OMAHA -- North Carolina needed a herculean effort to take down Carlos Rodon and North Carolina State. The Tar Heels got that. His name? Hobbs Johnson.
In the hours leading up to Thursday's elimination contest between the familiar foes in the Wolfpack and Tar Heels, it was thought that N.C. State would start loose left-handed pitcher Brad Stone, who had yet to start in the College World Series. But as the afternoon progressed, N.C. State head coach Elliott Avent had a change of heart, mainly because ace left-handed pitcher Carlos Rodon wanted the ball against the Tar Heels.
Rodon, even on just three days of rest and a pitch count by Avent, was his usual self from a velocity standpoint with his fastball touching 97, and sitting 93-96 for much of the game. But even as good as he once again was against the Tar Heels, he, for once, wasn't the shining star of the night.
This time, the guy wore Carolina blue, and it was veteran junior left-handed pitcher Hobbs Johnson, leading his club to a dominant 7-0 win over N.C. State to stay alive in the College World Series.
"Hobbs Johnson. That's the overview." North Carolina head coach Mike Fox said. "We've had some great battles with them, but tonight, it's all about Hobbs. That was an incredible performance, and we really needed it tonight. That's exactly what we needed."
Considering Rodon's history in previous starts this season against the Tar Heels, the formula for success in this one was simple for Johnson. He needed to get off to a very good start.
Rodon trotted out in the first inning and took command. He allowed a single from UNC leadoff hitter Chaz Frank to begin the game, before striking out the side the rest of the way, Landon Lassiter on a piping hot 97 mph fastball, and Colin Moran and Brian Holberton, UNC's two-best hitters, on a steady diet of 86 and 87 mph sliders.
Rodon made his stand. Johnson, though, was more than ready to meet his match. Johnson allowed a single and had a throwing error in the first inning. But he perhaps set the tone for the rest of the night by striking out Tarran Senay and Grant Clyde, both on 90 mph fastballs, to end the first inning.
From that point on, Johnson was in a groove against the Wolfpack.
Meanwhile, Rodon put together yet another good performance against the Tar Heels, but he was bested this go-round. Rodon threw three scoreless frames to start the game. But the Tar Heels finally got to him in the fourth inning on a sacrifice fly by Michael Russell, a play that was controversial after N.C. State's Jake Fincher nearly threw Brian Holberton out at home. N.C. State argued the play, with Rodon throwing down his glove, Brett Austin throwing down his catcher's mask. However, replays showed that Holberton narrowly escaped the tag.
The Tar Heels tacked on another run against Rodon in the fifth inning on an RBI single by Colin Moran, who had a stellar showing at the plate, going 3-for-4 with a run scored and two RBIs. As for Rodon, he suffered his third loss of the season in an 80-pitch effort, striking out six, walking one and allowing two runs on four hits in five innings.
"I definitely wanted to pitch today. I felt good yesterday and the day before, and I felt good out there tonight," Rodon said. "I had some velocity, then it came and went a little I guess. The slider was pretty good and effective. Just overall, I felt pretty good."
North Carolina's offense would get rolling later in the game against North Carolina State's bullpen, capping things off with a four-run eighth inning. But this game was all about Johnson.
The 5-foot-11, 210-pounder, was no stranger to this N.C. State club. Despite allowing five runs on five hits in 1 2/3 innings of work his last start against South Carolina in the Chapel Hill Super Regional, recent history suggested a good start against the Wolfpack. His last performance against N.C. State? Johnson struck out nine in 5 1/3 strong innings of work.
He bested that performance tonight with a fastball in the 90-91 range and great command of the strike zone. Interestingly, when asked after the game about his repertoire against the Wolfpack, Johnson said he didn't throw an off speed in the contest -- none what so ever. Catcher Brian Holberton confirmed that.
"There's some deception in his fastball. He hides the ball a little bit out there," North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. "It gets on you a little quicker and he's able to pitch in the top of the strike zone. Even against our players in scrimmages in the fall, our hitters would tell us his fastball was hard to pick up. Tonight, he had good command and threw a lot of first-pitch strikes."
Overall, Johnson struck out six batters, walked two and allowed just five hits in 8 1/3 innings of work, with reliever Chris McCue recording the final two outs of the game.
"I've had success with them up in the zone, and that's where I like to pitch," Johnson said. "I saw them against UCLA, and UCLA seemed to have a lot of success against them up in the zone, so that was something I liked. I felt like I had an opportunity to go deep into this game."
Well beyond just knocking North Carolina State out of the postseason, Johnson's performance on Thursday was important for another big reason -- the Tar Heels must beat UCLA twice now to advance to the CWS Championship Series, and saved some valuable bullpen arms in the process.
North Carolina will either go with left-handed pitcher Kent Emanuel or right-hander Benton Moss Friday against the Bruins. Interestingly, should the Tar Heels, and Oregon State in the other bracket, find a way to win their next two games, the two teams would have a rematch of their back-to-back national title series meetings in 2006 and '07.
Meanwhile, North Carolina State's magical campaign comes to an end. The Wolfpack would rather have their season ended by anyone but North Carolina, but there's no time to think about that. This was a terrific year for Elliott Avent's club, perhaps changing the tone of the program for years to come by getting to Omaha for the first time since 1968.
As N.C. State's season comes to an end, it went out with its best -- Carlos Rodon -- on the mound. Rodon, again, was beastly in his approach.
It's just, tonight, Hobbs Johnson was better.
CWS snapshot: North Carolina vs. North Carolina State
Player of the game: LHP Hobbs Johnson, North Carolina -- Johnson put together a dominant performance with his club's backs also against the wall. Johnson struck out six, walked two and allowed just five hits in 8 1/3 innings of work in the win over rival North Carolina State. Johnson's start against the Wolfpack in Omaha builds off his last start against this club, where he struck out nine and allowed just a run in 5 1/3 innings of work. On a night, when much of the talk was about Carlos Rodon, Hobbs Johnson was simply masterful.
Turning point: North Carolina certainly blew the doors open on the way to a 7-0 win over N.C. State, but the game certainly could've gone a little differently momentum-wise had the Tar Heels not scored in the fourth inning. With one out and a runner on third base, UNC's Michael Russell hit a pop up to Wolfpack right fielder Jake Fincher. Fincher threw an absolute rocket home to catcher Brett Austin, but UNC catcher Brian Holberton just slipped past the tag to make it 1-0 in the Tar Heels' favor. Replays showed the call by the umpire to be correct. The Tar Heels got into a groove after seizing the momentum and never looked back.
What they said: "I think you said it. We laid a foundation for future classes. Hopefully we can get some good classes next year, and the years following that and make some trips back here and win it for the ACC and for North Carolina State. We've never won one, and the ACC hasn't won one in 50 years. So we definitely want to come back and try to change that." -- North Carolina State shortstop Trea Turner
What’s next: With the win over rival North Carolina State, the Tar Heels now stay alive in the CWS, but now have the very tough chore of beating UCLA twice to advance to the CWS Championship Series. The Tar Heels could bring back left-handed pitcher Kent Emanuel in the first game against the Bruins, but we'd give the nod to right-handed pitcher Benton Moss, who has yet to pitch in Omaha. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack ends their season with an impressive 50-16 overall record. N.C. State's 2013 club had a magical campaign as the first team since 1968 to reach the CWS.