Carlos Rodon’s 2014 season has been something of a head-scratcher at times. No matter his performance, no matter how well he pitches, more often than not he somehow manages to come up on the short end on the scoreboard. His last win was March 7 against Notre Dame. Since then, he’s 0-3 with a 2.49 ERA.
Obviously, lack of run support does much to explain Rodon’s 2-5 won-lost record. NC State has lost six of Rodon’s eight starts. His ERA in those games is 2.11 in 38 ⅓ innings, with 44 strikeouts. His teammates have starved him for runs, scoring just three times total in the six losses. They’ve also kicked the ball around, committing 14 errors in those six games, fielding a miserable .936 and leading to 12 unearned runs.
Whatever “ails” Carlos almost certainly will be forgotten when he steps on the mound at Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Friday to face Duke. Rodon pitched two games for the Wolfpack at the DBAP last season, a deceptively dominant start against the Blue Devils on May 17, and then an historic encounter May 25 vs. North Carolina at the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship.
The start against Duke may have been the most important of the 2013 season for Rodon. After beginning the year slowly — much more so than his supposed “slow” start to 2014 — Rodon was just beginning to resemble himself when he faced the Blue Devils. Through the first 5 ⅓ innings of that game, he scuffled along, allowing six runs, four of them earned, on six hits and three walks. At that point, though, the tumblers suddenly fell into place for Rodon. He retired 13 of the last 14 men he faced, nine of them on strikes, all nine of them swinging, in an utterly overpowering performance. The one man who did reach base — he was hit by a pitch — was quickly erased on a double play. Rodon finished with 15 strikeouts in nine innings pitched.
A week and a day later, Rodon squared off against the Tar Heels at the DBAP in front of an overflow crowd of 11,392, the largest crowd ever to see a college baseball game in the state of North Carolina. Rodon overwhelmed a truly great-hitting UNC team for 10 innings, allowing just one unearned run on one hit. He took a perfect game into the fifth inning and a no-hitter into the seventh. He allowed just five balls to be hit out of the infield. He struck out 14 and walked two.
In the final 4 ⅔ innings against Duke and the 10 innings against North Carolina, Rodon allowed just one run, unearned, on one hit in 14 ⅔ innings. He struck out 23, walked two and hit two batters. He faced 49 batters and retired 44 of them. He should have retired 46 of the 49 except for a pair of errors, one of which was his own and allowed a UNC run to score. The Tar Heels went on to win 2-1 in 18 innings, but Rodon was long gone by then and did not figure in the decision.
Rodon was more or less unhittable the rest of the season. From the one-out mark of the fifth inning of that Duke game through the College World Series, he pitched 46 innings and allowed seven runs, five of them earned, on 23 hits for a 0.98 ERA. He struck out 56 and walked seven. Take away his final appearance, a start on three days’ rest against UNC at the CWS and the numbers read 40 innings, five runs, four earned runs, 19 hits, 50 strikeouts and six walks.
Any way you cut it, Rodon was fearsome down the stretch, the best pitcher in the college game, and he kick-started the most dominant stretch of his career with nine swinging strikeouts in 4 ⅔ hitless innings against Duke at the DBAP.
Rodon put an exclamation point on his 2013 residency at the DBAP by shutting down Cuba on July 23 in the summer finale for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Rodon allowed just two hits and struck out 11 in 6 ⅔ shutout innings. Team USA went on to win 5-3.
In Rodon’s three appearances at the DBAP last year — vs. Duke, UNC and Cuba — he was 2-0 with a 1.40 ERA. He allowed nine hits, struck out 40 and walked five in 25 ⅔ innings. From the one-out mark in the fifth inning of that Duke game through the UNC and Cuba games, he allowed just one unearned run on three hits in 21 ⅓ innings, striking out 34 and walking two.
Now that’s home sweet home.
Eyes To The Front, Not The Rear
Wednesday’s sleepwalk through Greenville notwithstanding, the task facing NC State still remains ahead of the Wolfpack, not in the rearview mirror.
The 7-0 loss to East Carolina on Wednesday was a disappointment, to say the least. NC State got home from its triumphant trip to Clemson at 4:30 Tuesday morning, and against the Pirates, the Pack still looked like a team desperately sleep-deprived.
“This was as sluggish as I’ve seen our team ever play,” Wolfpack head coach Elliott Avent told the Technician, the NC State student newspaper. “Maybe we just needed some rest. Coming back at 4:30 last night from Clemson may have just turned our clocks around. When we play with energy, we’re good.”
Mystifying as it was, the somnambulant performance in Greenville will be forgotten if NC State can build on the success at Clemson and take care of business this weekend against Duke at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. That will be easier said than done, for many reasons.
First of all, Duke pitches. The Blue Devils are third in the ACC in overall ERA at 2.93 and third in ERA in conference games at 2.98. Starting pitchers Andrew Istler (3-4, 2.89) and Michael Matuella (0-1, 0.82) give the Devils a potent 1-2 punch at the front of the rotation. Closer Robert Huber (3-0, 1.17) ranks among the ACC leaders with five saves.
Against an NC State team limping along with a .266 team batting average and averaging only 5.6 runs per game, that makes Duke a most dangerous opponent. The Wolfpack certainly broke out of its doldrums a bit in the Clemson series, but since the start of conference play, the Pack is hitting .250 and scoring 4.2 runs per game. State is hitting .242 in conference games, with a .313 on-base percentage and a .327 slugging percentage while scoring just 3.6 runs per game.
A second reason for State fans to fear this series is a natural tendency for teams with some tradition to overlook teams that don’t have that tradition. We don’t know that about this NC State team, but many past Wolfpack teams walked headlong into what are commonly known as “trap” games or series against supposedly weaker teams. Duke has victimized NC State several times in the past, as recently as 2011. Given the Blue Devils’ pitching and its own offensive woes, the Wolfpack can hardly afford to look past this series.
• NC State Vs. Duke, The Series: NC State holds a 151-120-1 record in the series vs. Duke. The Wolfpack has played Duke more times than any other opponent except for North Carolina. The Pack has played the Blue Devils 272 times on the diamond, 14 fewer times than it has played the Tar Heels.
NC State swept the three-game series from Duke a year ago, in the last series of the regular season, at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The Wolfpack won by scores of 5-2, 7-6 and 9-1. Bryan Adametz was 7-for-13 with four RBIs to lead the NC State offense, which batted .322 (38-for-118) for the series. Grant Clyde was 6-for-12 with three walks and scored six times. Jake Fincher was 6-for-13 with a double and three runs scored. Jake Armstrong only played in the middle game of the series but went 2-for-3 and drove in three runs.
On the mound, the Wolfpack posted a 1.93 ERA in 28 innings against the Devils a year ago, with the bullpen allowing just two runs in 12 ⅓ innings. Carlos Rodon started the second game of the series and struck out 15 in nine innings. Logan Jernigan started the finale and whiffed six in 4 ⅓ shutout innings. Wolfpack pitchers fanned 35 Blue Devils in the series.
The Wolfpack is 30-17 against Duke under head coach Elliott Avent. The Pack is 13-11 in games at Duke, including 18 games at Jack Coombs Field and six at the DBAP. Avent’s teams are 4-2 vs. the Blue Devils at the DBAP.
NC State comes into play this weekend with a six-game winning streak against Duke. Prior to last year’s sweep, however, Duke won the previous two series vs. NC State in Durham. Duke has won five of eight series in Durham vs. Avent’s Wolfpack.
• Thou Shalt Steal: Despite being clearly more aggressive on the basepaths at Clemson last weekend, the fact remains that, heading into the Duke series, NC State has attempted just 17 stolen bases and been successful 11 times in the last 24 games. The Wolfpack is 11th out of 14 ACC teams in both stolen bases and stolen-base attempts. In conference games, the Pack is 13th out of 14 teams in steals and attempts.
For a team whose speed is clearly its best offensive attribute, this shows a stunning lack of aggression on the basepaths. NC State stole a then-school-record 102 bases in 2012, then broke that mark by swiping 110 bags a year ago. The Wolfpack has 32 in as many games thus far in 2014, on pace to steal just 56 in the regular season.
For some perspective, there have been years in recent NC State history when 56 steals would be considered a track meet. The 2011 team stole 31 bases in 46 attempts, and the 2010 team stole 42 in 59 attempts. At the same time, those teams hit 37 and 98 home runs, respectively. The current Wolfpack has 17 home runs and is on a pace to hit 30 homers for the regular season, but has homered just once in the last five games.
• Rodon Has Company At Shutout Central: East Carolina’s 7-0 shutout of NC State on Wednesday marked the fourth time the Wolfpack has been blanked in 2014, but the first time in a game not started by Carlos Rodon. Rodon was on the hill when the Pack was blanked 3-0 in the season opener vs. Canisius, on March 1 when defending national champion UCLA shut out NC State 2-0, and on March 21 when Maryland whitewashed the Wolfpack 10-0.
• Hitting Streaks: Freshman infielder Andrew Knizner went 2-for-4 against ECU on Wednesday, accounting for a quarter of NC State’s hits and extending his hitting streak to eight games. In the streak, Knizner is batting .364 (12-for-33) with three doubles, two home runs and five RBIs. Knizner now has hitting streaks of 10, eight and five games this season and has hit safely in 25 of 29 games.
Meanwhile, infielder Logan Ratledge went 1-for-4 vs. the Pirates to extend his season-best hitting streak to six games. Ratledge is 7-for-25 (.280) in his streak.
• Welcome To The Party: Freshman lefthander Cody Beckman made his first college appearance Wednesday night at East Carolina. Beckman pitched the bottom of the eighth inning and worked a scoreless inning, walking one and striking out one.
• Time Of Game: NC State, at least in home games, is doing its part this season to keep people from complaining about the length of games. In 32 games, NC State has played just seven regulation games that lasted three hours or longer, and it should be duly noted that just one of those games was played at Doak Field at Dail Park, which has played host to 17 Wolfpack games thus far. The lone marathon at the Doak was the finale of the Miami series, a 12-5 defeat that lasted three hours and 19 minutes.
So for anyone who complains that college baseball games are too long, either tell the umpire to call the strike zone as spelled out in the rulebook (which, by the way, says absolutely nothing about individual umpires’ interpretation of that strike zone) or come to the Doak.
• Outfield Assists: NC State has seven outfield assists this year, including four from center fielder Jake Fincher. The Pack had three outfield assists in Wednesday night’s 7-0 snoozer of a loss at East Carolina, one each from Fincher, Garrett Suggs and Brett Austin.
• Turning It Around In April? Thank The Rookies: NC State had a brutal month of March, but is off to a solid start in April, which traditionally has been the Wolfpack’s strongest month under head coach Elliott Avent. The Pack is 4-2 since the start of the month, led by freshman infielders Andrew Knizner and Preston Palmeiro.
Palmeiro is hitting .412 (7-for-17) with a triple, four runs scored and two RBIs in April. He has a .545 on-base percentage for the month, and a .529 slugging average. Knizner is hitting .346 (9-for-26) with two doubles, a home run, three runs scored and four driven in. His on-base percentage for the month is .333, with a .538 slugging percentage.
Two other freshmen, outfielders Garrett Suggs and Nathan Hood, also have been hot the first week-plus of April. Suggs is hitting .364 (4-for-11) with a double and three runs scored, while Hood is 2-for-3 with a double and two runs scored in limited playing time. One other freshman, infielder Kyle Cavanaugh, is 1-for-3 in April.