RALEIGH — No. 5 North Carolina State (39-11, 16-8 ACC) just continues to get wins, no matter how elusive those wins seem during the course of each game. The Wolfpack has won 21 of their last 22, dropping just one gane to top-ranked North Carolina two weeks ago. The latest came Saturday in a 3-1 grinder over No. 9 Florida State (40-10, 16-9 ACC), and it gave ace Carlos Rodon his seventh win of the year (he’s now 7-2).
Rodon’s resurgence has been somewhat concurrent with N.C. State’s. The Wolfpack started out this season 18-10 and 4-7 in the ACC after a loss in the second game of a three-game set against Maryland. On that same day — March 30 — Florida State was 24-3, 8-3 in the ACC and seemed to have control of the Atlantic Division.
Now, N.C. State won Game 1 of the three-game series (Game 2 is Sunday) against Florida State and has taken a half-game lead in the Atlantic with just one more ACC series left for each team.
The Wolfpack has all but locked up the right to host a Regional in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The question now is if they can win a series, or even sweep, a high-profile opponent at home and put itself in great position to host a Super Regional as well (should it make it that far).
Rodon, like his team, struggled early this season. He started out 3-2 and followed that up with a pair of no decisions against Virginia Tech and Boston College, where he pitched a season-low two innings and allowed eight hits. (To put that in perspective, he pitched eight innings against the Seminoles on Saturday and allowed nine hits.)
Maybe he really is at his best when his back is against the wall, proverbially speaking. Because in his last four starts, he has gone a total of 30 2/3 innings and allowed 27 hits and allowed seven earned runs. He’s done it against three teams in the top 25 (Georgia Tech, UNC and now FSU).
Rodon threw 133 pitches, but he seems to almost gain steam as the game progresses. “It took a little while. Warm weather like this helps,” Rodon said. “I was saving a little for later in the game today and I brought it out. It was good to see. It was good to see I still had that in me. Conditioning and weight-lifting helps, too.”
He even hit 101 on the gun (according to the N.C. State scoreboard) late in the game. Not that he noticed. “I didn’t turn around (to look),” Rodon said. “I knew I threw that one hard, but I wasn’t going to turn around.”
He struggled with his control some early, and then settled in. Rodon had a rough stretch in the eighth inning (Florida State scored its only run in that frame), and his head coach Elliott Avent came out to the mound. But not to pull him. Rodon would have likely fought him off, anyway.
It’s been the balance he’s tried to have Rodon maintain as he gets older and matures — that balance between competitive fire and being smart, and mentally focused. Sure, he wants to stay in the game, even after a high pitch count. But his long-term health matters, among other things. And there’s a such thing as too competitive. It can take even a great player over the edge mentally to where they’re not as focused as they should be.
“It’s great to be competitive, and (he and I have) talked about some of the great competitive people in sports, the difference between competitive and out of control and competitive and focused for people like Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax and those great people,” Avent said. “You have to have a balance and he’s learning that balance every day. He grows up more every day and he’s just so much fun to coach.”
And when Florida State’s Jose Brizuela came to the plate with men on the corners and two down, fighting off a third strike with foul balls three times, Rodon was able to bear down and find that extra bit of energy for a strike three.
“That’s the focus. You dial it up to a different level and you don’t try to do too much,” Avent said. “When he gets in jams, he’s been able to focus and that’s the different level we’re talking about.”