, he knows everything," Rocker says.

With a father and uncle who both pitched in the majors, Leiter was always going to have an edge. But early on, his father didn't want him to pitch -- he wanted him to play third base.

Once Jack showed an interest and aptitude for pitching, his father helped him with how to throw certain pitches and handle the mental aspect of the game.

"There's just a piece of him that, there's structure in his life," Vandy head coach Tim Corbin says. "... He knows what he's supposed to do. He's where he's supposed to be. And when he gets in this environment, it's on."

And now it's on for Leiter and the Commodores as they look to advance to another College World Series and defend their national championship.

Rocker on Leiter: "And then the mastermind part of it, that's on and off the field. Academically and then on the field, the way he throws off his fastball, no one knows it's coming and it's just like, 'Oh wow, he just did it again.'"Leiter's family: "When I see Jack pitch, I see calmness -- that would be his mom," Corbin says. "And [when I] see competitiveness and attitude, that would be his dad."Rodriguez on Leiter: "He's definitely a professional. He doesn't show too much emotion, that's just kind of his personality. When you get a little fist pump from him, you know he's pumped up."

Rocker might have gotten knocked around by No. 1 Arkansas in the SEC tournament (he allowed four hits, four walks and five earned runs in 3 1/3 innings), but this is the time of year he dominates.

His no-hit effort against Duke in 2019 will go down as one of the best college games ever pitched.

"In the 17 years I've been here, I don't think I've seen anything like that," Corbin told The Tennessean afterward.

It was one of several dominant performances down the stretch that helped the Commodores hoist the trophy.

That fire hasn't gone away as his collegiate career winds down.

"The competitiveness is obvious," Leiter says.

Leiter on Rocker's starts: "There's going to be something exciting going on, whatever it is, whether it's get out of a big moment, show some energy. His repertoire is obviously dominant, so it's fun to watch."Rocker's family: Corbin says Rocker's ferocity on the mound comes from his father, which makes sense because Tracy Rocker was an All-American defensive tackle at Auburn who played four NFL seasons. He's now a Philadelphia Eagles assistant.Rodriguez on Rocker: "It trickles down to everybody in the whole stadium. He gives off energy, and fans react to that when he's showing emotion and dominating."

The next step for Leiter and Rocker is July 11's MLB draft, where they are both expected to be top-10 picks. Here are the current major league stars they most resemble, according to ESPN MLB Insider and draft expert Kiley McDaniel.

Germán Márquez (Rocker): Márquez isn't a big name due to playing in Colorado, but he's Rocker's best comp right now. He's durable with a mid-90s four-seamer, a slider and a curve. Not quite a true ace by talent, his ability to take the ball has helped him to the 12th-most WAR among starters since 2018.Joe Musgrove (Rocker): This is a possible comparison if Rocker leans more into his breaking balls. Musgrove now throws his cutter, slider and curveball roughly two-thirds of the time. Result: increased strikeout rate and ERA lowered by 1.5 runs.Walker Buehler (Leiter): Buehler is a true ace who attacks the zone with plus-plus stuff. He features a four-seamer and mix of cutters, slider and curves. Leiter lacks that kind of stuff-command combo right now, but has similar size, delivery, approach and upside.Trevor Bauer (Leiter): Leiter lacks Bauer's mad-scientist approach, but they are both power righties with similar mindsets -- attack hitters, draw whiffs with elevated four-seamers, not many changeups and a cutter/slider/curveball combo as putaway pitches.

Reporting by Ryan McGee. Editing by Ryan Canner-O'Mealy.
Visuals by Brett Carlsen.
Produced by ESPN Creative Studio: Rob Booth, Jarret Gabel, Alecia Hamm, Lori Higginbotham, Luke Knox, Miller Safrit. Additional visuals from SEC Network, Getty Images, AP, Icon Sportswire, Sports Illustrated

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