N.C. State’s Carlos Rodon: still college baseball’s best pitcher?

Associated Press file photo by NATI HARNIK -- North Carolina State pitcher Carlos Rodon throws against North Carolina during the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., last season. Rodon, a left-hander with an electric slider, could be the No. 1 overall pick in next month's Major League Baseball amateur draft, despite a subpar season.
Associated Press file photo by NATI HARNIK -- North Carolina State pitcher Carlos Rodon throws against North Carolina during the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., last season. Rodon, a left-hander with an electric slider, could be the No. 1 overall pick in next month's Major League Baseball amateur draft, despite a subpar season.

N.C. State’s Rodon is still aiming for a late-year surge, not to mention the No. 1 draft slot

RALEIGH, N.C. — Even as the losses add up, North Carolina State’s Carlos Rodon is pitching with the same workhorse approach that has made him a candidate to be the No. 1 overall draft pick.

The junior left-hander is still hoping to lead a late-season surge in a disappointing season for N.C. State, which entered the year hoping to return to the College World Series but is currently fighting just to qualify for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

“I get to play baseball every day,” Rodon said. “I don’t have to sit at a desk or just go to school and study every day. I’m lucky to come out here and sit in the sun and play baseball. That’s the fun part about it. I’m still a little kid when I play this game.”

Rodon is likely to make his final home start Friday against Wake Forest. He entered the week tied for fifth nationally with 102 strikeouts, while ranking second in the ACC in innings pitched (86.2) and ERA (1.87).

Last year, Rodon set a program record with 184 strikeouts while helping the Wolfpack reach Omaha, Nebraska, for the first time since 1968. This year’s team held a No. 5 preseason ranking, though N.C. State has yet to secure a spot in the 10-team league tournament.

Rodon entered the season as Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect for this June’s amateur draft after going 19-3 in his first two years. Rodon (4-7) now sits at No. 3 behind two high school pitchers in a season marred by a lack of run support and defensive mistakes behind him.

“You can nitpick and find things to complain about if you want,” said Aaron Fitt, Baseball America’s national college writer. “The fact of the matter is, he’s left-handed. He’s got the best pitch in college baseball with his slider. He’s got an incredible track record of success and big-game success. He’s incredible fierce and competitive. All that stuff is in place.”

North Carolina coach Mike Fox has certainly seen Rodon at his best. In last year’s ACC tournament, Rodon held the Tar Heels to one hit and one run with 14 strikeouts in 10 innings during an 18-inning marathon. Two weeks later, Rodon was dominant in a complete-game win when the teams met in Omaha.

“You just want your kids to get in there and compete the best they can and really you have to keep the game close,” Fox said. “When somebody’s that good on the mound against you, you better be pitching good on your side or you have no chance.”

Rodon said he has worked this year to improve fastball command and let go of things he cannot control. He has had plenty of practice at the latter considering more than half of his 34 runs allowed are unearned due to fielding errors.

Worse, N.C. State has scored a total of two runs in Rodon’s seven losses. Most recently, Rodon allowed six hits and struck out 15 on 132 pitches in a complete-game performance — only to lose 1-0 to Georgia Tech.

“I’ve talked to him about that in the past — control what you can control,” junior Trea Turner said. “And I think he has gotten a lot better at that. ... But it’s also fun to play behind a guy that doesn’t really care if you make an error behind him because he’s going to go right after the next hitter.”

A year ago, Rodon overcame a slow start with a dominating late-season run. If he can elevate his game again, N.C. State might extend its season.

“We’re going to get on a roll here and get hot,” Rodon said. “Hopefully it’s in time. I’m sure whoever has us in their regional is not going to like it.”