OMAHA, Neb. — Two days before the most important game of his life, Carlos Rodon walked into a hotel in downtown Omaha and appeared unfazed by all that surrounded him. N.C. State fans crowded the lobby in the Hilton. In one corner, a vendor sold Wolfpack red shirts with the College World Series logo.
Little kids stood and stared at Rodon and his teammates as they filed in off a bus. They had been at the T.D. Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series, where theyd taken batting practice, met with ESPN for a photo and video shoot and spent a half-hour signing autographs for fans.
Kind of long, but it was cool, Rodon, the Wolfpacks sophomore left-handed pitcher, said on Friday. A couple of interviews, little video stuff. Scoreboard things, pictures. It was a cool process to go through, and signing autographs for the fans was pretty humbling, you know.
I was in that situation at some point, too. I was that little kid that wanted an autograph.
N.C. State hasnt been in the College World Series since 1968, a long drought that ends today when the Wolfpack plays against North Carolina for the fourth time this season. Yet Rodon has treated the buildup to Sunday as if its his team, and not UNC, that has been here six times in the past eight seasons.
Rodon has appreciated the attention this week, but he hasnt been caught up in it. The college baseball players who make it here are celebrities hounded by autograph-seekers young and old, gawked at by girls walking down the street. Rodon said he has remained mellow above the swirl of it all.
He has taken a similar approach to pitching against the Tar Heels. This will be the third time this season Rodon starts against UNC, and the first since he allowed one hit in 10 innings of the Wolfpacks eventual 18-inning loss against the Tar Heels in the ACC tournament in Durham.
To some, the circumstances Rodon will encounter on Sunday might be overwhelming. He will be starting against his schools fiercest rival, on his sports grandest stage, in the Wolfpacks first College World Series game in 45 years. Rodon thought about some of that on Friday and offered a slight shrug and a smile.
I just love playing against Carolina no stutter, he said, first explaining why his performances against UNC have been among his best. I like rising to the occasion. Thats the thing I do. And I take pride in rising to the occasion.
Staying in the zone
When N.C. State coach Elliott Avent and his staff of assistants began recruiting Rodon at Holly Springs High, it wasnt difficult to envision his collegiate success. Rodons physical talents were obvious enough, as was his ability to pitch with power and precision.
What Avent and his staff didnt understand at the time, though, was the mental aspect of Rodons game. Before games, Rodon rarely expresses excitement or emotion. He remains, to use his word, mellow.
But there are times when Rodon is pitching, Avent said, when Rodon shuts out the outside world. In those moments his focus is so great that his teammates dont feel comfortable going up to him and talking with him in the dugout.
For lack of better way to describe it, Avent simply calls it the zone. He said Rodon is different.
You can approach him during a game, Avent said, but you better pick the right spot because theres times when you cant approach him even me.
Rodon arrived at N.C. State in 2011 as a well-known prospect. His new teammates were anxious to see what all the hype was about.
Tarran Senay, the Wolfpacks senior first baseman, first faced Rodon for the first time that fall, during practice. Senay said he understood after one pitch that Rodon possessed something rare. In that moment, Senay said he believed Rodon would become the kind of big-game pitcher he has developed into.
He was sitting about 95(mph) in the fall, Senay said. So it wasnt fun to face.
Teammates became believers
Some of Rodons other teammates took longer to be convinced. They werent skeptical, necessarily, but they came to be believers over time.
Ethan Ogburn, the Wolfpacks senior right-handed pitcher, was one of them. As impressed as he might have been with what Rodon did during the fall of his freshman year, and then the early part of that season, Ogburn said the true turning point came midway through the 2012 season.
It was probably the middle of last year, Ogburn said. He almost just flipped a switch and nobody hit him from then until the end of the season. Because he kind of realized what he meant to us.
Avent hasnt built his best team on Rodon alone. Yet Rodon is the dominant force that has driven the Wolfpack to make history. The most defining moment of his life at least that part of which he has spent on a baseball field will come on Sunday.
Rodon anticipates he might be nervous for a brief time on Sunday. He will be standing near the middle of a stadium with a capacity of about 24,000, and most eyes will focus on him. Rodon is likely to be among the highest selections in the 2014 Major League Baseball draft. One day he might regularly pitch in front of crowds as large, and perhaps with more at stake. But for now nothing he has done before will compare to this.
Im going to be nervous on my first pitch for sure, he said. But after thats done, the jitters are going to be gone.
It has been that way for a while now, from his time as a dominant freshman in 2012 to his days at Holly Springs High. There was the memorable start against UNC in the ACC tournament in Durham last month, which followed another against UNC in the ACC tournament in Greensboro last season.
At his best in big games
Over time, a trend has emerged. Rodon has usually been at his best against the best of his competition.
Ask Rodon to name the first important start of his life, and hell describe a game during his freshman year of high school. It was Holly Springs against Smithfield-Selma. A conference game, a big game.
And I struck out 15 or something, Rodon said with a smile. Something crazy. Something unheard of. That was probably one of the best games Ive ever pitched.
Maybe that was the start of Rodons mastery in these kinds of moments. His success against UNC makes it seem like the Tar Heels bring out his best.
Avent doesnt necessarily believe that, though. To him, its the stage that brings out Rodons best. Not the opponent. Ogburn, the Wolfpacks No. 2 starter behind Rodon, sees it that way, too. It just so happens that some of Rodons most important games have come against UNC. As it will be again on Sunday.
Its the crowd the crowd drives him, Ogburn said. Especially in the Carolina game in the (ACC) tournament where he pitched in front of probably 15,000. With him pitching those games we know that hes going to be at his best because its just an extra gear that he has.
The adrenaline gets going and hes just a different animal.
There were no signs of that animal on Friday. Rodon spoke with a sense of detachment about his appreciation of just being In the College World Series, and about hed long envisioned this. He was calm, and said hed received that trait from his father. They spend a lot of time together fishing for bass on Harris Lake, near Holly Springs.
Come Sunday around game time, Rodon anticipated hed change. He arrived in Omaha with the goal of not thinking too much about Sunday until it arrived. Now its here, along with everything that comes with it.
Im always relaxed until you step inside those lines, he said. (Then) its a different story. Im just a totally different person.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter