NC State ace Carlos Rodon was not his usual, dominant self on Saturday night in the Super Regional opener against Rice. He admitted after the game that he didn't have everything in the arsenal working in the first-ever Super Regional hosted in Raleigh, but he was good enough to help NC State (48-14) to a 4-3 walk-off victory over Rice (44-19) when paired with some clutch hitting.
"I'm so very proud of our players," head coach Elliott Avent said. "They have gone through so much to get to this point, and it's exciting for them. We haven't pressed all year, but I know they were excited in the middle part of that game when they couldn't get to [Rice starter Austin] Kubitza."
Rodon was charged with allowing a run in the ninth inning to a Rice team that banged out 11 hits, the most the Pack's ace has ever allowed in a college outing. That gave the visitors a 3-2 lead on the Red and White, but Josh Easley stepped in to throw the final out of the top of the ninth, and State wasted no time answering.
Centerfielder Brett Williams opened the inning with a walk and then stole second. After a wild pickoff attempt from the Rice pitcher, he was on third with one out. Designated hitter Jake Armstrong was hit by a pitch, and second baseman Logan Ratledge tied it up with an RBI bunt on a successful suicide squeeze.
"Brett Williams is probably the best outfielder I've ever had in my life and he's done so many great things, including getting his degree," Avent noted. "When I saw that bunt, I asked myself, 'Why did I call that?' but the next thing I knew I saw him sliding across home plate."
"After the first [bunt] attempt failed, I knew they were going to be ready for it," Williams said. "I tried to get the best jump I could, and I played the catcher a little bit because he was out in front of the plate, so I slid to the outside and snuck my hand in while I was sliding."
Right fielder Jake Fincher's single to left field pushed across the winning run, which was scored by Armstrong, and the Pack is now just one win away from securing a spot in the College World Series, which would mark the school's first trip to Omaha since 1968, its only other time on college baseball's biggest stage.
Rodon entered the game with five postseason starts under his belt, and he had allowed just three earned runs and 12 hits in his first 37.1 playoff innings pitched, which included 45 strikeouts. The sophomore lefty had not allowed an earned run over the last 22 innings pitched, including all of his time on the mound during this postseason, but brought just a 1-0 record in playoff contests into the game because the Pack has only been able to average 1.91 runs per nine innings with Rodon on the hill.
NC State didn't waste any time scoring more than its average output for Rodon, and they pushed across a pair of runs in the bottom of the first inning after shortstop Trea Turner opened the home half of the frame with a double. Turner scored on a ground out by first baseman Tarran Senay, while Fincher, who reached after he was hit by the pitch, scored on a wild pitch.
"Even getting two runs in the first inning was the biggest thing for us because we always get so relaxed when Carlos is on the mound," Williams noted.
Rice scored a single tally in both the fourth and fifth innings. A pair of singles pushed third baseman Shane Hoelscher, who reached base after he was hit by the pitch, across for Rice's first run of the game, while second baseman Christian Stringer blasted a solo shot the following frame.
"I obviously didn't have everything in my arsenal today," Rodon said. "I struggled with the slider early, and later on I got back to where my command was good. The defense picked me up a lot throughout the game."
The Owls notched their run in the ninth inning, thanks to a pair of singles, which were followed by a double from Stringer, who finished with a game-best two RBI.
"We're at this point for a reason," Avent said. "There's been a lot of big moments, and every big moment you're in or every experience you have in life, you carry on to your next obstacle, adversity or attention-filled moment.
"These guys have done a pretty good job of that themselves. I think they'll be much more relaxed tomorrow. They know they have to face a tough Rice ballclub. We'll have to play very well again tomorrow."
Around the bases
- Fincher has reached base in 60 of the Pack's 62 games this season, and leads the team with 10 hits in NCAA play so far. He also paces the squad with 26 multi-hit games this year.
- Tonight marked the Pack's first walk-off victory since a 4-3 win over Davidson on April 23, 2013. Fincher also had the game-winning RBI in that one.
- NC State recorded its 48th win of the year tonight, which is tied for the second-best all-time and is just one victory shy of tying its school record of 49, set in 1993. The Pack also had 48 wins in 1990 and '91.
- Senior reliever Josh Easley, who picked up the win and was also drafted earlier in the day by the Miami Marlins, notched the bullpen's 30th win of the campaign.
- 3,051 fans packed the Doak for the game, and that tied for the third-largest crowd in Doak Field at Dail Park history. That same number was also reached last Saturday against William & Mary, and four of the five largest crowds since the stadium was renovated in 2003 have come this year; Rodon was the pitcher in three of those contests.