OMAHA—At some point during Thursday night’s game against North Carolina State, the North Carolina coaches told catcher Brian Holberton to quit looking over to the dugout between pitches. But he kept looking back anyway. “Force of habit, I guess,” UNC coach Mike Fox said.
The pitch selection from associate head coach Scott Forbes was the same for every one of Hobbs Johnson’s 132 offerings: fastball. It was reminiscent of Daniel Bard’s performance in the 2006 CWS Finals against Oregon State—only better. And Bard threw four sliders in that game.
“Every single pitch he threw was a fastball,” Holberton said of Johnson. “Even when (Chris) McCue came in (in the ninth), he threw one changeup, and it was supposed to be a fastball. We just went right after them and wanted them to put the ball in play and let our defense work.”
The game plan was perfect, and Johnson executed it masterfully. He allowed just five hits and two walks while striking out six over 8 1/3 shutout innings to lead the Tar Heels to a 7-0 win, eliminating the rival Wolfpack.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: With the bases loaded and one out in the fourth inning, UNC’s Michael Russell hit a fly ball to right field, and Brian Holberton tagged from third base. N.C. State right fielder Jake Fincher threw a missile that beat Holberton to the plate, but Holberton managed to get his right hand around catcher Brett Austin to touch the plate before the tag was applied. It broke a scoreless tie and caused Austin and Wolfpack ace Carlos Rodon to lose their cool, putting UNC in control of the game.
The Hero: Hobbs Johnson got the better of Rodon, turning in 8 1/3 innings of five-hit, scoreless ball. He walked just two and struck out six, attacking hitters exclusively with fastballs—132 of them. He carried a three-hitter into the ninth. It was the longest outing of his career.
You Might Have Missed: UNC has faced a lefthanded pitcher in six straight games, and 10 of its last 13. When Ryan Wilkins entered the game in the eighth inning for N.C. State, he was the first righty UNC had faced since June 3 against Florida Atlantic—a streak of 213 straight plate appearances. And the Tar Heels are likely to see another southpaw Friday: UCLA No. 3 starter Grant Watson.
Before the game, the college baseball world was buzzing about N.C. State’s decision to start ace Carlos Rodon on three days’ rest instead of freshman lefty Brad Stone, as announced Wednesday. Rodon, who shut down the Tar Heels in Sunday’s CWS opener, pitched well in his fourth game against UNC on Sunday, but Johnson was better.
Both pitchers struck out the side in the first inning, with Johnson getting all three of his strikeouts on elevated 90-91 mph heaters. He got Tarran Senay and Grant Clyde to swing through those high fastballs to strand two baserunners. Rodon got his first strikeout with a 96 mph heater against Landon Lassiter after a 10-pitch battle, then fanned Colin Moran and Brian Holberton on six straight strikes, putting both away with vicious sliders at 87 and 86.
Rodon was overpowering through three innings, racking up six strikeouts. But Moran singled to lead off the fourth, and Rodon fielded Holberton’s bunt and threw it into center field trying to get Moran at second. After a walk and a fielder’s choice, UNC had the bases loaded with one out for Michael Russell, who flied out to medium right field. Holberton tagged from third base, and Jake Fincher fired a rocket to the plate, but Holberton managed to get his right hand in before the tag. Home plate umpire Joe Burleson correctly called Holberton safe, causing N.C. State catcher Brett Austin to slam down his mask and Rodon to spike his glove, prompting Burleson to warn him that he was in danger of ejection.
The play was a major momentum changer.
“Obviously that’s a big run,” Avent said. “But I’m pretty sure I’m right, because I know Carlos so well: He’s such an emotional person, and I bragged about how he channels his emotions, but he has great pride. Obviously he was very upset at that call . . . I think it was the next inning, he goes out and hits the first player. And he hadn’t hit a batter or come close. His command was impeccable. And I thought maybe he still carried that emotion of that call out to the next inning.”
Parks Jordan was the batter Rodon hit, and he went on to score on Moran’s RBI single to center. Rodon reached his 80-pitch limit after completing that inning, exiting the game after five innings. He allowed two runs (one earned) on four hits and a walk while striking out six.
That 2-0 lead proved plenty for Johnson, though the Tar Heels broke the game open with four runs in the eighth and another in the ninth. After allowing a two-out single in the fourth, Johnson really found his groove, setting down 10 straight batters. Forbes said he got flyouts and strikeouts by elevating his four-seam fastball to the glove side, and he got groundouts by sinking his two-seamer to the arm side.
“There’s some deception, obviously, in his fastball,” Fox said. “He hides the ball a little bit, and it does get on you maybe a little bit quicker. And he’s able to pitch right at the top of the strike zone. And even our players in scrimmages in the fall and preseason and stuff, even our hitters will tell you that his fastball’s hard to pick up, and it’s hard to get on top of. Of course, in the ballpark out here, tonight with the wind blowing in, you just wanted them to hit it. And the key with Hobbs tonight was just good command, a lot of first-pitch strikes and only two walks.”
Johnson said he has pitched almost exclusively with his fastball since the Virginia series in the final week of the regular season. “It’s worked outside of one game against South Carolina, and we’ve just kind of been sticking with it,” Johnson said. “And today I had better command than I had against South Carolina and FAU (in regionals). So it just helped me get ahead of them and kind of get defensive swings.”
Johnson went head-to-head against Rodon in the ACC tournament as well, striking out nine over 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball. He was good that day, but he was even better Thursday. Avent said “he’s been a problem for us” the last few times the Wolfpack has seen him, because the N.C. State hitters have not been able to lay off fastballs up in the zone. Even though they knew fastballs were coming Thursday, there was little they could do with that knowledge.
“He kind of turns a little bit and hides it pretty well,” N.C. State shortstop Trea Turner said. “And then, as soon as he hides it, it’s hard to lay off the high ones. That’s kind of what UCLA did to us and also what Hobbs did to us. We just couldn’t make the adjustment in the past two games, and it obviously hurt us.”
So the fifth and final meeting between the two rivals went to North Carolina, giving the Tar Heels a 3-2 edge in the stellar season series. The Tar Heels advance to face UCLA in the bracket final Friday night, with their bats heating up and their bullpen fresh thanks to Johnson’s heroics.
“N.C. State’s obviously had a terrific season,” Fox said. “We’ve had some great battles with them this year, but tonight was all about Hobbs—just an incredible performance. We really needed it. And he gave us exactly what we needed.”