Monday, April 14, 2014

Rodon’s Frustration Boils Over

After weeks of listening to people question his velocity, his command and pitch selection, and generally doubt his competence as a pitcher, Carlos Rodon turned a corner Friday night against Duke, then let his frustration get the better of him afterwards.

Rodon’s stuff against Duke was his best of the year. Told by head coach Elliott Avent to shelve his cut-fastball and use his slider and changeup more, Rodon’s only problem against the Blue Devils was fastball command, a problem all season and the one legitimate difference between the Rodon of 2014 and a year ago.

His velocity against Duke was his best of the season. His fastball sat at 94-96 mph, with several 97s and 98s. His slider was filthy, sitting at 86-88, even ticking 90 mph once, with a sharp, late break. That pitch, thrown like that, is just about unhittable. Rodon could have told the Duke hitters the slider was coming and it’s doubtful they’d have had any more success with it than they did.

Instead, the Blue Devils took advantage of mistakes Rodon made with his fastball. David Perkins took a 96 mph heater up in the strike zone and pounded it about 410 feet for a home run to straightaway center field in the bottom of the second. An inning later Mike Rosenfeld singled sharply to right on a 92-mph fastball that also was up in the zone. He came around to score Duke’s only other run of the game.

Rodon allowed two runs on six hits through four innings, and then — after a dugout discussion with assistant coach Brian Ward — made a midgame adjustment, lowing the target level of his eyes during his delivery, forcing himself to get the fastball down in the strike zone.

The adjustment worked like magic. Rodon retired 11 of the next 12 men he faced, five of them on swinging strikes, before hitting Chris Marconcini with a pitch, his last pitch of the night. He walked one, did not allow a hit, and allowed just three balls hit out of the infield during that four-inning stretch.

Rodon’s final numbers were two runs, only one earned run, on six hits in 7 ⅔ innings. He struck out 12 and walked three. And dropped to a still hard-to-believe 2-6 with the loss. After being shut out just three times the previous two seasons combined, NC State has been shut out a school-record five times in 2014. Rodon was on the mound for four of this year’s five shutouts and two of the three in 2012 and ’13.

In the postgame media gathering outside the NC State dugout, Rodon was grilled about Baseball America’s decision to drop him from No. 1 overall to No. 3 in its June draft projections, about his frustration at the lack of run support he’s received, about his supposed loss of velocity this season, and about his pitch selection and pitch location. Eventually, his frustration gave way to petulance, and this bulletin-board jewel rolled off his tongue:

“When I leave the ball up, I beat myself,” Rodon said of the ball Perkins crushed in the second inning. “I don’t know who it was that hit the 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, so that happens.”

Laura Keeley, Duke beat writer for The News & Observer and a 2011 Duke graduate, went out of her way in her game story to make Rodon look bad with that quote — not that he needed help from her or anyone else — and her characterization of Rodon as smirking before he delivered the pitch. That was unnecessary and bordered on unprofessional, but to be fair, at least she quoted him accurately.

Rodon didn’t exactly handle the question about Baseball America and his draft status with aplomb either, derisively saying it was just the opinion of a bunch of writers — this to a gaggle of writers, including a Baseball America staffer — not that Rodon should give a shit about his draft status at this point anyway, especially after his team just suffered a difficult, demoralizing and very damaging defeat.

In Rodon’s defense, however, it’s almost impossible for the rest of us to comprehend the level of frustration he must be feeling these days. Amazingly, he’s tied for eighth in the nation with six losses. Think about that one, a two-time first-team All-American tied with 19 pitchers who have absolutely nothing in common with him other than being charged with six losses as of April 13, 2014. It’s Bizarro-World for Rodon these days.

In his six losses, Rodon has allowed nine earned runs in 40 innings, a 2.03 ERA. He’s struck out 51, allowed 36 hits and walked 15, holding opposing hitters to a .232 average. Unfortunately, his teammates have performed miserably when he’s been on the mound, scoring twice with just two extra-base hits in the six losses, good for a .155 team batting average, a .200 on-base percentage and a .165 slugging percentage. Defensively, the Wolfpack has fielded .931 in Rodon’s losses, committing 15 errors in the six games, leading to 14 unearned runs.

Who wouldn’t be frustrated?

Friday night against Duke it was more of the same. The Wolfpack managed just three hits against the combined shutout pitching of Drew Van Orden and Robert Huber, striking out 11 times and advancing just four runners to scoring position. One of those runners was thrown out at home plate in the third inning, recklessly trying to score on a fly ball to shallow left field. He was out by plenty, and the fly-ball double play killed a first-and-third, no-out threat for the Pack. And that was State’s last real scoring threat of the game. The Wolfpack also committed a pair of errors, one of which led directly to Duke’s second run.

Still, Rodon was electric much of the night, flashing the dominant, almost unhittable stuff that wowed college baseball down the stretch in 2014. Maybe it was the Durham Bulls Athletic Park effect, a ballpark Rodon clearly loves. In his last four appearances there, counting a victory over Cuba with Team USA last summer, Rodon allowed five earned runs — all of them to Duke — on 15 hits in 33 ⅓ innings for a 1.35 ERA, with 52 strikeouts and eight walks. That’s more than 14 strikeouts and just 2.2 walks per nine innings.

In the final four innings in each of his appearances at the DBAP vs. Duke, in 2013 and ’14,  Rodon retired 24 of 26 batters faced, striking out 14, all swinging, and did not allow a hit or a run. His performance against the Blue Devils last year jump-started his incredible stretch run. A similar result would be most welcome this time around, although it won’t matter a bit if his teammates don’t start scoring some runs for him. Soon.

Sunday’s Meltdown At The DBAP
In the past two weeks, we discussed at length why quality relief pitchers don’t get anywhere near the credit they deserve, and why showing Sunday baseball games on Monday night on ESPNU is a preposterous idea. NC State’s epic collapse at Duke on Sunday proved both points conclusively.

Regardless of the outcome, regardless of your team allegiance, that was a horrible game. The evidence is just irrefutable. The pitchers issued 15 walks, hit two batters and threw two wild pitches. The defenses committed three errors (seemed like more) leading to three unearned runs. There was a passed ball, a steal of third base when the third baseman was caught napping and didn’t cover the base, and a steal of second when the runner was picked off but beat the play anyway.

Twelve pitchers combined to allow 21 runs on 27 hits in 17 ⅓ innings. Each team ran its third starter out there and while Patrick Peterson pitched well for NC State, the Wolfpack roughed up Duke starter Michael Matuella for four runs on five hits and three walks in five innings. The bullpens were predictably worn out from the first two games of the series, and 10 relief pitchers combined to allow 15 runs, 13 of them earned, on 17 hits and 10 walks in nine innings.

It was Sunday baseball at its worst, three hours and 45 minutes of your life that you won’t get back. NC State took a 10-4 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning and lost, thanks to some frightful relief pitching. As former Wolfpack coach Sam Esposito often said after games like that, “We set the game back about 50 years today,” yet this is the product the ACC wants ESPNU to broadcast on Monday nights.

And speaking of bad relief pitching, six days ago in this space, we argued that relief pitchers are like offensive linemen — they’re vital but no one appreciates them until they’re gone. That’s certainly the case for NC State this season.

Duke scored in every inning after Peterson left the game, including five runs in the bottom of the eighth and two more in the ninth. State relievers, helpless to stem the Duke tide, allowed nine runs on nine hits, seven walks, a hit batter and a three-base throwing error that was caused by a pitcher trying to field a sacrifice bunt as if the ball were a live hand grenade. The first five Duke batters in the eighth inning all reached base and scored on a pair of home runs. Wolfpack relievers made 97 pitches in 3 ⅓ innings.

Allow for a rare use of the first person here: In the last eight months, I’ve told several people that if you made a list of the three most important pitchers (most important, not necessarily the best) on the 2013 NC State baseball team, Carlos Rodon would not be on the list. That statement was usually met with disbelief, but Sunday’s game was yet one more reminder of just how critical relief pitching is, especially in college baseball.

A good many of those same people were at the DBAP on Sunday and they still probably don’t get it, that because of Josh Easley, Grant Sasser and Chris Overman, that kind of meltdown wasn’t even remotely possible a year ago. Would. Not. Happen. Those three anchored what probably was the best bullpen in the country, leading the 2013 Wolfpack to the College World Series. If NC State took a 10-4 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning of a game a year ago, 10-4 would be the final score.

A baseball team with a bad bullpen is a bad baseball team. This Wolfpack team’s bullpen has several useful parts, especially Patrick and Eric Peterson, Andrew Woeck and D.J. Thomas. No one on this staff, however, can touch Easley, Sasser or Overman, and without those three or others like them, it’s just about impossible to envision this team digging out of the crater it’s dug for itself.

• Famous Meltdowns Of The Past: Thanks to aluminum bats, especially prior to the BBCOR era, big leads are rarely safe in college baseball. This year’s Wolfpack can take some solace in knowing that Sunday’s loss to Duke ranks down the list of the worst blown leads in school history.

The worst, by far, was to Clemson in 1995. With future first-round draft pick Corey Lee dealing in the opening game of a three-game series at Doak Field, NC State led 15-4 after eight innings. When the Clemson leadoff hitter struck out to start the top of the ninth, Clemson coach Jack Leggett sent five consecutive pinch-hitters to the plate. All five reached base safely. In fact, all five batted twice in the inning, an 11-run nightmare that tied the score at 15-15. The Tigers won 17-15 in 11 innings.

Three years later, the Wolfpack took an eight-run lead into the top of the eighth inning against Georgia Tech at the Doak, but couldn’t get out of the eighth inning before the Yellow Jackets had come back to take a two-run lead. Tech won 17-13.

Not that any of that should make Elliott Avent or anyone else associated with Sunday's loss feel any better.

• Back-To-Back Shutouts: Duke’s 2-0 shutout of NC State on April 11, combined with a 7-0 blanking at East Carolina two days earlier, marked the first time the Wolfpack was shutout in consecutive games in 42 years, since 1972, the next-to-last year of the wood-bat era in college baseball. NC State was shut out in back-to-back games by North Carolina and Clemson that season. The Pack played 2,244 games since then before being blanked in consecutive games last week.

• Five Shutouts In One Season: Thanks to some spotty record-keeping, this cannot be said with full assurance, but the evidence strongly suggests that Duke’s shutout of NC State on Friday night, the Wolfpack’s fifth blanking of the season, set a new school record, breaking the old record of four, first set (we believe) in 1948 and matched four times since then.

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