I covered Carlos Rodon’s high school years and his first MLB Draft Day.
Rodon’s talent was evident at an early age. His teammates were so certain he would be a star, they asked for his autograph just minutes after their final high school season ended.
The competitive fire that makes Rodon great has been there since his days in Holly Springs.
Rodon didn’t pitch his high school sophomore season, my first year on the job. So I thought he going to be a big-time first baseman in college after seeing him launch a grand slam that gave him seven RBIs for the week.
When Rodon committed to N.C. State as a pitcher that summer, I was a bit confused. The move made more sense when he got off to a dominating start his junior season, throwing the first of two career no-hitters.
I remember commenting to coach Rod Whitesell in 2010, “I didn’t even know he pitched.” His eyes were wide when he replied “Oh, he can pitch.”
His last loss
At the end of Rodon’s junior year, he came out of the bullpen in a playoff game against conference foe Apex. He was on short rest and still struck out nine batters in four innings.
But he also gave up a grand slam and took the 10-3 third-round loss. He rebounded well, however. His next loss came three years later in his sophomore year at N.C. State.
The fire within
The stories of Rodon walking himself down to the bullpen during postseason games at N.C. State were also not surprising. He fueled Holly Springs’ run to the 2011 title. That team also adopted a razor-sharp focus, going 28-2 and winning the last 21 games of the season.
The most striking example of Rodon’s competitiveness came late in his senior year. Everyone knew he could make them pay with his bat, so he was walked about once a game. He got tired of it. His batting average dipped to a little more than .300 that year. In a playoff game against Leesville Road, he was walked – again – after hitting a two-RBI double earlier. Frustrated, he tossed aside his bat after drawing a quick base on balls. I remember a fan over my shoulder criticizing his “attitude.” But that’s part of what makes Rodon great – he wants the ball in a big game the same way he wants to see a good pitch during an at-bat.
Wilmington’s Ashley High got to see his competitive side too. The Screaming Eagles were in a best-of-3 series against Holly Springs for the 4A East title and the right to play for the state championship and Rodon didn’t pitch.
The Ashley fans were heckling Rodon at the plate in both games, which was unheard of then. I think most fans in the Triangle knew to avoid making him angry, but these outsiders were unaware. Holly Springs won Game 1 on a 6-5 walk-off in extra innings, and Rodon made sure the fans knew about it as he celebrated. Holly Springs won Game 2 13-4, and during a nine-run top of the seventh inning, Rodon launched a three-run homer over the center field fence. Rodon gave the Ashley fans a parting gift, but toned it down after his Game 1 celebration. When he touched home plate, he simply tipped his helmet to them.
In the state championship, Rodon faced arguably the top offense in the state – record-setting T.C. Roberson High from Asheville. There was a radar gun in the press box at Five County Stadium, and I kept an eye on it that night. In the seventh inning, he was still hitting 92-91 mph. His last high school outing was a two-hitter to take Game 1 of the state championship. He retired 14 of the last 15 batters he faced and struck out eight to finish with 133 strikeouts that year. Many sources have 125, but they leave out the eight he had in the championship.
In Game 2, Holly Springs took home the title. Afterward, his teammates started asking him for autographs. I think Sagar Kapoor was the first, and many others followed. It was a smart move.
His draft day wait
A week later, the Rodons were gracious hosts as I came over to watch the MLB Draft at their house. It was a long and difficult afternoon.
Carlos was sitting down in front of the laptop and watching a stream of the draft. There was only audio, no video – and the picks were coming every five seconds.
He heard names of friends go before his. He was excited for them.
He picked up the phone in the fourth and sixth rounds as teams called him. He eventually had to go out and do something else to clear his mind. His name was called in the 16th round (five hours after the draft started) by the same team that had called him in the fourth round – the Brewers.
“If I end up going to play for the Brewers or going to play for N.C. State, it definitely motivates me,” Rodon said. “I want to show them that I’m worth what I said or that I’m not that 16th-rounder. I think I should be in the first-round caliber group and this is going to push me to work harder.”