OMAHA, Neb. — Elliott Avent went around shaking hands with anyone whod reciprocate. He offered to buy reporters the finest Omaha steaks in a town known for them. He spoke about Carlos Rodon with emotion, like he was a son.
It was Fathers Day on Sunday, and Avent, the N.C. State coach, acted like a proud papa in the moments after his teams 8-1 victory against North Carolina in the College World Series. Avent had waited his whole life for this, his first game coaching in Omaha on college baseballs grandest stage.
The Wolfpack had waited 45 years, its first CWS appearance since 1968. And Rodon, well, hed been waiting, too.
Last week, just days away from the most important start of his life, Rodon appeared cool and calm. He promised that would change come Sunday, though, and that his intensity would match the magnitude of the moment. It did. And so did his performance.
Rodon, the Wolfpacks ace left-hander, pitched a complete game. The sophomore allowed five hits, one run, struck out eight and then acted like it was no big deal. Asked why he has a penchant for pitching his best when the stakes are at their highest, Rodon provided a simple explanation.
You know, this is the College World Series, he said. It doesnt get any better than this, so why not bring your A game? When I come out, Im going to compete. And stages like this, Im going to compete even more give it more than I can.
The victory puts N.C. State in the winners bracket in its four-team, double-elimination pool in the College World Series. The Wolfpack (50-14) will play Tuesday night against either Louisiana State, the No.4 national seed, or UCLA.
The Tar Heels (57-11), the No.1 overall seed for the first time, will have to advance through the losers bracket if they are to win their first national championship in 10trips to Omaha. N.C. State, and UNC could meet this week in an elimination game.
Rodon wasnt perfect Sunday. He walked the Tar Heels leadoff hitter. And in the ninth inning, he lost his shutout. In between, though, he was what he routinely has been against UNC during the postseason: unhittable and unflappable. And this time, he had run support.
Any time youre facing Carlos Rodon, as good as he is, getting behind is one of the worst things you can do, UNC coach Mike Fox said. Weve been successful against them in the past (from the) win/loss perspective, just because weve been able to hang in there with him and match him on the mound on our side, and just kind of outlast him.
Rodon pitched nine scoreless innings against UNC during the ACC tournament last year in Greensboro. He allowed one unearned run in 10 innings against the Tar Heels last month during the ACC tournament in Durham. But the Tar Heels won both those games in extra innings, the most recent one ending in 18 innings.
This time, the Wolfpack provided Rodon with more than enough support. N.C. State scored one run in the first inning, and then chased UNC starter Kent Emanuel with four runs in the third. Emanuel, the ACC Pitcher of the Year, labored through his second consecutive short start.
His past two starts have been the shortest of his collegiate career. Emanuel lasted 21/3 innings in his start against South Carolina last week in a Super Regional game that UNC eventually won, and he lasted 22/3 innings Sunday.
I wouldnt say he was really struggling or something wasnt working for him, said Brett Williams, N.C. States center fielder whose double drove in one of the four runs during the third. I feel like we did a great job with our approaches today swinging at pitches in the zone and getting the barrel on it and finding holes.
Williams and his teammates were especially good with two outs. Six of N.C. States eight runs came with two outs, including the one in the first and all four in the third.
It made a difference, Rodon said, having all those runs. He said he became more comfortable. After a leadoff walk, Rodon retired the next 14 batters. He didnt allow his first hit until the fifth inning and didnt allow a runner past first base until the seventh.
There are times when Rodon knows he has it, and Sunday was one of those times. Someone asked how he knew.
When I can put that fastball anywhere I want it, he said. Thats when I know.
He did that for most of the game against the Tar Heels. And when his fastball command began to slip, he relied on a slider that broke late and hard. In the dugout, Avent looked for small signs: How Rodon located his fastball. His breathing.
I watch his breathing a lot, Avent said. I try to see. Because he can get upset a little bit.
Once again, though, Rodon frustrated the Tar Heels. This was the third time UNC faced Rodon this season, and Colin Moran, the Tar Heels best hitter, said last week he hoped the familiarity would make a difference. It didnt.
After it ended, Rodon checked his phone outside the locker room. A bevy of text messages awaited. Avent held court with reporters. He cracked one-liners and reveled in perhaps the greatest victory to this point of his career.
I cant wait to go home and watch the U.S. Open, and then get ready to watch LSU, he said. And theres a steak somewhere in Omaha waiting for me, Im sure.
3 KEYS TO THE GAME
Hitting star: N.C. State center fielder Brett Williams helped break open the game in the third inning with his double down the left field line. The hit came in the middle of three consecutive run-scoring hits for the Wolfpack, and Williams double drove in Grant Clyde to give N.C. State a 3-0 lead against North Carolina. A couple of batters later, and Kent Emanuel, the Tar Heels starting pitcher, was out of the game. Williams also scored two runs. Pitching star: What more can be said about Carlos Rodon and his mastery of North Carolina? The Tar Heels are one of the best hitting teams in the nation, but once again they were nearly helpless against Rodon, who pitched a complete game and allowed five hits and one run while striking out eight. After walking UNCs leadoff hitter, Rodon retired the next 14 hitters in a row and never allowed the Heels to get going.
Quote of the day: I think he was subpar. I dont think he was that good today. No, Im just kidding. He was good as Ive seen all year. N.C. State catcher Brett Austin, on Rodons pitching performance
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter