RALEIGH,N.C.—Elliott Avent said he’d never seen Brett Williams run faster.
That’s not an insignificant statement from Williams’ head coach, considering the North Carolina State senior center fielder is renowned for his far ranging play in the outfield. But Williams dug down for every ounce of speed he has as he dashed home on a safety squeeze to score the tying run in the ninth inning of the Wolfpack’s super regional opener against Rice.
Trailing 3-2, Williams had led off the Wolfpack ninth with a five-pitch walk off hard-throwing Owls closer Zech Lemond, subsequently stealing second and getting to third on an errant pickoff throw. Avent then called for the squeeze with No. 9 hitter Logan Ratledge up, but Ratledge fouled off his first bunt attempt. Despite losing the element of surprise, Avent stuck with the squeeze.
Lemond came with a high fastball that Ratledge was able to put in play, but it was a hard bunt right at charging first baseman Blake Fox.
“When I saw that bunt, I went ‘Oh Lord, why’d I call that?’ ” Avent said. “Next thing I know, I saw (Williams) flying across the plate.”
The bunt was hard enough that few players would’ve been able to score, but Williams was not to be denied. He sprinted to the plate and beat Hunter Kopycinski’s tag with a head-first slide.
“I knew they were really going to be ready for (the squeeze) if we were going to repeat it,” Williams said. “So I tried to get the best jump I possibly could, and I kinda played the catcher—he was out front of the plate a little bit so I went to the back side and snuck my hand in.”
Williams’ run evened the score at 3-3. Two batters later, sophomore right fielder Jake Fincher laced a Lemond curveball into left field to score Jake Armstrong and give the Wolfpack a stirring 4-3 win, putting it a win away from the College World Series.
The Wolfpack’s offense had been stonewalled most of the afternoon, as the duel between staff aces Carlos Rodon of N.C. State and Rice’s Austin Kubitza lived up to its potential. The ‘Pack scored twice in the first off Kubitza, sparked by Trea Turner’s leadoff double, but the Owls junior righthander settled in quickly.
Kubitza acknowledged after the game that he came out a little too excited, as he hit a batter and threw a wild pitch in the first following Turner’s double, but he cruised after the first. The Wolfpack has seven righthanded hitters in its regular lineup, and Kubitza’s slider was deadly against them. After the Turner double, the righthander, a freshly minted fourth-round pick of the Detroit Tigers, allowed just two more hits through the end of the seventh, finishing with five hits allowed while striking out eight and walking none.
Those two runs ordinarily would have been enough for Rodon, who’d allowed just three hits and one run combined in dominant outings against North Carolina in the ACC tournament and William & Mary in the Raleigh Regional. But the big lefthander struggled to get a feel for his usually devastating slider and wound up allowing 11 hits in 8 1/3 innings, the most knocks he’s allowed in a game in his two-year college career.
As good as Rodon’s slider can be, though, it’s not his only weapon, and he began leaning more heavily on his high-octane fastball as the game went along. Even on a day he wasn’t his best, Rodon still racked up nine strikeouts and pitched into the ninth inning for his fourth straight start.
“(I was) really comfortable with my fastball—the most comfortable I’ve been all year with it,” Rodon said. “It was nice to have, but it would’ve been nice to have that complementing slider with it. Early in the game, it was hard to command that slider.”
The Owls came back to tie the game with single runs in the fourth and fifth, the latter coming on a solo homer from second baseman Christian Stringer (“an accident,” Stringer called it), just his second long ball of the year.
For a few moments, Stringer looked like he’d be the hero. His two-out, two-strike double off Wolfpack reliever Grant Sasser brought home the go-ahead run for the Owls in the top of the ninth, and the Wolfpack’s rally also spoiled another storybook day for Kopycinski. The little-used Owls backup catcher went 3-for-4 and now has seven hits in two games filling in for injured regular Geoff Perrott.
The Owls had the game set up the way they wanted with a one-run lead and Lemond, with his 14 saves and 1.52 ERA, on the hill for the bottom of the ninth. But victory slipped away as Lemond issued the leadoff walk to Williams, plunked No. 8 hitter Armstrong and made the errant pickoff throw that allowed Williams to reach third. Fincher’s walkoff was the Wolfpack’s only hit of the inning.
“Lemond’s been our guy all year,” Rice coach Wayne Graham said. “He’s been great all year. It’s a tough game.”