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June 21, 2013

Heels' Johnson eliminates Wolfpack from CWS, 7-0

OMAHA, Neb. — The script called for a lefthanded pitcher to dominate Game 10 of the College World Series on Thursday, and that's exactly what happened, but it wasn't supposed to be North Carolina's Hobbs Johnson.

NC State All-American Carlos Rodon, who dominated UNC in Game 4 of the series and who had tormented the Tar Heels in five previous career starts, took the ball for Game 10 on three days' rest and pitched five strong innings, but Johnson (5-1) thoroughly throttled the Wolfpack, allowing just five hits in 8 1/3 shutout innings in North Carolina's 7-0 victory over the Pack at TD Ameritrade Park.

The loss eliminated NC State (50-16) from the College World Series. North Carolina (59-11) will return CWS action on Friday in the bracket finals against UCLA. The Tar Heels will have to defeat the unbeaten Bruins twice to advance to the College World Series championship series.

The shutout snapped a streak of 72 consecutive games played by the Wolfpack without being whitewashed. The last shutout prior to Thursday also came at the hands of North Carolina, in the 2012 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in Greensboro.

NC State, which concluded its season with the best record in program history, went 8-3 in the postseason, counting ACC and NCAA tournament games. The Pack outscored its opponents 47-25 in the postseason.

"We just talked in the locker room a little bit," head coach Elliott Avent said. "They're disappointed but they're extremely proud of their accomplishments, 50 wins, playing in the College World Series, kinda how they did it down the stretch the last 40 games. We dug a hole early with some injuries, had some horrible spring weather, some adversity, and the way they hung together … they know where they were and they know where they ended up."

Johnson frustrated NC State hitters all night. He carried a no-hitter into the fourth inning and allowed just four NC State runners to reach scoring position all night. Only one Wolfpack baserunner advanced to third base, and that was Trea Turner, who walked in the third inning, then stole second and third.

After allowing a pair of singles in the fourth inning, Johnson settled in and retired the next 10 men in a row through the end of the seventh. He pitched around a leadoff single in the eighth, and finally exited stage right after allowing a pair of singles in the ninth.

Johnson threw nothing but fastballs, 132 of them, striking out six and walking two. In two starts against NC State this season, in the ACC Tournament and the College World Series, he pitched 13 2/3 innings and allowed just one run on 11 hits with 15 strikeouts and four walks.

"Hobbs Johnson's been a problem for us the last few times we've seen him," Avent said. "I think he gets better and better. We try to lay off fastballs, especially in this ballpark, but he makes it difficult. He hides the ball well and is tough to see. And he was good tonight."

Johnson was especially effective in keeping leadoff hitters off base. NC State was 19-for-44 leading off an inning in four previous games against North Carolina this season, but Johnson did not allow a State leadoff hitter to reach base until the bottom of the eighth inning, when it was already 6-0, Tar Heels.

"He kind of turns a little bit in his delivery and hides the ball pretty well," shortstop Trea Turner said. "And then, as soon as he hides it, it's hard to lay off the high ones. That's kind of what UCLA did to us, and what Hobbs did to us. We just couldn't make the adjustment the last two games."

NC State announced on Wednesday that freshman lefthander Brad Stone would make the start against UNC in Game 10, with Avent calling it "a no-brainer." Between that announcement and the time the team loaded the bus at the hotel to depart for the stadium, Avent relented to Rodon and the rest of the Wolfpack coaching staff and made the switch in pitching plans.

Assured by Rodon that he was okay to pitch, Avent originally decided to have Rodon in the bullpen in case Stone faltered, but then pitching coach Tom Holliday pointed out that Rodon's only relief appearance came in a pre-planned pitching split the first game of this college career.

"Tom made a good point," Avent said. "He's only pitched in relief one time in his entire life. So if he's going to pitch, then why not let him follow his normal routine and start?"

Rodon was more than good enough to win most games. After allowing a leadoff single to Chaz Frank in the top of the first inning, he retired nine of the next 10 hitters and cruised into the fourth inning with a scoreless tie. With a runner on first and none out in the fourth, however, Rodon threw Brian Holberton's bunt attempt into center field, setting up UNC's first run.

Cody Stubbs walked to load the bases, and after Skye Bolt grounded into a force play at home plate for the first out of the inning. Michael Russell flied to right field for the second out. Holberton broke for home and Jake Fincher's throw to the plate easily beat Holberton, who was ruled safe on a bang-bang play by home plate umpire Joe Burleson.

Avent went out to argue the call, to no avail.

"I wasn't satisfied with the explanation," Avent said. "It was a terrible explanation. Actually, I didn't get one. But with that being said, I certainly didn't want to get thrown out at this stage, at this great event. Maybe the guy's hand got in [ahead of the tag]. The ball just beat him."

Colin Moran made it 2-0 when he spanked a hanging slider from Rodon into center field in the fifth, and Rodon was done after five innings and 80 pitches. He allowed just the two runs, one of them unearned, on four hits. He struck out six and walked one.

"I felt good out there," Rodon said. "I had some [velocity]. It came and went, I guess. And the slider was pretty good and effective. I felt overall pretty good."

Stone relieved Rodon and retired the first seven men he faced before running into trouble in the eighth, when UNC blew the game open with four runs on two hits, two walks and a hit batter. Moran drove in an insurance run in the ninth.

Notes:

• North Carolina, which survived an elimination game vs. LSU in order to face the Wolfpack, now has won five consecutive elimination games in this postseason.

• With the loss by NC State, the designated home teams in the 2013 College World Series fell to 1-9, and 17-22 all-time at TD Ameritrade Park.

• Rodon wound up with a 1-1 record and 14 strikeouts in 14 innings in his two CWS starts. His College World Series ERA is 1.29.

Rodon finished the season with a 10-3 record, a 2.99 ERA and a school-record 184 strikeouts in 132 1/3 innings. For his career, he is 19-3 with a 2.38 ERA and 319 strikeouts in 247 innings.


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