UNC prevails 7-0, sends NC State home from CWS

acarter@newsobserver.comJune 20, 2013 

— North Carolina and N.C. State had already played four times this season before Thursday night. There were two games in front of sold-out crowds in Raleigh, one that lasted 18 innings in the ACC tournament in Durham and the most recent one on Sunday in the College World Series.

It might have been fitting, then, that the Wolfpack and Tar Heels played one final time here on Thursday night with their seasons at stake. UNC’s 7-0 victory against the Wolfpack extended the Tar Heels’ season at least another game. With the loss, one of N.C. State’s best seasons in school history came to an end against its fiercest rival.

The Tar Heels (59-11) advanced to play against UCLA on Friday night in the semifinals of the College World Series. UNC, which on Thursday night avenged the 8-1 loss it suffered on Sunday against N.C. State, needs to beat the Bruins twice to advance to the championship series next week.

The Tar Heels on Thursday scraped together two runs off of N.C. State sophomore Carlos Rodon, who was pitching on three days rest after his complete game on Sunday, and then blew the game open in the late innings, after Rodon’s exit. Rodon threw 80 pitches in five innings, and left after allowing four hits and two runs, only one earned.

Hobbs Johnson, meanwhile, gave the Tar Heels their second consecutive strong start. Entering the College World Series, starting pitching was a concern for UNC. It became more of one after Kent Emanuel, the ACC Pitcher of the Year, didn’t make it out of the third inning in the loss on Sunday against the Wolfpack (50-16)

But Trent Thornton, a freshman, reversed a troubling trend with seven strong innings during UNC’s 4-2 victory against LSU on Tuesday. And Johnson came through on Thursday with one of his finest starts of the season.

“N.C. State's obviously had a terrific season,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “We've had some great battles with them this year. But tonight was all about Hobbs – just (an) incredible performance. We really needed it. And gave us exactly what we needed.”

Johnson, who exclusively threw fastballs, allowed five hits in 8 1/3 innings – his longest outing of his career – and retired 10 consecutive Wolfpack batters between the end of the fourth inning and the start of the eighth. He retired N.C. State in order in the second, fifth, sixth and seventh innings.

Rodon, meanwhile, didn’t struggle in his second start of the week. But he wasn’t the overpowering force he was on Sunday, either.

“We all going into it wanted to make him threw a lot of pitches just because we knew he'd pitched a few days ago and had a high pitch count,” Brian Holberton, the UNC catcher, said. “And Landon’s at-bat in the first inning set the tone, and that did a good job for the rest of us to have a good idea what to do when we went up there.”

Landon Lassiter, UNC designated hitter, forced Rodon to throw 10 pitches during one at bat in the first inning. Rodon didn’t escape any of his five innings with less than 13 pitches, and the Tar Heels made him work.

His error in the fourth inning also led to UNC’s first run. After allowing a leadoff single to Colin Moran, the Tar Heels’ third baseman, Rodon fielded a sacrifice bunt attempt from Holberton. Rodon attempted to throw to second but the throw sailed into center field.

UNC loaded the bases with no outs, and Holberton eventually came home on Michael Russell’s sacrifice fly to right. Jake Fincher, the N.C. State right fielder, nearly threw Holberton out at the plate, but the slide barely beat the throw, which was on-line but high.

When home plate umpire Joe Burleson called Holberton safe, Rodon slammed his glove down in frustration. Brett Austin, the Wolfpack catcher, threw his helmet off home plate. And Elliott Avent, the Wolfpack coach, trotted out of the dugout to receive an explanation.

“I wasn't satisfied with the explanation,” Avent said. “No, not at all. It was a terrible explanation. But actually, I didn't really get one. (He was) kind of hard to talk to.”

The frustration was evident, and it continued for N.C. State. The Wolfpack’s mistakes cost them during their 2-1 loss against UCLA on Thursday, and again N.C. State’s mistakes led to its defeat on Thursday.

The Tar Heels scored their second run one inning later after Rodon hit Parks Jordan, UNC’s No. 9 hitter, to lead off the fifth. Jordan moved to second on a sacrifice bunt, and he scored on Moran’s single up the middle with two outs.

Johnson continued to cruise through the Wolfpack’s batting order. Before allowing a leadoff single in the eighth inning, Johnson had only allowed two hits – both of them coming in the fourth. With two on and two out, though, Johnson struck out Jake Armstrong to end that inning.

“For pretty much the whole postseason and the Virginia series, I've been throwing for the most part almost all fastballs,” Johnson said. “And it's worked outside of one game against South Carolina (in the Super Regional). And we've just kind of been sticking with it.”

The Wolfpack never threatened again, and UNC extended its lead with a four-run eighth inning. The Tar Heels scored all four of those runs with two outs. Russell drove in two runs with a single to center off of Ryan Wilkins, N.C. State’s third pitcher of the game. Russell was the first batter to face Wilkins, who was the first right-handed pitcher the Tar Heels had faced since June 3.

The Tar Heels added another run in the ninth inning. They scored six of their seven runs on Thursday with two outs.

The Tar Heels, who for the first time are the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, are in Omaha at the College World Series for the sixth time in the past eight seasons. For N.C. State, this was its first College World Series appearance since 1968.

“I think they understood the torch they carried for so many people,” Avent said of his team’s run to Omaha and the emotions it created.

Players from both teams believed they might be seeing each other again, after N.C. State’s 8-1 victory against the Tar Heels on Sunday. Some UNC players said on Wednesday they wanted another shot against the Wolfpack.

That opportunity came on Thursday. In the fifth meeting between UNC and N.C. State, the Tar Heels extended their season with a victory that sent the Wolfpack back to North Carolina.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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