Current Date: Tue, 11 Mar 2014 00:37:14 -0400
OMAHA, Neb. — Two words: Carlos Rodon.
As Thursday’s elimination game between North Carolina and N.C. State approached, those were the only words on the lips of fans and sports pundits. N.C. State’s left-handed ace, who had just three days of rest, wasn’t supposed to start Thursday. It was supposed to be freshman lefty Brad Stone, and the announcement of the sudden switch stirred a whirlwind of questions, criticism and concern.
Hobbs Johnson, on the other hand, couldn’t have cared less.
The UNC starting pitcher said he heard about the move at some point during batting practice. He didn’t remember exactly when, and it didn’t matter. He had already narrowed his train of thought to a single focus — a gameplan that in itself was only one word.
A career-high 132 pitches and a career-high 8.1 shutout innings, just five hits, only two walks, six strikeouts and the elimination of rival N.C. State from the College World Series with a 7-0 win — all of that came with catcher Brian Holberton putting down just one finger all night.
“It was actually kind of funny because it got to a point where he almost just didn’t even do a sign,” Johnson said. “The last couple of innings I got to where I couldn’t even see, so I was just thinking fastball, and I told him if it was anything different to just come out and tell me.”
It was never anything different. Johnson pounded the zone with his heater from his first pitch to the last, outdueling a pitcher who had dominated UNC just a few days ago and advancing the Tar Heels to a Friday night bout with UCLA.
For all of the noise that surrounded Rodon entering the game, the southpaw’s presence became a side note by the end of it.
After allowing just one run in nine innings in an 8-1 N.C. State win on Sunday, Rodon was limited to just 80 pitches and five innings. He struck out six Tar Heels and flashed his trademark high-90s heater and devastating slider, but he wasn’t the same unstoppable force UNC saw Sunday. With a throwing error on a Holberton bunt in the fourth inning, Rodon helped set up a bases-loaded sacrifice fly off the bat of Michael Russell, bringing in the first UNC run of the game. In the fifth inning, Colin Moran singled in another UNC run off of Rodon with two outs — but that extra cushion would prove unnecessary.
Johnson was untouchable, neutralizing an N.C. State offense that jumped all over ace Kent Emanuel on Sunday.
For Johnson, it didn’t matter that he was matched up against one of the most highly regarded pitchers in the college game. He said it didn’t even matter that he was facing N.C. State.
“I think I would’ve been amped up either way,” he said. “Our season’s on the line, and I’d love to keep playing, and I’d love the seniors to keep playing.”
Johnson said any nervous energy he felt warming up in the bullpen subsided once his second pitch — and second fastball — of the game found the strike zone.
He struck out three N.C. State batters for his first three outs of the contest, stranding two Wolfpack runners who reached without the benefit of a hit. He didn’t allow his first base hit until two outs in the fourth inning, and he retired the Wolfpack in order in four of his 8.1 frames.
Wolfpack shortstop Trea Turner said an exaggerated turn in Johnson’s delivery made the ball difficult to pick up. That turn is by design.
When Johnson was growing up, his father told him to watch Atlanta Braves southpaw Tom Glavine and study his motion, and Johnson would practice the windup again and again on a homemade mound. These days, Johnson’s fastball sits around 88-92 miles per hour, but with the added deception in his delivery, that velocity has been more than enough to get by hitters.
“Even our players in scrimmages in the fall and preseason and stuff— even our hitters will tell you that his fastball’s hard to pick up, and it’s hard to get on top of,” coach Mike Fox said.
The progression to all fastballs has been a steady one. Johnson said that in his start in the 18-inning 2-1 win against N.C. State on May 25, only five of his 96 pitches were breaking balls, and he still came away with a season-high nine strikeouts.
The trend continued through Johnson’s next three starts, and Thursday marked the first time Johnson has ever thrown all fastballs in a game in his life.
Afterward, he and Holberton chuckled at the press conference podium discussing the simplicity and effectiveness of that game plan.
Fox described the UNC win with equal simplicity as he delivered his opening statement.
“Hobbs Johnson,” Fox said, pausing for a moment. “That’s the overview.”
By the end of the game, those two words were the only words necessary.