In the 2012 ACC Tournament, Rodon threw nine innings of scoreless four-hit ball against the Tar Heels. Last month in the same event, he pitched a one-hitter through 10 innings. N.C. State lost both games, however, due to UNC’s ability to match their ace and score in extra innings.
Kent Emanuel was unable to keep up with Rodon in UNC’s 8-1 loss on Sunday. That wasn’t the case for Johnson (5 hits, 6 so, 2 bb), who picked up his fifth win of the season after working a career-high 8.1 innings in UNC’s 7-0 victory.
There was nothing confusing about Johnson’s approach.
“I threw all fastballs,” he told reporters during UNC’s postgame press conference. “I didn't throw an off-speed pitch.”
You read that correctly. Every pitch he threw – 132 total – brought the heat.
“Every single pitch he threw was a fastball,” UNC catcher Brian Holberton confirmed. “Even when [Chris] McCue came in, he threw one changeup and it was supposed to be a fastball. We just went right after them and wanted them to put the ball in play and let our defense work.”
UCLA, UNC’s opponent on Friday night, frustrated LSU and N.C. State earlier in the week by pounding the top of the strike zone to force fly balls. With the wind blowing in at TD Ameritrade Park, fear of the home run was minimal, which played a role in Johnson’s aggressiveness.
“There's some deception obviously in his fastball,” UNC head coach Mike Fox said. “He hides the ball a little bit and it does get on you maybe a little bit quicker. And he's able to pitch right at the top of the strike zone. And even our players, I think, in scrimmages in the fall and preseason, will tell you that his fastball's hard to pick up and it's hard to get on top of.”
There was little surprise that N.C. State elected to throw Rodon (5.0 IP, 4 hits, ER, 6 so) even after head coach Elliott Avent announced that freshman lefty Brad Stone would start on Wednesday.
“It's hard when you're in an elimination game to not put the boy out there,” Fox said. “I get the rest and all that. He only threw 108 pitches [on Sunday], and he's strong as a bull. I know it was a tough decision for him and his staff. But you don't want any regrets leaving here, and I think they probably would have had some if they hadn't pitched him.”
North Carolina took advantage of a Rodon throwing error to score its first run on Michael Russell’s sacrifice fly in the fourth inning before Colin Moran singled in Parks Jordan in the fifth. UNC’s earned run represented only its second against Rodon in 33.0 postseason innings.
As it turned out, one run would have been plenty for Johnson, even though it didn’t look that way early. The Rocky Mount, N.C. native fell behind nine of his first 15 batters and committed a throwing error on a first-pitch bunt by Brett Austin in the first inning.
He settled down and retired 10 straight batters through the seventh as the Wolfpack was reeling and in need of a rally. The Tar Heel bats added four insurance runs on a pair of two-RBI hits by Michael Russell and Mike Zolk in the eighth and then tacked on one more in the ninth on another Moran RBI single.
Any win in the College World Series is critical, but Johnson’s performance protected a thin bullpen with a game set for Friday (8pm EST) and another possible for Saturday. Johnson joined Tuesday’s winner Trent Thornton (114) in throwing a career-high number of pitches in UNC’s two elimination games this week.
Fox told reporters that either Kent Emanuel or Benton Moss will likely get the start against the Bruins on Friday.