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June 16, 2013

CWS preview: North Carolina vs. NC State

OMAHA, Neb. — NC State officially returns to the College World Series on Sunday after a 45-year hiatus, but if the CWS is an unfamiliar venue, the Wolfpack's opening-round opponent couldn't be more familiar.

NC State begins CWS play with a 3 p.m. EDT encounter vs. top-seeded North Carolina, the fourth meeting this season between the two teams, and the third postseason meeting between the old in-state rivals the last two years.

NC State and North Carolina met in the ACC Tournament each of the last two years — in Greensboro in 2012 and in Durham in 2013 — and both games were instant classics. The game in Greensboro, scoreless through nine innings, went 12 before the Tar Heels emerged with a 4-0 victory. And just when the pundits said that game could not be topped, they went 18 innings last month in Durham, with UNC prevailing, although surviving might be a better verb, 2-1.

Given the magnitude and intensity of those games, you couldn't blame either coach — NC State's Elliott Avent or UNC's Mike Fox — for wishing for a different opening-round opponent in Omaha. And while neither coach would (or could) come out and say that, both chose their words carefully when asked Friday during the pre-CWS press conference if it was good that they were facing one another in the opening round.

"It's a good thing because if we weren't here playing each other we'd be out recruiting, so yeah, this is a really good thing," Avent said. "I talked to [South Carolina AD and former baseball coach] Ray Tanner last night for a while, and Ray was like, 'Yeah, I had to go there a couple of times to play Clemson, and I know what that's like.'

"But you know what?" Avent continued. "I think we kind of like playing each other (at this point, Fox jokingly shook his head no). It's a great rivalry. It's intense, but it's not as hated as people think. The games have been so good, and they've been clean games, and both teams can really really play."

"I agree with Elliott," Fox said when the question was turned over to him.

"For the first time ever," Avent chortled as the crowd erupted in laughter.

"For the first time ever," Fox agreed, smiling. "Seriously, it has to be good. It's good for our league, good for the state of North Carolina. It should be exciting. It's funny how it all worked out."

And then Fox got to the crux of the matter for the North Carolina camp.

"It's no fun playing NC State when Carlos Rodon is on the mound," Fox said. "I'm going to get that out there right now because I know that question's coming at some point."

And indeed the question came within minutes. Rodon (9-2, 3.19 with 170 strikeouts, tops in the nation) is slated to face UNC All-American Kent Emanuel (11-3, 2.93) in Sunday's opener, and Fox was asked to assess Rodon, while Avent was asked to size up Emanuel.

Fox had plenty to say about NC State's sophomore All-American.

"We've seen way too much of Carlos in the time he's been at NC State," Fox said. "I think he's pitched as well down the stretch here as at any time in his career. He's just completely under control, and when he's got command of both his fastball and that breaking ball, he's as good as I've seen in all my time in college baseball."

No one could blame Fox for having nightmares about Rodon. In four career starts against North Carolina, Rodon has worked the Tar Heels over, allowing just three earned runs on 19 hits in 32 1/3 innings, striking out 43 and walking 10. UNC won three of those four games, but not while Rodon was in the game. Rodon is 1-0 with a 0.84 ERA for his career against the Tar Heels, who haven't so much as sniffed him in the four games.

During one 28-inning stretch, North Carolina did not cross home plate with Rodon on the mound, a stretch the Tar Heels finally snapped April 27 at Doak Field at Dail Park. During the 18-inning marathon in the ACC Tournament, Rodon pitched 10 innings and allowed the Tar Heels just one unearned run on one hit, striking out 14 and walking two.

To Fox's point that Rodon has pitched his best down the stretch, Rodon is 6-0 with a 1.88 ERA in his last eight starts, including three complete games and a 10-inning outing in the 18-inning loss to UNC. In his last 31 1/3 innings, dating back to the Duke game May 17, Rodon allowed four runs, three of them earned, on 14 hits, striking out 42 and walking four, for a 0.86 ERA.

Then there is the matter of Rodon's postseason record. While he has just one postseason victory in six starts, his postseason ERA is 1.17 in 46 innings, including 54 strikeouts and 11 walks. And those postseason starts came against some of college baseball's best: two starts vs. North Carolina, and one each vs. Vanderbilt, Florida, Rice and William & Mary. The fact that he is just 1-0 in the postseason is due entirely to lack of run support. In those six games, NC State scored nine runs total while Rodon was on the mound, an average of 1.76 runs per nine innings.

"He just continues to get better and better, and it's an extremely difficult task facing him," Fox said. "He's really good, and I think the people out here that have not seen him are going to enjoy watching him pitch."

If run support has been an issue for Rodon in the postseason, that doesn't figure to change with Emanuel on the mound for North Carolina. The junior lefty and 2013 ACC Pitcher of the Year has not dominated NC State to the degree that Rodon has stifled the Tar Heels, but he's been very good against the Wolfpack, posting a 1-1 record and a 1.69 ERA in 16 innings over three career starts, including a dominating 7-1 win at the Doak in April.

Emanuel has been an ace his entire three years at North Carolina, sporting a 28-8 record and a 2.43 ERA, the ninth-lowest in UNC history. He has held opposing hitters to a .239 average for his career. He is especially effective at shutting down the running game. He has 10 pickoffs in 2013, and opposing basestealers are just 5-of-9 with him on the mound this season.

"Kent Emanuel has been Mike's guy all year, probably the last three years," Avent said. "You'd like to say he's crafty, yet his stuff is so good. Usually you use crafty for lesser stuff. He's got command of three big-time pitches. That changeup can really keep you off balance at times, and next thing you know you get it in your head and he busts that fastball in and it freezes you. He's smart, he's competitive, he holds runners very well. Part of our game is team speed and that's something he controls a little bit. He's just one of the best pitchers in college baseball. It should be quite a matchup."

Quite a matchup, indeed. What a way to kick of the College World Series. The coaches may choose their words wisely, but the rest of us don't have to. This one should be a dandy.


N.C. State NEWS

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