DURHAM, N.C.—On the mound Friday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park—the site of two of his best performances, against Cuba and against North Carolina in the ACC tournament—Carlos Rodon showed why he entered the spring as the prohibitive favorite to be drafted No. 1 overall. His velocity was up, his slider was unhittable, his changeup showed flashes of great promise, and he racked up 12 strikeouts over 7 2/3 innings.
But he still lost. Duke senior righthander Drew Van Orden outdueled Rodon, limiting N.C. State to three hits over eight shutout innings while striking out 11, as the Blue Devils won the series opener 2-0.
“I remind him on Thursdays, when he gets in these big games, that this is why he passed on professional baseball, to get a chance to come back and go head-to-head with arguably the best pitcher in college baseball, and go toe-to-toe with him,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said.
Remarkably, the Wolfpack has now been shut out in consecutive games for the first time since 1972. Rodon is 2-6 on the season, and N.C. State has scored three runs combined in his six losses.
“It’s good pitching,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “Van Orden was very, very good tonight. The guy at Maryland was very, very good. Good pitching is going to get good hitters out. When you’re scuffling like we are offensively, that’s a little mental. And we’ve got to make adjustments. Van Orden beat us away all night, we didn’t make adjustments to that. That’s something they’d better learn how to do. It’s defeating to keep getting beat the same way. Guys are pitching us the same way, and we haven’t made that adjustment.”
Van Orden pounded the outside corner with his 89-91 fastball, but most of his 11 strikeouts came via his 79-81 slider, which Pollard called “really explosive.”
Rodon, of course, owns the most explosive slider in college baseball, and it was at its best Friday, devastating the Blue Devils at 86-89 mph. BA’s Clint Longenecker recorded 55 sliders from Rodon, and 67 percent of them were strikes—and a staggering 54 percent of his slider strikes came via swings and misses. Over the first three innings, he also showed his best fastball velocity, sitting at 94-96 and touching 98 once. But it was elevated in those early innings, and Duke took advantage.
“Carlos is going to get his swings and misses,” Pollard said. “When the slider is down, it comes out in the fastball plane, you just can’t recognize it, so he’s going to produce a lot of swings and misses. But I thought we were very good in our approach against the fastball. We talked a lot in our pregame, in our scouting report meeting, about hey, you don’t want to try to hit that slider or breaking ball, you’ve got to try to hit that fastball against him.”
Duke senior David Perkins, who had 20 at-bats entering the game, led off the second inning by pounding an elevated 95 mph fastball over the fence in dead-center field. In the third, Mike Rosenfeld doubled to right-center on another elevated fastball, and Jordan Betts drove him in on a single through the drawn-in infield on a 96 mph heater.
“When I leave the ball up, I just beat myself,” Rodon said. “That ball that, I don’t know who it was that hit that home run, the ball’s up. You throw a slider there, he’s out. You throw a fastball down, he’s out. That’s probably the only ball he’ll ever hit off me.
“Then it was another fastball up that scores that second run, a fastball up and away. So I came in, was real frustrated, and (assistant coach Brian) Ward and I talked about it. That’s where I got it from, made an eye adjustment. Just tried to throw down in the zone. When I was in between innings, I was just trying to throw fastballs low, just trying to almost hit the dirt.”
After allowing nine baserunners through four innings, Rodon retired 11 of the next 12 hitters he faced starting in the fifth inning. His fastball still reached 94-95 in the eighth inning, though his pitch count reached 134 by the time he exited after hitting Chris Marconcini with a left-on-left changeup, with two outs in the eighth.
“From the fifth inning on, that’s probably the best he’s thrown all year,” Avent said. “He was commanding the ball, not only to the glove side of the plate, but he had the ball down.
“What he’s got to do is get the ball down and throw more changeups. That was the old slider. I think he’d been throwing more cutters, but tonight his slider was unhittable, and it’s not going to be hit. He commanded the glove side of the plate the best he’s done all year, and got the ball down.”
He made the adjustment too late to win the game, but the Wolfpack should nonetheless be encouraged that vintage Rodon returned Friday.