RALEIGH — There is only way for Carlos Rodon to approach his final scheduled home start at Doak Field on Friday night against Wake Forest.
“It’s just another start,” the N.C. State ace said.
There’s equal parts Zen and denial to Rodon’s mindset as his star-crossed junior season, and his college career, nears the end.
“Really, you try not to think about (the end),” Rodon said. “You never want to think about that.”
His coach, Elliott Avent, has thought about the meaning of Friday’s start and said he’s appreciative of what Rodon has meant to the program.
“He has been remarkable for us and college baseball really,” Avent said. “We’re definitely going to miss him.”
Last year, Rodon led the Wolfpack to the program’s first trip to the College World Series since 1968. This season has not gone according to plan. The Wolfpack (27-20, 9-15 ACC) probably needs to win five of its final six ACC games to get into the ACC tournament and maybe all six and then some to have any chance of getting into the NCAA tournament.
Maybe that’s why Rodon hasn’t been in a reflective mood. The junior from Holly Springs has also made a concerted effort to be calmer, or to “control what I can control,” as he put it, as a matter of survival this season.
Baseball America still projects the 6-3, 234-pound left-hander be the No. 1 overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft on June 5, despite a 4-7 record and relatively slow start to the season.
Rodon’s season has been a test for the old adage, “if not for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.” He still ranks second in the ACC in strikeouts (102) and fifth in ERA (1.87), but the Wolfpack has been downright woeful in its run support when he pitches, and its defensive effort has almost been to the point of sabotage.
In Rodon’s seven losses, N.C. State has scored a total of two runs. The Wolfpack scored 11 runs in his most recent start, an 11-1 win over Coastal Carolina last Friday, which was more than half of what it had scored in Rodon’s first 11 starts (19 runs) this season.
To make matters worse, the defense has failed Rodon, too. The opposition has scored 16 unearned runs off Rodon, compared to just 18 earned runs in 86 2/3 innings.
This is why Rodon sounds like he has been embracing Phil Jackson’s Zen basketball philosophy when he’s asked about the season.
“It took me awhile to realize this – once that pitch comes out of your hand, you can’t control if he hits it or not,” Rodon said. “Mentally, controlling what you can do, that’s what I’ve been really working on.”
Shortstop Trea Turner has noticed a difference in Rodon’s demeanor, especially after an error by one of his teammates.
“He has gotten a lot better at that,” Turner said.
To which Rodon, now sounding like baseball philosopher Yogi Berra, surmises: “When you get older, you grow up and you learn.”
Turner, also a projected top-10 pick in the draft, has been amazed at how Rodon has been able to compartmentalize what’s happening this season with what could happen in the draft.
“You have to understand, he could care less about anything but pitching and getting outs,” Turner said.
Coping with a losing record has been easier said than done for Rodon, who went 10-3 as a sophomore in 2013 and 9-0 as a freshman in 2012.
“I try not to look at (the record),” Rodon said. “That’s one thing you can’t look at.”
Except he did in previous seasons, he said.
“Yeah, you like looking at that,” Rodon said.
If he wants to, Rodon can zero in on his most recent starts. In the past five outings, he has regained his sophomore form with 47 strikeouts to 10 walks in 39.1 innings and six earned runs allowed.
His ERA is a full run lower than it was last season (2.99) when he was 10-3. Even in 2012, he pitched better as the season went along.
“He has always been that way, and he gets stronger as the game goes along, too,” Avent said. “It’s amazing.”
Rodon chooses less flattering adjectives for his performance this season, during which he set N.C. State’s career strikeout record and became just the fourth ACC pitcher in history to surpass 400.
“I think I’ve thrown all right, not bad,” he said.
There will be time later, Rodon said, to look back at the accomplishments and maybe upgrade the superlatives.
“I’m still trying to enjoy my time here and win,” Rodon said.