BRING ON THE BRUINS!
After the most meaningful game in the history of the North Carolina-N.C. State baseball rivalry, both coaches were asked to give an overview by the moderator before taking questions at a press conference.
“Just Hobbs Johnson,” Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent said.
“Hobbs Johnson, that’s the overview,” UNC coach Mike Fox said.
Beforehand, the drama centered around Wolfpack ace Carlos Rodon. By the end, all the attention was on the opposing starter, Tar Heels junior Hobbs Johnson.
Throwing fastballs on all 132 of his pitches, Johnson (5-1) gave up five singles in a career-high 8 1/3 innings and UNC sent its rival home with a 7-0 win Thursday night in an elimination game in the College World Series.
The junior lefty from Rocky Mount, who was coming off the worst outing of his career in the super regionals, improved to 12-2 in 24 career starts. He outdueled Rodon (10-3), who was announced as the surprise starter after throwing a complete game against the Tar Heels in both teams’ CWS opener on Sunday, which the Wolfpack won 8-1.
Johnson and Chris McCue, who recorded a two-out save, shut out N.C. State Thursday for the first time this season and gave UNC a 3-2 edge in the season series, which included an 18-inning ACC Tournament win last month in Durham that also featured Johnson against Rodon.
This time No. 1 overall seed UNC notched two runs in Rodon’s five innings, and then exploded for four runs in the eighth to win its fourth straight elimination game in the NCAA Tournament.
ACC player of the year Colin Moran led the Tar Heel offense with three hits and two RBIs, extending his school-record and nation’s best total to 91 RBIs this season.
The Tar Heels (59-11) now must beat UCLA (46-17) twice to advance to the championship series — today at 8 p.m. (ESPN) and, if necessary, Saturday at 8:30 p.m. (ESPN). The Tar Heels, runner-ups in 2006 and 2007, are seeking their first national title in their 10th CWS appearance.
On Wednesday, N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said that starting freshman lefty Brad Stone was a “no-brainer.” But he had a change of heart Thursday and inserted Rodon, a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, on short rest.
“He’s got such a big heart,” Avent said. “He's always been about winning a national championship. He's never been about Carlos. Ever.
“The acclaim and all the stuff that goes on about him and how highly respected he is in the draft world has hit him but doesn't change the way he wants to play the game. He could have gone the pro route two years ago. He wants to win a national championship.”
The N.C. State sophomore, who had an ERA of 0.87 in 41 1/3 career innings against the Tar Heels, struck out six of the first 11 batters he faced — including Chaz Frank and Landon Lassiter with a runner on third in the third inning. But UNC finally scratched a run across after loading the bases with no outs in the fourth.
Moran led off with a single, and after Brian Holberton’s bunt went back to Rodon, the pitcher tried to get the lead runner but threw the ball into center field. It was the third error of the game that came off a bunt, and the second by the Wolfpack.
Cody Stubbs worked a full-count walk to load the bases, and after N.C. State got the runner at home on a ground ball by Skye Bolt, Michael Russell lifted a pitch into right field, allowing Holberton to tag from third.
Wolfpack right fielder Jake Fincher threw on the fly to the plate, and catcher Brett Austin tagged Holberton — but not before the UNC junior’s hand touched the plate.
Rodon slammed his glove down, Austin threw down his mask, and Avent raced out of the dugout to argue the call, but to no avail.
N.C. State finally got its first two hits off Johnson in the fourth, but he struck Jake Armstrong out looking to end the threat, starting a run of 10 straight batters he retired.
“The key with Hobbs tonight was just good command,” Fox said. “A lot of first pitch strikes and only two walks. And it's the best he's thrown but he's thrown really well for us all year.”
Meanwhile, UNC doubled its lead in the fifth when Parks Jordan was hit by a pitch, moved to second on a bunt by Frank and scored on a two-out single up the middle by Moran.
That play made Moran, a junior who was picked sixth overall in the MLB Draft, the first ACC player with 90 RBIs since Florida State’s Buster Posey in 2008.
That fifth inning was the last for Rodon, who left after 80 pitches. He was replaced by Stone, the scheduled starter, who went 2 2/3 innings and didn’t allow a hit. But he loaded the bases in the eighth on two walks and a hit-by-pitch, allowing UNC to blow open the game.
Michael Russell met righty reliever Ryan Wilkins with a two-run single up the middle, making the score 4-0. Then Mike Zolk hammered the game’s only extra-base hit, a two-run double into the rightfield corner off of D.J. Thomas that put the Tar Heels ahead 6-0.
Moran added another RBI single in the ninth, completing a 3-for-4 night and matching the number of hits N.C. State recorded as a team through eight innings.
Johnson finally left after giving up two more hits in the ninth. After giving up five runs in 1.2 innings last weekend against South Carolina, he had allowed just five hits and two walks against the Wolfpack, striking out six.
“We've had some great battles with them this year but tonight was all about Hobbs,” Fox said. “Just an incredible performance. We really needed it, and he gave us exactly what we needed. A good start and got a lead and we were able to add on to it later on so it's a big win for us obviously. We're happy to still be playing.”
N.C. State (50-16) set a program record for wins in a season but finished its second-ever CWS, and its first since 1968, with a 1-2 record. UNC remains the ACC’s last hope for its first national championship in 58 years.
“We laid a foundation for future classes,” said sophomore Trea Turner, who finished with a .368 average. “Hopefully we can get some good classes next year, and the years following that and make some trips back here and win it for the ACC and for North Carolina State.”
UNC 7, N.C. STATE 6
|Frank cf||4||0||1||1||Turner ss||3||0||0||0|
|Lassiter dh||5||0||0||0||Fincher rf||3||0||0||0|
|Moran 3b||4||1||3||2||Austin c||4||0||0||0|
|Holberton c||4||1||0||0||Senay 1b||4||0||1||0|
|Stubbs 1b||3||1||0||0||Clyde 3b||3||0||1||0|
|Bolt rf||3||1||0||0||Bergquist ph||1||0||0||0|
|Russell ss||3||1||1||3||Williams cf||4||0||1||0|
|Zolk 2b||4||0||2||2||Adametz lf||4||0||1||0|
|Jordan lf||2||2||1||1||Armstrong dh||3||0||0||0|
|xxxxxxxxx xx||x||x||x||x||Ratledge 2b||3||0||1||0|
|N.C. State||000||000||000||— 0|
E—Austin, Rondon, Johnson. DP—UNC 1. LOB—UNC 7, NCSU 7. 2B—Zolk. SB—Frank, Turner 2. S—Jordan, Frank. SF—Russell.
|Johnson, W||8 1/3||5||0||0||2||6|
HBP_by Rodon (Jordan); by Stone (Bolt).