Carlos Rodon touched his black Charlotte Knights’ cap with his left hand, put the hand into his glove and brought his left forearm to his mouth. Then he threw the first pitch of his Class AAA career to Jose Constanza of the Gwinnett Braves.
It was a ball, which was uncommon early Tuesday evening at BB&T Ballpark. Nine of Rodon’s next 12 pitches were strikes. After inducing a weak grounder to second base from Constanza, he struck out the next two batters.
Rodon walked slowly off the mound after compiling these first- inning numbers: 13 pitches, two strikeouts, no hits and one warm ovation from the sellout crowd.
Rodon, 21, was a star at Holly Springs high outside Raleigh. He led the school to the N.C. 4A baseball championship.
He pitched three seasons at N.C. State, helping the Wolfpack to the College World Series.
The Chicago White Sox selected him with the third pick in the 2014 Major League Baseball draft. After a quick stop in Arizona, and 9 2/3 innings with the Class A Winston-Salem Dash, Rodon drove to Charlotte on Monday and started for the Knights on Tuesday.
In minor league baseball, even in Class AAA, fans go to the ballpark for the sport and the experience. They watch or half-watch a game that, on a late summer night, enables them to sit outside with friends and family.
Tuesday was different. Red N.C. State shirts, caps and jerseys were common. In the fifth-inning, I made a lap around the concourse and encountered 14 fans – on the concourse – wearing Wolfpack garb.
N.C. State associate basketball coach Bobby Lutz had hoped to join them. But he had to stay in Raleigh for a meeting.
Rodon “is the type of player I’d love to coach,” Lutz says Tuesday night. “My favorite story is when he told coach Elliott (baseball coach Elliott Avent) ‘To get off my mound’ when he wanted to bring in a relief pitcher.”
Adds Lutz: “The fact that Carlos is a local boy who turned down major money (Milwaukee drafted him in the 16th round out of high school) to attend State only adds to the legend and love for him from Wolfpack Nation.”
The game appeared to be sellout, the first at BB&T on a Tuesday. It was Jordan Danks bobblehead night. A former Charlotte centerfielder, Danks now plays – and is playing well – for the White Sox.
When Rodon gets a bobblehead night, it won’t be in Charlotte.
He’s a temp. Rodon almost certainly will follow the trajectory of Chris Sale, whom Chicago selected in the first-round in 2010. A reliever at the time, Sale pitched four games in Winston-Salem and seven for the Knights before the White Sox called him up in August.
Meanwhile back on the mound, Rodon faced the Braves. In the second inning he struck out a batter, walked a batter and did not give up a hit.
His fastball popped – but there’s no way to tell how hard. The radar gun did not function. Based on the swings of the Braves, Rodon probably hit the mid-90s.
He did not have great command of the fastball. His slider, however, functioned beautifully.
Rodon, who was scheduled to throw four innings or 60 pitches, struggled in the third inning. He walked the first two batters, induced a popup on a sacrifice bunt, and gave up a sharp single, a sacrifice and an earned run.
His struggles prompted a visit from catcher Josh Phegley and pitching coach Richard Dotson. Rodon, presumably, did not tell them to get off his mound.
His final numbers: Three innings, three walks, three strikeouts, 55 pitches, 35 strikes.
More than the numbers, there was this: When Rodon pitched, it was as if thousands of fans stopped talking and leaned forward in their chairs.
They don’t expect him to be in town long. They want to say they saw him before Major League fans did.