RALEIGH, N.C.—Carlos Rodon has spent much of his sophomore year searching for the form that made him one of the best pitchers in the nation as a freshman. He's found it when it matters most.
Rodon pitched on Saturday like the country has come to expect, firing a two-hit shutout against William & Mary in the winners' bracket game at the Raleigh Regional. North Carolina State needed every bit of Rodon's dominance too, emerging with a 1-0 win against a tough Tribe squad as Rodon and his opposite number, John Farrell, traded zeroes deep into the night.
Rodon is more than just the Wolfpack's ace. The lefty is its only reliable weekend starter, which means winning his starts has been vital for the Wolfpack all season, and any path to winning this regional likewise hinged on winning whichever game Rodon took the mound. And while Rodon would be unlikely to admit it, it had to eat at him, given the competitor he is, that the Wolfpack was 0-4 in his career in postseason games he'd started, albeit through no fault of his own (0.95 ERA in the ACC and NCAA tournaments entering Saturday).
"It's great to finally have a postseason win," Rodon said, "but it's even better for our team and we're looking forward to tomorrow. Hopefully we'll win another one."
Rodon had everything working from the outset Saturday, from his overpowering fastball to his cutter and backfoot slider that make him deadly even against predominantly righthanded lineups. He hit 92-93 mph regularly throughout the night and retired the first 12 Tribe batters, carrying a no-hitter into the sixth before giving up a two-out single to William Shaw. He responded to that affront by striking out five of the next six.
One of Rodon's hallmarks is how he gets stronger as games get deeper, and he found that extra gear again Saturday, touching as high as 96 mph on the stadium radar gun in the ninth inning. Rodon finished the night with 10 strikeouts and no walks—he did bean two hitters—his seventh double-digit strikeout performance in his last 10 starts.
“I thought what really made him tough,” William & Mary coach Jamie Pinzino said, “(was) the breaking ball, I don't know if it was two different ones he was throwing but he was able to manipulate that thing based on the count and whether he was throwing it for strikes or throwing it for chase or what he needed to do.”
The first half of Rodon’s season was largely forgettable. He won just three of his first eight starts while struggling with command and diminished velocity. His season hit bottom on April 13, when ACC cellar-dweller Boston College tagged him for five runs while he lasted just two innings.
A week after that start in Boston, he started looking like the old Rodon with a complete-game win at Georgia Tech. He won his next four outings to close out the regular season before taking a hardest-of-luck no-decision in the ACC tournament against North Carolina, allowing only one unearned one and one hit in 10 innings. Nonetheless, going back to his final regular-season start at Duke, Rodon hasn't permitted an earned run for 23 straight innings, during which he’s allowed a grand total of three hits. Three.
Saturday's game had some déjà vu; like in the North Carolina game a week earlier, the Wolfpack's offense didn't give Rodon much support. Like Rodon in that game, Tribe righthander Farrell pitched well enough to win any other night and deserved a better fate. Farrell didn't light up the radar gun, pitching mainly in the upper 80s, but was just as effective, working down in the zone and to both sides.
Desperate for a timely hit, the Wolfpack finally got one in the sixth, when Grant Clyde bounced a single up the middle with two outs, scoring Trea Turner from third for the game's lone run. Farrell's night ended in the eighth, after he'd struck out six and allowed six hits, with the one run his lone blemish.
"In the end, they got a chopper up the middle with two outs and got that run, and we didn't get any of those," Pinzino said.
The Wolfpack still has to coax another win out of one of its other starters, expected to be either sophomore Logan Jernigan or freshman Brad Stone, on Sunday or, if necessary, Monday. But Rodon's start was the key to Wolfpack's hopes of winning the regional—the game they absolutely had to win. And Rodon wouldn't let them lose it.
"The most incredible thing about his storyline tonight for me was how effortlessly he threw," N.C. State coach Elliot Avent said, "and how he can corral his emotions with the emotions of the stadium.
"He wanted it very badly for his team."