Nick Maldonado proved to be a valuable reliever for Vanderbilt this season.
Mississippi State and Vanderbilt were among the very best college baseball had to offer all season long, so it was no shock that the two juggernaut programs would be the last two teams standings in the College World Series.
There are few things better than college baseball’s postseason to die-hard baseball fans and the tournament delivered the goods once again. It also gave fans locally more reasons to cheer for the CWS finalists. Vanderbilt’s Nick Maldonado and Mississippi State’s KC Hunt are New Jersey guys and former Diamond Jacks out of Diamond Nation.
Righthander Jack Leiter, a Delbarton grad, was the other Garden Stater bolstering New Jersey’s influence on college’s baseball’s greatest event. Leiter will likely be selected among the top five players in Sunday’s MLB Draft.
All three pitchers were sophomores this spring. Maldonado and Hunt worked out of the bullpen for, perhaps, the two best pitching staffs in all of college baseball. Leiter was part of a deadly 1-2 top-of-the-rotation combination with Kumar Rocker that enthralled the college game. Rocker will likely be a high first round pick as well.
Their teams’ inexorable ride to the best-of-three championship series would bring Diamond Jacks teammates Maldonado and Hunt together on the same field again.
Mississippi State (50-18) would win Games 2 and 3 in dominating fashion and nail down the national championship, but Vanderbilt (49-18) had its way in Game 1 when Maldonado and Hunt found each other, toe-to-toe, in the seventh inning.
“We were both very aware of each other,” said Maldonado. “I was shooting KC texts after the game. It seemed pretty surreal to us.”
Hunt entered in the sixth inning, assigned the unenviable task of eating innings and keeping his team’s slim hopes alive for a comeback from a 7-2 deficit. Leiter had stifled the lethal Mississippi State lineup to that point and Vanderbilt’s rested and tested bullpen was primed to close it out. That bullpen included Maldonado, who was having a terrific season.
Hunt echoed Maldonado’s words.
“It was kinda surreal,” he said. “I hadn’t pitched in three weeks and I’m running to the mound with 25,000 fans cheering and screaming. I’m just trying to get the ball to the next guy and save arms for the rest of the series. But we were still running guys out there that were pretty good.”
Both teams had deep wells of pitching talent to draw from and the fact the two of the bullpen arms were Jersey guys was pretty neat to watch. Leiter, of course, is the marquee arm in NCAA baseball.
Leiter had held the prodigious Mississippi State lineup to two runs on three hits over six innings, striking out eight and walking three. But he had expended 107 pitches to that point. We would all find out in the next two days, indeed, how impressive was Leiter’s performance. The Bulldogs would score 22 runs in the next two games, five of them in 4.1 innings off the indomitable Rocker (14-4).
So, to the ‘pen went Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin and his choice for that evening of prime time baseball was Seton Hall Prep grad Maldonado, who had spent so much of his formative years developing his game at Diamond Nation in Flemington, N.J. As always, Maldnodado answered the bell.
The righthander shut out Mississippi State over the final three innings on two hits, struck out four and walked none and did so in a fairly efficient 46 pitches.
“I don’t really think I realized how hard it is to get to the World Series,” said Maldonado. “To be one of the Final 8 or Final 2 is amazing. It’s a dream for all baseball players.”
Hunt was the fifth of six pitchers used in the game by Mississippi State. He was terrific in the sixth inning, retiring Vanderbilt in order on just seven pitches. Then the game moved to the seventh as Maldonado entered to join his fellow Diamond Jack on the mound.
Maldonado had a 12-pitch, 1-2-3 top of the seventh and headed for the dugout as his buddy popped out of the opposing dugout and headed to the bump. Hunt issued a leadoff walk to Jayson Gonzalez, who was bunted to second base. Hunt then surrendered an RBI single to Carter Young on a 3-2 pitch. But he got the next two batters to get out of further trouble.
“Pitching that one inning against Nick was awesome, so cool,” said Hunt. It was so cool back here in New Jersey, too.
“To watch two of our players battling out on the biggest stage in college baseball was a coach’s dream,” said Steve DiTrolio, who coached both players and is Diamond Nation’s recruiting coordinator. “We talk to our guys so much about preparing for the next level. We couldn’t be more proud of our guys who got to experience such an amazing opportunity.”
Despite the great start to the three-game series, Vanderbilt would be overwhelmed in the next two games by the Mississippi State bats and a pitching staff that was equal to or better than any opponent it faced all season in and out of the rugged Southeast Conference.
“Not winning wasn’t great,” said Maldonado. “You have to appreciate that we got there and what a great experience it was for us. We learned a lot. You can’t prepare for Omaha and then that atmosphere in the final series. The whole state of Mississippi seemed to be there. They have an amazing fan base. Props to them. It was like a road game for us. It was challenging and it made being there even better.”
For Hunt, the next two days and subsequent celebration back in Starkville, Mississippi still has him pinching himself.
“We could see in the fall we had a shot,” said Hunt. “We had a lot of older guys back and some new young guns coming in. It was meant to be.” Mississippi State would wipe out Vanderbilt 13-2 in Game 2 and 9-0 in Game 3.
Two of those “older guys” were center fielder and leadoff hitter Rowdey Jordan and right fielder and No. 2 hitter Tanner Allen, each given an extra year after the lost 2020 campaign due to the pandemic. They would combine for five hits in Game 3 and were clearly the heart and sole of a terrific lineup. Jordan batted .323, hit 10 HR, drove in 45 runs and totaled 36 extra-base hits. Tanner hit .383, stroked 11 HR, drove in 66 runs and had 35 extra-base hits.
“We had some players who were in their third straight College World Series,” said Hunt. “We leaned on that. The team was calm, cool and collected. Our coach (Chris Lemonis) always told us to stay in the moment and stay focused.”
Mississippi State’s raucous fans were a sight to behold in Omaha but they were even more oppressive to opponents at home. “We were so used to playing in that (loud) environment,” said Hunt. “We played in front of 15,000 at home games. It was unreal. And there had to be 20,000 at our parade that went down Main Street and straight to our stadium.”
Hunt would pitch just 15 innings out of the bullpen this season behind that stacked pitching staff, but knew, as coach Lemonis showed in Game 1, he had to be ready at a moment’s notice.
“It was tough,” admitted Hunt, an outstanding all-around athlete and First Team All-State selection his senior year at Ramapo High in Franklin Lakes. He was also All-Group 3 in basketball. “I used it as a learning experience. We had a lot of good pitchers. It was good to be part of one of the best staffs in the nation. Our coaches are the best in the nation. They work with us and keep us sharp. When they call on you on the biggest stage, they expect you to be ready.”
Hunt has the tools to play at the highest level of NCAA baseball and beyond. He boasts a 94-96 mile-per-hour fastball, a curveball, slider and changeup. “I threw one curveball in the World Series,” he said. “I threw seven sliders, which looked really good. I use the changeup mostly to lefties.”
Hunt, like Maldonado, would love to move into a starting role next year. “I would like to start,” he said. “I will compete to start and see what happens.”
Maldonado, on the other hand, saw a ton of action out of the bullpen and became a reliable arm getting Vanderbilt through an inning, or two or three, depending on the situation.
“Toward the beginning of the season we had a bunch of arms but a lot of the bullpen guys got hurt,” said Maldonado. “A few others had to step up, (Chris) McElvain and (Luke) Murphy in particular. Everyone had confidence in us. It didn’t matter who was going into the game.”
Maldonado pitched 50.2 innings out of the pen and had a 1-2 record with 9 saves and a 2.31 ERA. His 59 strikeouts and just 7 walks reflected on his efficiency and reliability. He surrendered just 13 runs.
“I usually just went an inning or two early in the season,” said Maldonado. “Then the innings started to pile up on the staff late in the season and you had to stretch out to two or three innings, whatever was needed. You had to leave it all out there then bounce back quickly.”
Maldonado had some big moments along the way to the CWS, some good and some bad, all part of his development, perhaps, to a reliable starter for Vanderbilt in 2022.
“Against Kentucky in our last series of the regular season, I gave up the game-winning home run in the third game,” said Maldonado. “I flipped the switch right there. I didn’t want to feel that again. You think it’s your fault. A lot of people would have lost confidence there. It just motivated me. As a relief pitcher you will win and lose. It’s all about the way you bounce back. You have to be on to the next thing. Do something bad, flush it. Do something good, flush it.”
Maldonado did bounce back in a big way, totally stoning East Carolina in a sterling two-inning relief stint that closed out Vanderbilt’s 4-1 victory in the Super Regional and sent the Commodores to Omaha. He permitted no hits, struck out two and walked none in just 21 pitches.
“To be out there on the mound for the final out of the Super Regional was awesome,” said Maldonando. “You either win or you lose. I don’t even look at personal stats much. I’m more focused on the team. If you are able to help your team win, that’s all that matters.”
Maldonado is draft-eligible but his focus is on getting better right now as a Commodore.
“I talked to Corbs (coach Corbin) and Browny (pitching coach Scott Brown),” he said. “We had a lot of exit meetings. I’m coming back. I’ve gotten interest but I want to come back and insert myself into a starting role. I think it’s realistic. I talked to my agent and we both thought coming back was best for me. I’d like to finish my degree, so another year will get me closer to that.”
Maldonado has an arsenal of five or six pitches, a few of which stayed in his back pocket as a reliever.
“I mostly threw my cutter, two-seamer and four-seamer,” said Maldonado. “I developed the cutter in the fall and it became an out-pitch. I would mix in a changeup once in a while.”
His fastball sits at 92-93 and has topped out at 95-96. Add to that a curveball and slider that have essentially been in mothballs for a season and the potential is there for some very serious challenges for opposing hitters.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin certainly will be glad to see Maldonado back.
“Nick is a low maintenance young man,” Corbin said in Maldonado’s Vanderbilt bio. “He keeps things very simple, doesn’t ask for anything. He plays, competes and supports his boys. He’s a joy to be around. His development over the past months has been fun to watch. He enjoys the arena of competition a great deal. There is a high level of trust with Nick because you know what you’re getting.”
Maldonado and his Vanderbilt teammates, like Hunt and Mississippi State, certainly have been through the biggest of big game pressures.
“I don’t think much will affect us until we get back there again,” said Maldonado.
The Maldonado and Hunt families are truly baseball families through-and-through and have had terrific runs on the New Jersey scholastic and Division 1 college fronts.
Nick’s dad, Frank, Sr., played at Manhattan College. His older sister, Alexa, may be the best athlete in the family to date. Alexa played softball at Notre Dame (2009-’12) then joined the U.S. Women’s National Baseball Team. His older brother, Frank, Jr., played at Pittsburgh (2014-’18) and brother Chris, also a longtime Diamond Jack, is a rising senior at Seton Hall Prep and is committed to Clemson.
KC’s dad, Mickey Hunt, is the legendary Ramapo High School baseball coach, boasting a 357-182 (.662) career record. Mickey essentially spawned a small baseball empire. KC’s oldest brother, Shooter, was drafted twice, in the 34th round by Texas in 2005 out of Ramapo High and in the 1st round by Minnesota in 2008 out of Tulane. Older brother TJ played at Monmouth University, graduating in 2015. Shooter and TJ Hunt have gone into player evaluations and scouting. Shooter is Prep Baseball Report’s vice president of scouting and its national crosschecker. TJ is director of PBR New Jersey.
“There was a lot of knowledge and a lot of competition thrown at you,” said Hunt. “We played a lot of wiffle ball in the yard. That’s where the competitiveness came from. We’ve all been through a lot of baseball. I work off of them. I’m fortunate and glad to have them.”
Named after greats
KC Hunt’s full name is Kyle Clemente Hunt. Maldonado’s full name is Nick Mariano Maldonado.
Sunday’s MLB Draft
Hunt, who is playing in the Cape Cod League for the Falmouth Commodores,
will be glancing from his phone to see where a few teammates landed in the draft Sunday night.
Maldonado will be at his buddy Leiter’s house for what promises to be a life-changing evening for the righthander many believe is the best collegiate pitcher in the nation.
“I’m very excited for that. It’s going to be a fun night,” says Maldonado, who is resting his arm after a busy season and planning for some late summer training in Florida. “I’ll be living with a teammate in Florida and Browny will set me up with a program.”
Coach Travis’ thoughts
Travis Anderson played professionally as a catcher and is as accurate at judging people as he is at pitchers. Nick Maldonado played three of his five years at Diamond Nation for Anderson.
“Nick is the kind of person you want your kids to be like,” said Anderson. “He’s hard working, loyal and respectful. He is not scared of hard work and meets every challenge head on. I am blessed to have coached him.”