ValleyCats prevail on walk-off single to split doubleheader

TROY — In his fourth Tri-City start, Kumar Rocker reached down to get out of a couple of jams in four shutout innings.

Then the ValleyCats dug down to pull out a 5-4, walk-off victory and salvage a split of their doubleheader Wednesday with the Trois-Rivieres Aigles in front of 2,016 fans at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium.

In the bottom of the seventh, Jesus Lujano ripped a tying, two-run single to right. Brad Zunica, back from a COVID-19 layoff, followed with an opposite-field single to left-center for the victory.

“It’s nice to be on the other side, you know?” ValleyCats manager Pete Incaviglia said. “We’ve been on the other side of those games quite a bit lately and it’s good to get a W and let’s build off of that and get going tomorrow.”

The ValleyCats (16-18) snapped a four-game losing streak, including a 3-1 loss in the opening game on Wednesday. They won for just the third time in their past 13 games.

Rocker, the former Vanderbilt star and Mets’ first-round pick, continued to bolster his case to be selected in the first round again when he re-enters the MLB draft next month. In the third inning of the nightcap, he put men on second and third with none out but struck out the side.

In the fourth inning, he gave up a leadoff double down the left-field line to Carlos Martinez but struck out two batters swinging to strand Martinez on third.

“For sure, it’s definitely changed since college,” Rocker said. “Now it’s just a little more poised and relaxed on the mound.”

Rocker was done after 58 pitches, including 42 strikes. He entered the game with a four-inning or 65-pitch limit from agent Scott Boras, according to Incavigilia. He consistently hit 96 miles per hour with his fastball, reaching as high as 97.6.

“Funny thing, Bud (pitching coach Scott Budner) walked over and goes, ‘That’s what a big leaguer does,’ ” Incaviglia said. “He gets into jams and he has another gear and makes the pitches he has to and gets out of the inning. The guy is going to pitch in the big leagues. I’ve been saying that for a long time.”

Rocker, who struck out seven on Wednesday, has a 1.80 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 15 innings since joining Tri-City.


Rocker will skip what would be his next turn in the rotation next week because the ValleyCats will be up in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, and there’s a lack of familiarity with the mound there, Incaviglia said. He’s scheduled to pitch again on July 1 at Bruno Stadium against the Empire State Greys. He might make another start after that, according to Tri-City general manager Matt Callahan.

“Overall, it feels good,” Rocker said. “Today, I had all four (pitches) going, so if I can carry that into the next start, that’s awesome.”

After Rocker left, the Aigles got to the ValleyCats’ bullpen for four runs, including Connor Panas’ go-ahead two-run homer in the fifth off Adam Hofacket. It could have been worse but ValleyCats left fielder Denis Phipps made a sliding catch with the bases loaded in the top of the seventh.

In the bottom of the inning, the ValleyCats loaded the bases on an infield single and two walks. Lujano tied it and then Zunica, who had homered earlier in the game, delivered the winner off reliever James Bradwell with one out.

Zunica went 4-for-7 in the doubleheader after not playing since June 9. He said he felt “good” during his COVID layoff and was out for precautionary reasons until he passed a test.

“It was nice to get back out there,” he said. “Obviously nice to be in front of a good crowd and just kind of back with the guys.”

One of those guys is Rocker, whom Zunica said is a good teammate.

“He just kind of walked in and was just part of the team,” Zunica said. “I think he’s very good at kind of staying humble and staying within himself. He comes from a winning program at Vanderbilt, so he’s been around it and knows what to expect. It’s just a really good fit, really good guy and really excited to see what the future holds.”

 

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