This is the 10th post in The Unofficial Scorer’s All-Wolfpack Baseball Team, 1981-2016. Today, we look at starting pitchers.
Starting pitcher presented the most difficult decisions I had to make for selecting this team, beginning with how many starting pitchers to include. I finally decided on three first-teamers and three second-teamers. Why? Because college baseball teams build their pitching staffs and rosters around three-man starting rotations for weekend conference series. The next problem was that no matter what method I used, I could not break a tie for the final spot on the second team. And so there are four second-team starting pitchers instead of three, proving the old adage that you can never have enough pitching.
The three first-team starters are listed in order, 1-2-3. They were among the easiest choices I had to make here, although one of the three may prove to be a surprise to some, especially to more recent Wolfpack fans. I listed the second-team starters in alphabetical order to avoid revealing the names of the final two. I should also mention that there were several others who just missed making this list, more so than at any other position.
To recap how this team was selected, current players and players who finished their eligibility prior to 1981 were not eligible. Players who began their college career before 1981 but finished in 1981, ’82 or ’83 were eligible, with their pre-1981 achievements more or less grandfathered into this. This affected several players from the 1981 and ’82 teams.
At the end of the day, both objective analysis and subjective opinion played a role in determining who made this team. I’ve taken painstaking care in going over this to make sure I’ve included everyone who is worthy. If, however, I left off a deserving name, it was wholly inadvertent. And if your favorite player did not make this team, it was not intended in any way to diminish that player. NC State has had more than its share of great players. I couldn’t list everyone.
Coming Sunday: Relief pitchers.
• First Team —Carlos Rodon (2012-14)
This one’s easy, right? The most dominant college pitcher of his time and the best and most dominant pitcher in school history, Carlos Rodon’s career is recent enough that everyone remembers how great he was. Rodon stood out from the crowd pretty much from the first day of fall practice his freshman year. One particular day that autumn, however, transformed him from a high-end prospect to an instant All-American. It happened during a bullpen session with then-pitching coach Tom Holliday, who suggested that Rodon stop throwing his slider at normal velocity and instead throw it as hard as he could. “Throw the <expletive deleted> out of it,” Holliday reportedly told Rodon. Just like that, an 80-82-mph slider became a devastating wipeout pitch at 88-90. That slider, coupled with a 92-96 mph fastball, made Rodon lethal. Hitters, beginning with unsuspecting teammates in fall scrimmages, never stood a chance. Rodon went 9-0 with a 1.57 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 114 2/3 innings as a freshman. That earned him pretty much all-everything in college baseball. He was consensus first-team All-America, consensus first-team Freshman All-America, National Freshman of the Year, first-team All-ACC, ACC Pitcher of the Year, ACC Rookie of the Year, and one of three finalists for the Golden Spikes Award, presented annually to college baseball’s best player. He led the conference in ERA and innings pitched. After touring the world with Team USA that summer, Rodon dominated again as a sophomore, going 10-3 with a 2.99 ERA and a school-record 184 strikeouts in 132 1/3 innings, an average of 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Consensus first-team All-America for the second year in a row (he is NC State’s only two-time first-team All-American), Rodon’s Herculean performance helped lead the 2013 Wolfpack to a school-record 50 victories and the program’s first College World Series berth in 45 years. Following another tour with Team USA, this time as the college all-star squad’s unquestioned ace, Rodon’s junior season was something of a disappointment, for reasons mostly beyond his control. For evidence that a pitcher’s won-lost record can be completely meaningless, look no further than Rodon’s 6-7 mark in 2014. All season, fans and media members kept asking what was wrong with Rodon, as if he were pitching poorly. If anything, he was pitching as great as ever. The problem was lack of run support, plain and simple. Read the following sentence carefully: In Rodon’s seven losses in 2014, his teammates scored a grand total of two runs. Read that one again, just to be sure you got it. In his seven losses, Rodon’s teammates managed to score all of two runs on 33 hits, nine walks, a .147 batting average, a .187 on-base percentage and a .161 slugging percentage in 63 offensive innings (that’s a 0.29 ERA for the opposing pitchers). No one can win with offensive support as anemic as that. Cy Young would lose with support as bad as that. Rodon’s ERA in those seven losses was 1.84. He struck out 66 and walked 17 in 49 innings (7.0 IP per start and 12.1 K’s per nine innings). Obviously, there was nothing wrong with Rodon. Other than the aforementioned lack of run support and some lousy defense behind him, he was pretty much the same guy in 2014 that he was the previous two seasons. With the pressure of the draft hanging over his head and all of college baseball watching because of his by-then-outsized reputation, Rodon probably exceeded unreasonable expectations, only no one noticed because he had a losing record. He finished the year with a 2.01 ERA in 98 2/3 innings. He allowed 84 hits, struck out 117 and walked 31. Of course, his won-lost record precluded him from All-America consideration, which was unfortunate, but the ACC’s coaches knew better and voted him first-team All-ACC for the third time in as many years. That made him just the second NC State pitcher (along with Joey Devine), and the only NC State starting pitcher, ever to make first-team All-ACC three times. Rodon finished his career with a 25-10 record and a 2.24 ERA. He ranks sixth in school history in wins. He ranks second with 49 starts, third with 345 2/3 innings pitched, and holds both the single-season (184 in 2013) and career (436) records for strikeouts. One final note on Rodon. In six career starts vs. arch-rival North Carolina, which went to the College World Series six times from 2006 to 2013, Rodon went 2-1 with a 0.97 ERA. In 46 1/3 innings vs. the Tar Heels, he struck out 57 and walked 13. While the Wolfpack somehow lost four of those six starts, North Carolina didn’t score the go-ahead run in three of them until Rodon had left the game. Again, lack of run support was his undoing. In those three no-decisions vs. the Heels, NC State scored a grand total of four runs in 41 innings. In the one loss, at the 2013 College World Series, he started on three days rest (as opposed to the customary six) and allowed just one earned run in five innings. Predictably, the Wolfpack got shut out. In two classic extra-inning ACC Tournament matchups vs. UNC — 14 innings in 2012 in Greensboro and 18 innings in 2013 in Durham — he allowed one run on five hits in 19 innings. That lone run was unearned. And of course, NC State managed to lose both games, but not until long after Rodon had hit the showers. If you figure Rodon should have won five of the seven games he lost in 2014 (he got hit hard in a loss at Clemson that year, and allowed eight runs, all unearned but mostly deserved, in an ugly loss at Maryland) plus the three no-decisions against UNC, then his career won-lost record improves to 33-5. I’m trying like crazy to avoid hypotheticals here and I understand there are other factors that could have affected the outcome of any of those games. Still, this is low-hanging fruit. That’s eight games he pretty much dominated and either lost or came away empty-handed because of no run support, poor defensive play, or both. They say it’s better to be lucky than good. Carlos Rodon is Exhibit A. The Chicago White Sox selected Rodon with the third overall pick in the 2014 draft and have not regretted it. He was in the big leagues to stay in less than a year.
• First Team — Matt Donahue (1991-92)
I’m not sure anything surprises me more than how many NC State baseball fans have never even heard of Matt Donahue. In a message-board thread a few years ago asking fans to name the best Wolfpack pitchers they ever saw, Donahue got nary a mention. That is astounding. Part of the problem is that Donahue pitched his last game in a Wolfpack uniform more than 24 years ago. It also doesn’t help that, as a junior college transfer, he only pitched two seasons in Raleigh, and at a time when NC State baseball wasn’t exactly a hot ticket. Still, no one this side of Carlos Rodon ever pitched two seasons like the two Donahue authored in 1991 and ’92. Donahue’s first season at NC State was the last season before the Atlantic Coast Conference adopted its current scheduling format of three-game weekend series for all conference games. By 1991, most ACC schools did, in fact, play three-game conference series, but the Big Four schools in North Carolina frequently played one another in single games on weekdays throughout the course of the season. As a result, Donahue was never just a once-a-week starter. Head coach Ray Tanner drew up his rotation to allow Donahue as many starts as possible, especially in big games, which was perfect for Donahue. He often pitched on four days’ rest, actually preferred working on three days’ rest, and was unafraid of pitching on no rest at all. At the 1991 NCAA East Regional in Gainesville, Fla., he started an elimination game against host and top-seeded Florida on just two days’ rest. Despite the short rest and three — count ’em, three — rain delays totaling nearly six hours, Donahue nursed a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning, striking out 10. An unearned run in the ninth sent the game to extra innings. Donahue left the game after nine and the Wolfpack lost 3-2 in the 10th. The year before, he started the championship game of the Junior College World Series on one day’s rest and took a no-hitter into the seventh inning before eventual champion San Jacinto erupted for five runs. Donahue is the only pitcher in NC State history to start at least 19 games in a season twice. His single-season innings-pitched totals of 159 1/3 in 1991 and 134 2/3 in 1992 rank first and second in school history. He also liked to finish what he started, pitching 13 complete games, tied for fifth in school history. He completed nine of his 20 starts in 1991, leading the conference in complete games. In 39 career starts, he never once failed to pitch into the sixth inning. In two years, Donahue won an astonishing 27 games — 13 in 1991 and 14 in 1992, which to this day are the two winningest seasons by a Wolfpack pitcher ever. He overcame the lack of a dominant fastball (he usually pitched at 83-86 mph, occasionally brushing the upper 80s) with superb command of an arsenal of pitches that included both a two- and four-seam fastball, a slider, a curve and a changeup. The offspeed pitches all were filthy. He threw all five pitches from multiple arm slots, and was especially fond of jellylegging righthanded batters with a sidearmed slider. Until Rodon came along, Donahue was NC State’s greatest strikeout artist. He fanned 138 in 1991 and 147 in ’92, leading the ACC both years. Only Rodon (184 in 2013) ever notched more strikeouts in a single season. Donahue also had a mean streak. The victim of a childhood lawnmower accident that mangled his left calf and left him with a pronounced limp, he pitched with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and led the conference in hit batters both seasons. He was not displeased by this. After earning second-team All-ACC honors with a 13-5 record and a 3.45 ERA as a junior in 1991, Donahue went 14-2 with a 2.41 ERA in ’92, leading NC State to its last ACC championship. He stifled Maryland in the tournament opener, then throttled Clemson on three days’ rest in the championship game to win tournament MVP honors. He was first-team All-ACC and second-team All-America. Tanner paid Donahue his greatest compliment a few years ago when he favorably compared him to former South Carolina lefthander Michael Roth, who pitched the Gamecocks to consecutive national championships (2010-11) and is probably the greatest pitcher in College World Series history. The comparison is appropriate and Tanner should know since he coached them both. Roth had the advantages of being lefthanded and being backed by a superior supporting cast (the Gamecocks not only won national championships in 2010 and 2011, but also finished second to Arizona in 2012), but they had much in common. In particular, both dominated hitters with marginal fastballs, filthy offspeed pitches, pinpoint command, lots of smarts, some orneriness, and plenty of guts and determination. Matt Donahue was the best NC State pitcher I saw in 31 years, until Carlos Rodon strolled onto campus in August 2011. Donahue’s still No. 2, and it took one of college baseball’s all-time greats to knock him from the top spot.
• First Team — Terry Harvey (1992-95)
Apparently, the transition from high school to college baseball presented little challenge to Terry Harvey. He came within two outs of throwing a no-hitter in his first college start. He finished his freshman season with a 6-2 record, a 2.48 ERA and a pair of saves, and helped pitch the Wolfpack to its last ACC championship. He was a consensus Freshman All-America selection. A year later, he earned third-team All-America honors from Collegiate Baseball magazine after going 10-3 with a 3.26 ERA. On March 26 of that season, he threw a complete-game no-hitter vs. Florida State, the first no-hitter ever thrown against the Seminoles, and this was not one of those no-hitters featuring an abundance of line-drive outs and shoestring catches. Harvey dominated the Seminoles that day. In his first two seasons, he was easily one of the best pitchers in the ACC, winning 16 games with a combined ERA of 2.88. Statistically, he was not as dominant as a junior and senior, but he still ranked among the conference’s best and most respected pitchers. His ERA ballooned to 5.16 in ’94 and 4.77 in ’95, although that was in large part due to a bullpen that head coach Ray Tanner was reluctant to call on, especially with his ace on the mound. To his credit, the only stat Harvey cared about was winning, and he absorbed more than a few meaningless late-inning runs for the good of the team. He was the Wolfpack’s unquestioned ace in 1993, ’94 and ’95, and was a workhorse throughout his career. He pitched at least 96 innings all four seasons and cleared the 100-inning mark three times, averaging nearly seven innings per start his last three years. For his career, he averaged fewer than three walks and more than eight strikeouts per nine innings. He is one of just four NC State pitchers ever to win 10 or more games in a season twice, and fell one win shy of a trifecta when he won nine games with a mediocre (to put it charitably) team as a senior in 1995. Over the course of Harvey’s four-year career, the numbers piled up. He finished his time at NC State as the school’s career leader in wins (35), innings pitched (426), games started (60) and strikeouts (386). Carlos Rodon blew past him in career strikeouts by 50 in his three-year career, but Harvey still holds the career records for wins, innings and starts. He ranks fifth in ACC history in wins, fourth in innings and ninth in strikeouts. His 10 wins in both 1993 and ’94 are tied for ninth in school history for a single season, and his 1995 season included career highs of 17 starts (tied for 6th in school history), 120 innings pitched (6th) and 131 strikeouts (6th). Harvey not only was a standout on the mound, he also started at quarterback for the Wolfpack football team for three seasons, making him one of the greatest two-sport athletes in school history. In 2003, he was voted to the ACC’s 50-man 50th Anniversary team.
• Second Team — Brett Black (1996-97)
Brett Black defied almost every stereotype of a successful starting pitcher. If you ask the scouts, they’ll tell you their ideal starter would: a.) stand about 6-foot-5 with a lean, projectable body, b.) throw real hard, c.) throw at least one good offspeed pitch, and d.) throw strikes. Black barely stood 6-feet tall. He was listed at 201 pounds but weighed well north of that. He basically threw one pitch, a mid-80s fastball. The one thing Black did that most successful pitchers do was throw strikes. He pounded the strike zone. His career strikeout-to-walk ratio was 7.24-to-1, including an 8.91-to-1 mark as a senior in 1997. At one point in 1997, he faced 143 consecutive batters without issuing a walk, and when he broke that streak it was with an intentional pass (ironic, considering head coach Elliott Avent’s utter disdain for intentional walks). We’ve already discussed the misleading nature of won-lost records. Good starting pitchers frequently get punished with undeserved losses (see Carlos Rodon in 2014). Poor run support will do that. With that said, however, bad starters seldom get rewarded with undeserved wins because bad starting pitchers seldom last the five innings required to qualify for a W. Coaches, especially Avent, just don’t have the patience, or the stomach, for it. So when a pitcher piles up the wins in near-record-setting fashion, the odds are he’s pitching pretty well. Such was the case with Brett Black. He is one of just four Wolfpack pitchers — along with Matt Donahue, Terry Harvey and Jeff Hartsock — ever to win 10 or more games in a season twice. He is one of just three — along with Donahue (twice) and Michael Rogers — to win 12 or more games in a single season (12-3 in 1996), giving him 22 wins in his two-year career. Black made 39 career appearances, 31 of them starts, and threw 13 complete games, tied for fifth most in school history. In 238 2/3 innings, he allowed 237 hits, struck out 210 and walked just 29. Of all the starting pitchers considered for this team, Brett Black is the only one to pitch 100 or more innings in a season and walk fewer than 20. And he did it twice. He averaged 7.92 strikeouts and just 1.09 walks per nine innings for his career, and did it throwing about 90 percent fastballs. Clemson came to NC State in mid-April 1997, and Black pitched the second game of the series. As the late Bob Bradley, longtime Clemson SID and still the Tigers’ baseball SID in ’97, told the story, then-head coach Jack Leggett lectured his hitters on the bus ride to Doak Field, telling them that Black threw almost all fastballs, mostly in the mid-80s, and rarely issued a walk. The message, Leggett said, was be aggressive, look for something early in the count, and swing. Get too selective and he’ll bury you. So much for following the scouting report. I don’t remember all the particulars of the game, but Black pitched into the eighth inning, threw almost all fastballs, and struck out 10, eight of them looking, in a 17-4 laugher for the Wolfpack. That was Brett Black in a nutshell. He may not have looked like the prototypical dominant starting pitcher, but in a results-driven game, he absolutely pitched like one.
• Second Team — Jeff Hartsock (1986-88)
Jeff Hartsock was NC State’s best pitcher of the 1980s, and nearly 30 years since pitching his last game in a Wolfpack uniform he still ranks as one of the school’s all-time greats. A slender righthander from Fairfield, Ohio, Hartsock was a workhorse from the very start, winning eight, 10 and 11 games, respectively, and leaving his name all over the school record book. He ranks third in school history with 29 wins, second with 24 complete games, fourth with 316 1/3 innings pitched, sixth with 266 strikeouts, and tied for eighth with 42 games started. He is one of just four pitchers in school history — along with Mike Caldwell, Joey Devine and Carlos Rodon — to earn All-ACC honors three times. He helped lead NC State to three consecutive NCAA regional appearances for the first since since 1973-75, and was the unquestioned staff ace all three years. He is one of just four pitchers in school history — along with Matt Donahue, Terry Harvey and Brett Black — to win 10 games or more in a season twice. He and Caldwell are the only pitchers in Wolfpack history to lead the ACC in complete games three times. Hartsock was first-team all-conference and a Freshman All-American in 1986 after compiling an 8-3 record with a 3.07 ERA. He completed nine of his 13 starts, worked 99 2/3 innings and struck out 81 with 31 walks. The nine complete games tied Caldwell’s school record for freshmen, a record that will likely stand forever. For some perspective, NC State pitchers threw just nine complete games over the last five years combined. A year later, Hartsock went 10-4 with a 2.66 ERA, completed eight of 13 starts, pitched 98 innings and struck out 84 with 30 walks. His 10 wins that year are tied for ninth in the school record book. Again, he was first-team all-conference. Hartsock had his best season as a junior, setting a then-school record with 11 wins (tied that same year by teammate Brad Rhodes). He finished with an 11-3 record, a 2.88 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 118 2/3 innings, all career bests. He completed seven of 16 starts. And somehow that only got him second-team All-ACC. Go figure. The Los Angeles Dodgers thought enough of Hartsock to select him in the seventh round of the 1988 MLB Draft. He reached the big leagues for four games in 1992 with the Chicago Cubs.
• Second Team — Michael Rogers (2002-04)
Mike Rogers and Vern Sterry will always be joined at the hip in Wolfpack baseball lore. In 2003 and ’04, they formed one of the most formidable 1-2 pitching punches in college baseball, winning 41 games between them those two seasons, making them the winningest pair of teammates in consecutive seasons in NC State program history. During their two-year reign, Sterry and Rogers (or Rogers and Sterry, if you prefer) pitched the Wolfpack to its first top 10 ranking in a decade (No. 2 in late April and early May 2003), a pair of NCAA regionals, and its first-ever NCAA Super Regional (2003 at Coral Gables). Rogers, who made seven appearances and six starts as a true freshman in 2002 (3-2, 3.63) before being sidelined with an injury, became just the third (and still the most recent) pitcher in school history to win 12 or more games in a season — along with Matt Donahue (twice) and Brett Black — when he went 12-3 with a 3.02 ERA in 2003. He started 17 games, worked 125 innings and struck out 113 with 34 walks. The 17 starts is tied for sixth in school history while the 125 innings ranks fourth. He earned second-team All-ACC and third-team All-America honors, joining Sterry and closer Joey Devine as the first and only trio of NC State pitchers to earn All-America in the same season. A year later, with much of the ’03 team’s offensive firepower either drafted or graduated, Rogers pitched much better yet won three fewer games, posting a 9-4 record with a 3.08 ERA. He again made 17 starts, worked 117 innings (9th in school annals) and struck out 110 with just 21 walks. He held opponents to a career-low .209 batting average. On May 15, 2004, Rogers and Sterry each pitched a complete-game, three-hit shutout in a doubleheader sweep of defending national champion Texas, in Austin. The Longhorns entered play that week ranked No. 1 nationally. To this day, that is the only time Texas has ever been shut out in both games of a doubleheader at home. Rogers finished his career with a 24-9 record and a 3.13 ERA. He made 42 appearances and 40 starts, pitched 281 2/3 innings and struck out 264. He is tied for seventh in school history in wins, tied for sixth in innings pitched, tied for 10th in starts and is seventh all by himself in strikeouts. The Oakland Athletics selected Rogers in the second round of the 2004 MLB Draft. He advanced as high as Double-A in 2006 and ’07 before finishing his professional career with a couple of season in independent baseball.
• Second Team — Vern Sterry (2003-04)
Vern Sterry was the first starting pitcher in program history to earn first-team All-America honors, turning the trick in 2003 when he went 11-0 with a 3.25 ERA and 124 strikeouts (7th most in a single season by a Wolfpack pitcher) in 116 1/3 innings (10th). He made 17 starts (tied for 6th) and held opposing hitters to a .230 batting average. Sterry was the first Wolfpack starter ever to begin a season by winning his first 10 decisions, and remains so to this day. His 11-0 mark in ’03 represents the school record for consecutive wins in a single season, and while won-lost record for a pitcher is often misleading, that is not the case with Sterry. Week in and week out, he gave his team a chance to win. Just three times in 17 starts as a junior in ’03 did he fail to pitch at least six innings. He allowed more than three earned runs in a start just four times. The Wolfpack won 15 of his 17 starts, with both of the two losses getting away long after Sterry handed the ball off to the bullpen. A year later, he went 9-2 with a 2.20 ERA and a .220 opponents’ batting average, with pretty much the same line of secondary stats. He made 16 starts and pitched at least six innings in all but two of them. He allowed more than three earned runs in a start just twice. He won the first five decisions of his senior campaign to run his winning streak to 16 games, a school record that still stands. NC State won 11 of his 16 starts. Sterry’s name does not appear often in the school record book, in large part because, as a juco transfer, he was only here two years. While he finished his career with a 20-2 record and a 2.73 ERA, his 20 wins do not rank in the school’s career top 10 list, falling three wins short. It should be noted, however, that every NC State pitcher with more career wins than Sterry pitched at least three seasons, with the exception of Matt Donahue (27 wins in 1991-92) and Brett Black (22 wins in 1996-97). Sterry’s greatest day in a Wolfpack uniform came on May 15, 2004, when he and Mike Rogers each pitched a complete-game, three-hit shutout in a doubleheader sweep of then-top-ranked and defending national champion Texas, in Austin. To this day, it is the only time Texas has ever been shut out in both games of a doubleheader at home, and that sweep probably pushed NC State off the bubble and into the 2004 NCAA Tournament. A craftsman on the mound, Sterry seldom threw his fastball at maximum velocity, usually pitching in the upper 80s and relying on a solid curveball and a changeup that seemed to die of exhaustion on its way to home plate. Many area scouts graded Sterry’s changeup a 65 or even a 70 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale, which is almost unheard of. Opposing hitters knew all about the Sterry changeup. Knowing about it and hitting it, of course, were two different things.