Rubber game: Pack, Heels meet in CWS elimination game Thursday
OMAHA, Neb. — North Carolina and N.C. State have each set program records for wins this season.
The Tar Heels have been the most consistent team all season and earned their first-ever No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, while the Wolfpack are the hottest team in the country over the past two months.
After tonight, one team will be a step closer to winning its first national championship. The other will be going home, having been eliminated by its biggest rival in the College World Series.
UNC (58-11) and N.C. State (50-15) will face off for the second time in Omaha, this time in an elimination game at TD Ameritrade Park (8 p.m., ESPN).
“For these two great programs so close together, for them to meet twice in a College World Series, that’s incredible,” Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent said. “And somebody’s season will end tomorrow. It couldn’t be any better for the state of North Carolina and for both programs.”
N.C. State won the teams’ first CWS meeting 8-1 on Sunday behind a complete game performance from ace Carlos Rodon, who has given up just four earned runs in 41.1 career innings against UNC.
But instead of pitching Rodon on short rest, Avent tonight is turning to another lefty, freshman Brad Stone (3-2, 5.28).
“No-brainer,” Avent said. “He’s been our No. 2 all year. Stone was going to pitch the next game no matter who it was against.”
Still, Avent didn’t rule out using Rodon in relief. The sophomore gave up one hit in 10 innings during UNC’s marathon 18-inning win over N.C. State in the ACC Tournament last month, and he has started the Wolfpack’s last three meetings with the Tar Heels.
“He’s come to me twice today,” Avent said after Wednesday’s practice at Creighton. “He brushed me one time, to let me know, ‘Hey you see me?’ And since I didn’t bite he told me later, ‘Hey I’m fine tomorrow.’ It’s his bullpen (throwing session) day tomorrow anyway, so who knows, you may see him out there.”
UNC is countering with junior lefty Hobbs Johnson (4-1, 2.62), who is coming off the worst outing of his career. Struggling to command his fastball, Johnson gave up five runs in 1.2 innings against South Carolina in the super regionals and took his second loss in 23 career starts.
Before that, Johnson pitched six no-hit innings in the regionals, and he allowed one run in 5.1 innings when he went against the Wolfpack in the ACC Tournament.
“I don’t ever get tired of seeing N.C. State,” Johnson said. “It’s always fun. It is pretty ironic that we end up playing them to see who goes home but we’re looking forward to it.”
Johnson wasn’t even on the 27-man postseason roster when UNC made the College World Series two years ago. He was struggling with academics, and his concern over staying eligible affected his pitching.
After boosting his performance in the classroom and on the field that summer, he entered the starting rotation two-thirds of the way into last season and has been there since.
Now he’ll be tasked with winning perhaps the most important game in the history of the rivalry.
“He just wasn’t ready when he got to UNC, in more ways than one,” Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said. “It’s to his credit he’s grown up and he’s gotten better and he’s worked hard to be here and to play here. Those kids who work hard and put themselves in this position, you hope they get rewarded.”
UNC beat No. 4 Louisiana State 4-2 on Tuesday on its first elimination game, while N.C. State lost to UCLA 2-1 later that night. That set up the fifth meeting between the ACC rivals this season, with each team having won twice so far.
Tar Heels senior Chaz Frank said that some of his teammates were cheering for UCLA to beat the Wolfpack, knowing that would give them a chance to avenge Sunday’s loss.
“I don’t know if I’d want to play us again,” Avent said. “But if that’s what they want to do, they get their opportunity tomorrow night.”
NOTES — N.C. State is 32-5 (.865) since March 31, a higher winning percentage than any of the other seven CWS teams. … Stone attended Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte with UNC’s Trent Thornton and Chris McCue. Thornton got the win and McCue got the save in the Tar Heels’ win over LSU Tuesday. … The winner of tonight’s game will have to beat UCLA (46-17) twice to advance to the best-of-3 championship series. The first game would be Friday at 8 p.m., and the if-necessary game would be Saturday at 8:30 p.m.