Rocker Ride has Rough Return to UCLA-Vandy Amusement ParkAt The Ballpark
LOS ANGELES — More than three hours before No. 2 Vanderbilt and No. 6 UCLA matched up Friday night, scouts and fans alike were lined up at the gates of Jackie Robinson Stadium like giddy school children awaiting entrance into Disneyland.
Similarly, they were naming off all the attractions they wanted to see from the Garrett Mitchell hit tool to the Austin Martin defense and the thump in the Vanderbilt batting practice. Hopefully there would be time to see the Holden Powell power fastball/slider combo before the park closed for the night. But everyone had queued early because the Kumar Rocker Ride was being reopened and they wanted to be the first to experience it following a week of downtime. Those waiting talked about the size of the vehicle, the velocity it ran and the dips and hard, biting turns it could take.
But the Rocker Ride had some rust. It only stayed open for a third of the day. It’s inability to stay on track proved to be a difference maker as UCLA took a 3-2 victory against the Commodores in the opening game of the Southern California College Baseball Classic for both teams.
The Bruins (12-1) managed only two hits, but took advantage of five walks, two hit batsmen, two wild pitches and one big error by Vanderbilt (11-4). All three of their runs reached base on a walk.
The Rocker Ride was a little off, providing plenty of ups and downs during its short time in action Friday night. It was quickly evident that while the ride was fully functional, it wasn’t back to being the well-oiled machine it had been when Rocker began the season 2-0, 0.75 with 21 strikeouts in 12 innings.
The first inning showed Rocker’s issues for the day and promise for many good times ahead. Mitchell lined Rocker’s first 84-mph slider of the game into left field for a single. He advanced to second on a wild pitch as Rocker fell behind Jarron Silva 3-1. Even ahead in the count, Silva looked to be guessing on Rocker’s pitches, starting way late on Rocker’s 92-94 fastball that touched 95 and eventually striking out swinging on the eighth pitch of the at-bat. Kyle Cuellar then drew an eight-pitch walk. By the time Rocker struck out JT Schwartz and Noah Cardenas with the next eight pitches, Vanderbilt’s big-bodied 6’4″ righthander was already up to 26 pitches.
Rocker seemed to get back on track in the second inning, striking out two in a 14-pitch inning, but UCLA was able to strike for the first run of the game in the third. Rocker fell behind all five hitters he faced in the frame as he went through the heart of the Bruins’ lineup. He walked Kyle Cuellar on five pitches and JT Schwartz made him pay. He lined a pitch into the left-center field gap that rolled to the wall for a double. Cuellar scored from first.
Maintenance wasn’t called to Rocker Ride until the fourth inning when the ride lost control. Rocker opened with a strike, but followed with eight straight balls and hit nine-hole hitter Jordan Prendiz to load the bases. Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin, who attributed Rocker’s struggles to rust “more than anything else,” wasted no time shutting down the ride for the day and going to the bullpen for Sam Hliboki.
“Everything was average tonight. Should have done better,” Rocker said after taking his first loss of the season. “Just command in general. Just didn’t have my best day. Got to come back better.”
While command was a difference maker since it didn’t allow the Rocker Ride to reach peak exhilaration, the game changer actually came on the first pitch after he exited. Mitchell hit a medium-depth fly ball out to left field that looked like it might set up a play at the plate with the runner tagging from third. Left fielder Cooper Davis got behind the ball, came charging in and made the catch. Instead of firing home, at the last minute, he threw a strike to third where shortstop Carter Young was covering. But Young wasn’t looking for the throw. It went whizzing by his head and then rolled into the dugout, allowing a second run to score on the play, providing what proved to be the deciding run.
Instead of the Rocker Ride electrifying thrill seekers, fans got their biggest joys from the [Zach] Pettway Plunge and the [Sam] Hliboki Adventure, a pair of coasters that featured tried and true combinations — a little bit of velocity, a willingness to twist and turn at any time or throw on the brakes to slow everything down at unexpected intervals and a ride that stayed right on the edge of the rails. The Pettway Plunge, an older wooden coaster that has been consistently enthralling park goers, went six innings while the [Sam] Hliboki Adventure sounded like something from a Norwegian company but was actually manufactured in the same area as the Pettway Plunge.
Pettway and Hliboki don’t have overpowering stuff, but showed the power of commanding multiple pitches and controlling the zone.
Pettway kept the Commodores off balance with a pair of breaking balls — a 74-75 curveball and a slider that he threw at 78-79. Pettway also has a low- to mid-80s changeup, but never really got a good feel for it Friday night. But Pettway relies on moving his fastball around the zone and forcing hitters to get themselves out.
“He can really pitch with his fastball,” UCLA head coach John Savage said. “He’s got good angles to his fastball. He moves his fastball in and out, up, down. He pitches to all quadrants of the plate.”
Pettway has been a consistent at the UCLA amusement park, going 8-4, 3.35 as a freshman before being 2-2, 4.55 in 10 starts (3.42 ERA in his first eight starts) last year before an injury shut him down for the final two months of the year. But he’s become a bigger attraction this season because the park has taken the governor off the ride and increased the speed. Pettway’s fastball has taken a jump in velocity from 86-88 up to 92 at times. He sat 88-91 against Vanderbilt and was still able to manipulate and control the pitch with the same veracity.
“He mixes. He’s a pitchability guy. He’s not really a power guy at least in the world of velocity these days,” Savage said, but said the additional velocity “makes him that much tougher. It just makes every pitch better. It keeps the hitters honest. It just becomes a little higher-end pitchability guy.”
The most impressive aspect of Pettway’s game continues to be his flatline competitiveness. With a packed Jackie Robinson Stadium that featured an extra 50-100 people watching through the right field fence after the game sold out and the Rocker Ride rolling out on the other side, Pettway could have got overamped and tried to overexert himself to live up to the moment. Instead, he looked like he was making a Tuesday start against a midmajor with 50-100 people total in the stadium.
“It was a good atmosphere out here. Had a lot of fans, kind of had a lot of energy going into the game. More just try to keep it calm and just play our game and not get too hyped up on it,” Pettway said. “It was something that Coach Savage and I have talked a lot about is just on Friday nights especially, just going out there and kind of being yourself. You don’t need to be someone else. I know what I have and what I can offer to our team. So it’s kind of just bringing that to the table.”
What he brought Friday night was six innings, giving up three hits and two runs (one earned) while striking out four (all looking).
“He’s just a competitive kid. He’s just a competitive guy. Nothing really fazes him. He’s holding his own and he’s doing a good job for us on Friday nights.”
On the other side, Hliboki minimized damage in the fourth inning, stranding Rocker’s final runner at third with a strikeout and groundout following the game-changing errant throw. He then tossed up zero after zero to give Vanderbilt a chance to rally. Hliboki threw five hitless innings with one walk and three strikeouts.
“He did a really nice job. I mean, even the one where they scored those runs. I thought he did a really good job,” Corbin said. “He put us in position to win. He really changed the momentum of the game for us in a lot of different ways, but we didn’t really help him.”
- Sam Hliboki: 5 IP, 0 H, 0 R, BB, 3 K
- Parker Noland: 2-for-3, 2B, 2 RBI, BB
- Spencer Jones: 2-for-2, 2B
- Zach Pettway: 6 IP, 3 H, 2 R (1 ER), 0 BB, 4 K; Win
- Garrett Mitchell: 1-for-3, RBI
- JT Schwartz: 1-for-3, 2B, RBI, HBP
– Vanderbilt had some opportunities to make Rocker’s night a non-story, but the offense couldn’t capitalize, stranding the potential tying run in scoring position in four of the final five innings, including getting the tying and go-ahead runs on base with one out in the ninth inning.
“We didn’t win it. We didn’t do enough offensively,” Corbin said. “They pitched when they needed to. It’s unfortunate, three of those walks scored and threw the ball away. But we had plenty of opportunities offensively. So we didn’t win it. They won it because they pitched well.”
– UCLA was supposed to at least have a rebuilding period after all the pieces the Bruins lost from last year’s overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Instead, John Savage continues to work his magic as guys like Pettway have stepped into bigger roles without hesitation or issue.