Vanderbilt pitcher Jack Leiter began the 2021 season as a projected first-round pick in this year’s MLB draft.
Now, he may just be the best starting pitcher in college baseball, and he likely leapfrogged teammate Kumar Rocker on his way up the draft board.
Leiter entered Saturday’s game tied with Rocker for third in the nation in strikeouts (135), third in hits allowed per game (3.9) and fourth in strikeouts per nine innings (14.6).
On Saturday, the 6-foot-1 sophomore struck out 11 batters over six innings, leading Vanderbilt to the final of the Nashville Regional on Sunday night, earning his ninth win of the year while allowing just three hits and one run on 112 pitches.
“That guy is as good as we have seen,” Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said.
It was the 11th time in 15 starts this year that Leiter – the SEC Newcomer of the Year and first team All-SEC selection -- allowed two earned runs or fewer, and it marked the 12th time he allowed three hits or fewer.
Leiter pounded the strike zone with fastball after fastball – even touching 99 miles per hour on the stadium radar gun – and mixing in his seemingly unhittable curveball to keep the Yellow Jackets, who led the ACC in RBIs (312) and ranked second in both hits (525) and batting average (.283), guessing.
Everything seemed to be working for the 205-pound righty, who has struck our 10 or more batters in eight starts this season. In fact, the only mistake the 21-year-old made was a solo home run to Kevin Parada in the fourth inning.
“I felt like the home run kind of, it was sort of supposed to happen the way it unfolded because I got behind, tried to throw off-speed to a really good fastball hitter and it was a 3-1 count,” Leiter said. “…I made a very hittable pitch and he hit it hard and hit it far, but I think it was easy to rebound from because I don't think it was a good pitch or a good count to be in.”
The win was a nice bounce-back for Leiter, who like Rocker, didn’t have the best showing in the SEC Tournament, allowing three runs and three hits over 6.2 innings in a 4-1 loss to Ole Miss.
Until Saturday, Leiter had lost three of his last five starts and gave up a combined 15 earned runs over that span. Against Georgia Tech, he returned to form and looked like the pitcher who at one point was in consideration to be drafted No. 1 overall.
Leiter, who’s now 11-3 with a 2.15 career ERA as a Commodore, may not be the top pick anymore, but he showed on Saturday that he’s still likely the top pitcher in the NCAA until someone else takes that designation from him.
“He was still throwing hard at 100 and some pitches late in the game,” Hall added. “I think he even reached back in the sixth and hit a 98, but he's a poised, really good pitcher and good Lord willing, if he stays healthy, he's got a chance to pitch for a long, long time.”
With a locked-in 1-2 punch of Rocker and Leiter, Vanderbilt is going to be awfully hard to beat in the NCAA Tournament.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_