N.C. State (50-16) head coach Elliott Avent announced on Wednesday that freshman Brad Stone would get the start against North Carolina (59-11) in a winner-take-all game.
Any pitcher not named Carlos Rodon was a relief to the Tar Heels, to be sure.
At 6:17 p.m. on Thursday, though, a little more than 90 minutes before the first pitch, the N.C. State baseball official account Tweeted out the Wolfpack starters … and added (somewhat casually), “Rodon on the bump”.
Rodon was quickly trending on Twitter, especially after he began the game with six strikeouts in his first three innings of work (and in 11 batters faced).
But after UNC’s 7-0 win? When asked to give an overview of the game in the postgame press conference, the first words out of both head coach’s mouth was a different one.
“Just Hobbs Johnson,” Avent said.
“Hobbs Johnson,” North Carolina head coach Mike Fox said. “That’s the overview.”
North Carolina’s junior left-hander (5-1) got the win, and it was well-earned. He set new career highs in pitches (132) and innings (8.1). He had four perfect innings, and three of those came after North Carolina took a 2-0 lead in the fourth.
He allowed just five hits in 31 at-bats, striking out six and walking two.
North Carolina’s starters have struggled in the postseason, particularly in the last two rounds. But the Tar Heels are still alive because they have gotten two consecutive quality starts.
“Just an incredible performance,” Fox said. “We really needed it, and he gave us exactly what we needed.”
Rodon wasn’t expected to start because he’d never gone on three days rest in his career. But he had just 108 pitches against UNC on Sunday (a relatively light workload for him), and he insisted all day Thursday and most of Wednesday — whenever his head coach would listen, of course — that he was ready to pitch against the Tar Heels yet again on Thursday.
“I wanted to make sure he was thinking with his head instead of his heart,” Avent said. “He’s Bob Gibson as a pitcher and he’s Pete Rose as a position player because he also hits for us. He just likes to win baseball games. He’s no different than the little kid who wants to win.”
This was North Carolina’s fifth game against N.C. State this year, though, and the two teams have been facing each other in baseball for many years. Fox was not surprised by Rodon’s start: “I know it was a tough decision for (Avent) and his staff, but you don’t want any regrets leaving (Omaha), and I think they probably would have had some if they hadn’t pitched (Rodon).”
Even though Rodon was on an 80-pitch count, it almost worked. He got off to the start you’d expect from the powerful lefty, who mixes a fastball with an absolutely unhittable slider.
But North Carolina’s hitters were able to keep some at-bats going, particularly freshman Landon Lassiter who took 22 of Rodon’s 80 pitches. He was 0-for-5 on the day, but he had a 10-pitch at-bat in the first inning that set the tone for the game, according to catcher Brian Holberton.
“We all going into it wanted to make him throw a lot of pitches just because we knew he’d pitched a few days ago and had a pitch count,” Holberton said. “(Lassiter’s) at bat in the first inning set the tone, and that did a good job for the rest of us to have a good idea what to do when we went up there.”
North Carolina’s starter Johnson didn’t do anything fancy. Of Johnson’s 132 pitches, 132 were fastballs. He didn’t get off to as fast a start as Rodon did, allowing two men on base quickly in the first after a throwing error. He struck out the next two batters he faced to end the inning, and he cruised from there.
It looked like it would be a pitcher’s duel.
But Rodon wouldn’t have another strikeout after the third inning and was chased at the end of five (at exactly 80 pitches).
The turning point in the game came in the fourth, when a Colin Moran single, an error (by Rodon) and a walk put Rodon in a bases-loaded jam. Moran was out at home on the next play on a fielder’s choice, but a sacrifice fly by UNC shortstop Michael Russell scored Brian Holberton on a close play at home plate — a great throw by N.C. State’s Jake Fincher beat Holberton, but he was able to slip under the tag.
“I didn’t think he even touched me,” Holberton said. “I didn’t feel anything on my back or anything. And I was glad he called me safe.”
That run was unearned, and N.C. State got out of the inning without any further damage, but Rodon — who was informed by the umpire that he was “about to get ejected” — wasn’t quite the same afterwards.
He would allow an earned run in the fifth before he was pulled for would-have-been-starter Brad Stone. Stone cruised through his first two innings before things fell apart in the eighth and UNC had a four-run inning to go up 6-0.
And so the Tar Heels stay alive. They’ll play their sixth elimination game of the postseason at 8 p.m. on Friday against UCLA, a team they’ll have to beat twice to advance. Fox said the Tar Heels would either start struggling staff ace Kent Emanuel or No. 3 starter Benton Moss on Friday.
For right now, the Tar Heels are just happy to still be playing.
N.C. State’s season is over, but the Wolfpack has nothing to be ashamed of. The team should go back to Raleigh with heads held high, having reached the College World Series for the first time since 1968 and setting the school record for wins (50).
“I know these guys, they’re proud. … They’re extremely proud of their accomplishments, 50 wins: how they did it down the stretch,” Avent said. “They know where they were and they know where they ended up.
“And I think they understood the torch they carry for so many people and so many fans and how well they’re loved in the city of Raleigh, and I think they’re very proud.”