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June 20, 2013

CWS Notebook: Round 5 vs. UNC

OMAHA, Neb. — NC State's 2-1 loss to UCLA in Tuesday's second-round game of the College World Series moved the Wolfpack into an elimination game on Thursday vs. North Carolina.

The Wolfpack defeated the Tar Heels 8-1 behind the stellar pitching of ace lefthander Carlos Rodon in the first round of the series. Thursday's elimination game will be the fifth time the two teams have met this season, but only the second without Rodon on the mound for the Pack.

With ACC pitcher of the year Kent Emanuel tossing eight standout innings, UNC upended the Wolfpack 7-1 on April 26 in the first game of a scheduled three-game ACC series at Doak Field at Dail Park. Ryan Wilkins started and lost for NC State. Rodon pitched the second game of the series, a 7-3 Wolfpack victory. The third game was rained out.

Rodon tossed 10 dominant innings against the Heels on May 25 in the ACC Championship in Durham, and stifled UNC in the opening round of the College World Series.

In his three outings against UNC this season, Rodon has allowed three earned runs on 13 hits in 25 2/3 innings, striking out 32 and walking eight. In five career starts against the Tar Heels, he has worked 41 1/3 innings and allowed 24 hits, struck out 51 and walked 12, all good for a 0.87 ERA.

However, Rodon will be on the bench for Thursday's game. Freshman lefthander Brad Stone (3-2, 5.28) will start for the Wolfpack against junior lefthander Hobbs Johnson (4-1, 2.62) for the Tar Heels.

Stone began the season as a midweek starter before moving into the rotation for the final game of the Pack's first ACC series of the year, March 10 vs. Clemson. While his season has seen its share of ups and downs, he's pitched well down the stretch, allowing two runs, one earned, on 11 hits in 13 1/3 innings over his last three starts.

Stone has two postseason starts to his credit. He started and allowed two runs in five innings May 22 vs. Clemson in the first round of the ACC Championship in Durham, and earned his third win of the year June 2 with 5 1/3 shutout innings against William & Mary in the second round of the NCAA Raleigh Regional.

The NC State-UNC winner will have to turn around and defeat UCLA twice in order to advance to the championship round of the College World Series.

Smart Player, Special Player

NC State shortstop Trea Turner made a serious impression on UCLA head coach John Savage following the Wolfpack's 2-1 loss to the Bruins in the second round of the College World Series.

Asked during the postgame press conference to describe what made UCLA starting pitcher Nick Vander Tuig so effective, Turner shared an uncommon insight.

"He didn't miss a spot ever unless he wanted to," Turner said. "The only time he missed was up and he did it on purpose. He pitched very well."

Told of Turner's remark, Savage did what appeared to be a double take before responding.

"I think Turner shows you how special he is to be able to recognize that," Savage said. "Because not many players can recognize that when it's being done to them. And you got a — Wow, that's impressive that he said that. You hear coaches sometimes say that, or scouts or whatever, but coming from a player, that makes me think he's pretty sharp."

Bye-Bye Tigers

North Carolina did not make many friends among the merchants and restaurant owners who do business in the downtown Omaha area when the Tar Heels eliminated LSU 4-2 on Tuesday afternoon.

The Tigers are Omaha favorites, and for good reason. LSU now has been to the CWS 16 times in the last 27 years, winning the national championship six times in that span, most recently in 2009. LSU fans come to Omaha in droves and they spend money, lots and lots of money, in the downtown area.

"I hope the LSU fans stay for another day or two," said a waitress at The Diner in the Market District a few blocks from the ballpark. "They're good for business, and they tip well."

Alas, by Wednesday, it was clear that most of the LSU faithful was on their way back to the bayou. The area surrounding the ballpark, the Hilton Hotel lobby across the street from the ballpark, and the Market District all seemed deserted compared to the previous weekend, when they were overrun by fans wearing purple and gold.

The Media Leaves With The Tigers

The fans weren't the only ones to leave with LSU. The Tigers had the largest media contingent in the College World Series. The postgame press conference for the NC State-UCLA game was nearly deserted, thanks in large part to the absence of LSU media and the fact that no media from the West Coast deemed it necessary to send anyone to cover UCLA.

Kendall Rogers of Perfect Game USA, Aaron Fitt of Baseball America and Andrew Carter of The News & Observer pretty much carried the NC State portion of the presser, and Rogers and Fitt had to carry it alone with UCLA coach John Savage and three of his players.

"If this is a UCLA-Mississippi State final, we might not have any media here at all," quipped Rogers.

Long Balls Or Dead Balls

The most prevalent topic of conversation in the TD Ameritrade Park press box during the 2013 College World Series has been the potential game-winning home runs that died on the warning track.

There were enough of them in the first seven games of the series that ESPN made a compilation video to play during the NC State-UCLA game on Tuesday night. Little did the folks at ESPN know that the Wolfpack would hit perhaps the most memorable dead home run of the World Series before the night was over.

The ballpark started killing fly balls right from the get-go. In the CWS opener between Oregon State and Mississippi State, the Beavers' Danny Hayes crushed a two-out hanging breaking ball from Bulldogs closer Jonathan Holder in the bottom of the ninth. That ball came off the bat like it was going to sail 10 rows deep into the seats in right field. Hayes flipped the bat in celebration, but the ball died on the warning track instead, going from a potential walk-off home run to the last out of a 5-4 Mississippi State victory. A stunned Hayes slammed down his helmet in disgust.

Several other balls were tattooed during the ensuing games, more than enough for ESPN to make an entertaining video. Indiana's Sam Travis belted a ball off the wall in center field in the bottom of the ninth inning Monday night against Mississippi State, and that ball easily would have been a two-run homer, a game-winner, in most parks.

Then the eighth inning rolled around Tuesday night and the Wolfpack's Trea Turner came to the plate with runners on first and second and one out. Facing UCLA's David Berg, the Pac-12 pitcher of the year and the national closer of the year, Turner crushed a belt-high fastball to left field - put a serious jolt into the ball - and the crowd came alive in anticipation of a possible game-changing hit.

"I knew he got a good swing on it," Berg said. "I wasn't quite sure how well he hit it. My heart sank a little bit. I made a bad pitch and I know he's a great hitter. A lot of times, those combinations, not very good things happen [for the pitcher]."

Turner was thinking along the same lines. Believing he'd hit a dramatic three-run homer to give his team a 4-2 lead in a crucial game, Turner pumped his fist coming out of the batter's box, only to see the ball caught at the edge of the warning track.

"I was dumb enough to [think the ball was a home run]," Turner said. "I mean, that's about as good as I can hit a ball right now. And unfortunately, it fell a few feet short. And that could have been the difference in the game."

Even ESPN announcers Dan Patrick and Orel Hershiser could not believe that the ball stayed in the park, but UCLA's Christoph Bono, a late-inning defensive replacement, made a nice running catch at the track for the second out of the inning. Berg and the Bruins escaped the inning without allowing a run, and held on for a 2-1 victory that sent NC State into the elimination round.

TD Ameritrade Park opened in 2011, the first year the NCAA switched to the BBCOR aluminum bats, and the combination of the new bats and the new stadium combined to alter the College World Series in a very fundamental way. While home runs were down significantly throughout college baseball in 2011 thanks to the new bats, they became nearly extinct at the College World Series.

In 2010, the final year the NCAA used BESR bats and the final year the College World Series was played at Rosenblatt Stadium, there were 32 home runs hit in the series. In 2011, playing at TD Ameritrade and using the new BBCOR bats, the eight College World Series teams combined to hit nine home runs. A year ago 10 homers were hit in the CWS. Through eight games in 2013, there were two. Total runs scored is down significantly as well.

The consensus in the press box is that the result has been a less than satisfactory brand of baseball. Late inning leads are nearly insurmountable in the College World Series now. While most of the games have been close, late-inning offensive heroics have been virtually non-existent. The kind of ninth-inning rallies that NC State mounted in its two games against Rice in the Raleigh Super Regional are a near-impossibility at TD Ameritrade.

Hitters are not sufficiently rewarded for crushing the ball here, and pitchers are not sufficiently punished for making terrible pitches. Holder and Berg got away with the pitching equivalent of highway robbery against Oregon State and NC State, respectively. Both deserved to be the losing pitcher. Both got saves instead.

"It's boring baseball," one prominent national college baseball writer said. "Something's got to be done."

But what to do?

Some college coaches complained bitterly - and continue to complain - about the drop in offense in the college game when the BBCOR bats were introduced. Changing the bats now, however, could lead to a slippery slope back to the days of Gorilla Ball, when games resembled slow-pitch softball more than baseball. Does college baseball really want to go back to the days when 15-13 scores were commonplace, and games frequently exceeded four hours in length? Remember when Southern Cal defeated Arizona State 21-14 in the national championship game? The BBCOR bats are a vast improvement over all of that.

Other coaches want college baseball to change from its current ball to the one used in professional baseball. Clemson's Jack Leggett has been spearheading that movement. The current college ball has raised stitches, which allows pitchers to grip and throw nastier breaking pitches, and which causes wind friction when the ball is in flight, curtailing distance. The ball used in the minor leagues has smoother, lowered stitches, which keeps pitchers from using the stitches to spin breaking balls and cuts down on air friction, allowing the ball to travel farther. How much of a difference this would make has yet to be definitively established.

Those solutions would affect all college baseball games, not just the games in Omaha, which is not necessary. The problems being experienced at the College World Series are pretty much exclusive to the College World Series. Regular-season games and even regional and Super Regional games do not suffer from the same pronounced lack of offense and home runs.

No, the problem isn't the bats, and it's not the ball. The problem is the ballpark. Moving the fences in would seem to be the obvious answer.

The beauty of baseball is that no phase of the game is too easy. The old bats made hitting, especially power hitting, way too easy. The BBCOR bats took care of that problem. Now we have a problem at the College World Series that makes pitching way too easy. The only way to fix it without unintended consequences on the rest of the game is to move in the fences at TD Ameritrade. The sooner the better.

N.C. State NEWS


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