At College World Series, Tar Heels hope to solve the riddle of Rodon

acarter@newsobserver.comJune 15, 2013 

NC State, UNC, North Carolina, College World Series, Omaha

UNC's Colin Moran (18) picks up his bat after practice on Saturday.

ETHAN HYMAN — ehyman@newsobserver.com

— For a short while, North Carolina coach Mike Fox thought about making adjustments to his batting order. Like many teams, the Tar Heels have experienced little success against Carlos Rodon, N.C. State’s sophomore left-handed pitcher, and so Fox considered what would give his team an advantage.

He even wondered, briefly, whether he should find a way to include more right-handed hitters in his lineup. After all, it’s supposedly easier for right-handed batters to hit against left-handed pitchers. But Fox’s brainstorming session didn’t last long.

“I’ve actually thought about that,” Fox said on Saturday of changing his lineup against Rodon. “But it’s really hard for me to change anything right now after 60 some-odd games. It’s like, what message would that be sending? OK, we’re going to get to the (College) World Series, now I’m going to change the lineup?

“I don’t think I have the nerve to do that, or the boldness.”

It might not make sense, anyway. Against UNC, at least, Rodon has been equally dominant against both the Tar Heels’ left-handed and right-handed hitters. After limiting UNC to one hit in 10 innings last month in the ACC tournament, Rodon will start against the Tar Heels on Sunday in the College World Series.

The game has come with no shortage of anticipation. UNC is in the College World Series for the sixth time in the past eight seasons, and N.C. State for the first time since 1968. Rarely, if ever, have teams from the rival schools met in any sport in an event of this magnitude.

All the hype, though, has obscured perhaps the most basic question: Can the Tar Heels finally break free of Rodon’s mastery? This will be the fifth time that Rodon has pitched against UNC. In his four previous starts, he allowed three earned runs in 32 1/3 innings. He struck out 43 batters and gave up 19 hits.

Rodon has been dominant throughout his two seasons at N.C. State. He has been especially good against the Tar Heels: Current UNC players are batting .175 against him. Chaz Frank, the Tar Heels’ dependable leadoff hitter, is 1-for-16 against Rodon. Colin Moran, one of the best hitters in the country, is 1-for-11.

“He’s definitely right at the top two or three that I’ve ever faced,” Moran, a left-handed batter, said on Saturday after UNC’s final practice. “He’s real tough. He can rear back and hit you with a mid-high 90s (fastball). But he’s got a good slider. I think that’s the difference-maker for him, is his hard slider.”

The Tar Heels’ three regular right-handed hitters – designated hitter Landon Lassiter, shortstop Michael Russell and catcher Matt Roberts, who suffered a broken finger earlier in the NCAA tournament and hasn’t played since – are batting .178 against Rodon. The Tar Heels’ left-handed hitters, who are the strength of their lineup, have fared better but not by much. They’re batting .185 against Rodon.

“Lassiter struck out four times and Michael, as Scotty McCreery pointed out on Twitter, didn’t have a very good night, either,” Fox said of UNC’s showing against Rodon in the ACC tournament. “So that tells you all you need to know when there’s a lefty out there that can throw that breaking ball at the back foot of a right-handed hitter.

“They know it’s coming, and they just swing over it and swing over it.”

Rodon is known for his power. But his ability to change speeds and keep hitters guessing are as valuable as his fastball, if not more so.

“His backdoor slider is really good and if you’re looking for a fastball, he’ll change speeds with his changeup or his cutter and you just never know what’s coming,” Lassiter said. “And you just can’t sit on one pitch – you’ve just got to look for a ball up and try to hit it and try not to miss it.”

After struggling at times early in the season, Rodon has been at his best during his past eight starts. He threw 67 innings during that stretch, and allowed 48 hits and 14 earned runs.

The Wolfpack won seven of those eight starts, including his two starts in the NCAA tournament – one of them coming last weekend against Rice in a super regional.

In other sports, coaches can game plan to limit another team’s advantage. Fox doesn’t have that luxury. All he can do is hope that Rodon makes mistakes, and that the Tar Heels can make him pay.

“If he’s on, you’ve got to try to swing early,” Fox said. “If he gets two strikes on you, you’re in trouble. So at least, if he’s going to strike you out, at least swing three times. Maybe foul one off so he’ll have to throw another pitch.

“He’s throwing as confident now, I think, as he ever has."

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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