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April 24, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – Most freshman pitchers require at least a little while to adjust from high school to college baseball, but Carlos Rodon of NC State has made the transition look seamless.
The freshman left-hander is making a big impression on the ACC baseball scene, rolling to a 7-0 record with a 1.23 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 73 1/3 innings.
In ACC games, he’s 5-0 with a 1.39 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings. His performance has helped the Wolfpack to an overall record of 26-12 and an ACC mark of 13-8, good for second place in the Atlantic Division.
“To be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect coming in,” Rodon said. “I was sure (the hitters) were going to be good, different in college from high school. I didn’t want to try to do too much, just stay within what I can do and compete to the best of my ability and hopefully things would happen.”
Tom Holliday, who coaches the Wolfpack pitchers, said Rodon demonstrated right away in fall practice that he wouldn’t take long to make the adjustment.
“He was a really exceptional talent coming out of high school,” Holliday said. “Sometimes those guys take a little while but he was bound and determined he was going to perform right away and he was as determined as anybody I’ve ever seen.
“He wasn’t going to be a midweek pitcher and he definitely wasn’t going to pitch out of the bullpen. Sometimes when you make your mind up and you’re talented, that’s a pretty good method of getting it done. There was no wishy-washy approach; this guy said from day one he was going to be an impact player.”
Rodon grew up in Holly Springs, about 20 minutes from the NC State campus. He was 10-1 as a junior and 11-0 as a senior, when he led his team to the state 4-A title and was the North Carolina high school player of the year.
Such talent, particularly from a left-handed pitcher, doesn’t go unnoticed. Major league scouts watched Rodon closely and he figured to be drafted pretty high. The Milwaukee Brewers called him before their pick in the fourth round, but the money they offered in that slot was short of what he and his family had worked out, so he declined.
The Brewers drafted him later in the 16th round, but Rodon knew his next stop would be NC State, where he had committed after his sophomore year.
“I never really think about it any more,” Rodon said. “That’s in the past and I’ve got to play ball for this team and win some games. I put it behind me and said, ‘hey, move on and take one day at a time and be strong from there.’”
Rodon always had good velocity – he has hit 97 miles per hour this season – and throws a two-seam fastball that runs away from a right-handed hitter and a four-seamer than moves inside. He also brought a slider and curve with him. During fall practice he added a cut fastball and a changeup, giving him five pitches. Holliday urged him to pare those down to three – the fastball, cutter and changeup.
“Shrinking guys from five pitches down to three is important because, quite frankly, five pitches is too much for a young pitcher,” Holliday said. “But I had to let him have time to see that.”
Holliday doesn’t want him to throw the slider because of stress on the elbow and he doesn’t think the curve ball is necessary. Rodon will still show the curve ball on occasion.
“I still like to throw a curve ball just to throw them something different,” he said. “It’s usually late in a game when they think I’m going to come with a cutter or a fastball and I’ll drop a curve in there and they say ‘what was that?’ because they never saw it.”
The cutter is the pitch made famous by Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees, who is right-handed. Thrown by a lefty to a right-handed hitter, it’s not quite as hard as a fastball and breaks in right on his hands.
“It doesn’t have a hump it in, it has more of a real tight slide that comes right at you,” Holliday explained. “When Carlos throws his, it will change planes by no more than two or three inches, kind of like the one that Rivera throws. By the time you see it spin, it’s on your hands.”
Holliday said Rodon can also get his middle finger even more on top of the ball and throw a cutter that will drop from six to 12 inches.
“I developed the cutter in the fall and I said ‘I can probably use this,’” Rodon said. “It’s almost like a slower fastball, maybe 86-88, but it has a late, sharp break. I can even throw it when I’m down in the count for a strike. If it’s a lefty it starts on the hands and drops right on the ground. I can command that pitch pretty well.”
Once it was evident that Rodon would be in the weekend rotation, the question became on how to use him. He was hoping for Friday, when most teams start a three-game series with their best pitcher, but he was slotted for Saturday. That’s a pivotal position – if State wins the opener he can give them a 2-0 lead. If they lose the first game, it’s his job to make sure the Pack evens the series.
“I don’t think there’s pressure (on Saturday),” Rodon said, “but if we’re down 1-0 I’m definitely going to come out and do my best to even that series up and keep the runs down. If we’re up 1-0 I’m going to try to keep the ball on the ground and dominate. Either way I’m trying to win the ball game.”
A perfect example was last weekend against Boston College. The Pack dropped the opener but Rodon got them even with a splendid game, throwing eight shutout innings, allowing five hits and striking out 10 in a 9-0 win. State then won the third game to take the series.
How dominant was Rodon? In the other two games the Eagles scored 20 runs.
Holliday said Rodon has been easy to coach because he absorbs and retains things.
“When the other guys are pitching he’s right there watching, making observations that are the same stuff that you do when you’re a coach,” Holliday added. “He’s way beyond his years in maturity.”
Obviously the future is extremely bright for Rodon. He isn’t eligible to be drafted again until after his junior season, so he has time to further refine his game. Holliday believes he has the stuff to be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter in the major leagues.
For right now, Rodon is focused on his role with the Wolfpack leading up to the ACC Tournament May 23-27 in Greensboro
“We want to try to get as hot as we can at the end of the season so we can make a nice run,” he said. “For me, just keep on doing what I’m doing, stay on track, stay focused, take one game at a time, give 100 percent in practice. And win, of course.”
And so far, winning hasn’t been a problem.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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