NCSU, UNC Face Conclusive Battle

So they meet again.

Tuesday night at the College World Series, UCLA defeated NC State 2-1, earning two days off in the process. As a result, the Wolfpack drop to the loser’s bracket, where they will have an elimination game Thursday against none other than North Carolina.

Two moments against UCLA will stick with Wolfpack fans until NC State is able to take the field again. The first came in the third inning, with the game scoreless. NC State put runners on second and third with one out following a sacrifice bunt from Logan Ratledge.
Trea Turner singled to left field to score a run, but Jake Armstrong was tagged out at the plate after an errant throw from Brenton Allen was recovered in time to prevent the run. NC State would end the inning with just a 1-0 lead.

In the eighth inning, it was Turner batting again with runners on first and second with one out. Again, Turner drove the ball to left field, with far more power than his third inning single. In virtually any ballpark, this blast would have landed well beyond the outfield fence. However, in TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, which has surrendered just two home runs in eight games this year, the ball settled into Allen’s glove at the warning track for the second out.

Now, it’s up to NC State to mend those wounds, starting with Thursday’s elimination game. The Tar Heels advanced by beating LSU 4-2 Tuesday, after a strong outing from freshman Trent Thornton on the mound. When the rivals met in the regular season, they split the first two games of the series, only for the third to be cancelled by rain. With both teams ranked in the top ten nationally at the time, the cancellation was an empty conclusion to the series. LIttle did anyone know there would still be three more chapters in the saga.

First, there was the epic at the ACC Tournament in a de facto semifinal game. Starting pitchers Hobbs Johnson and Carlos Rodon combined for 23 strikeouts, allowing just one run each (Rodon’s was unearned). The teams battled on until the wee hours of Sunday morning, until Cody Stubbs’ RBI single scored Landon Lassiter in the top of the 18th inning to give UNC a 2-1 win.

Then there was Sunday’s meeting to open the College World Series. Rodon dominated the Tar Heels again, pitching all nine innings and allowing five hits and one run while striking out nine batters. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack offense tallied eight runs and 11 hits, rolling to an 8-1 win.

Now, they’ll meet once more. The winner will advance to meet UCLA, needing back-to-back wins against the Bruins to advance to the best-of-three championship series. The loser will return to the Triangle, their season over. For a rivalry that had a disappointingly anticlimactic regular series conclusion, this finale could not be any more dramatic.

Johnson has been named UNC’s starter for the game, with the nine-strikeout game in Durham against the Wolfpack to his credit. Thornton’s success Tuesday against LSU offered North Carolina the luxury of using regular starting pitchers for the remainder of the double-elimination bracket. However, Thornton’s availability may be limited out of the bullpen, which could complicate late-game scenarios for the Tar Heels.

Whether Rodon will complete the Durham rematch remains to be seen. He threw 109 pitches against North Carolina Sunday, and would be returning on three days’ rest. It might be more prudent to save Rodon for games against UCLA on Friday and Saturday, but to play those games the Wolfpack must first win Thursday.

Other options for NC State include Ethan Ogburn and Brad Stone. Ogburn is a senior who currently holds a 2.70 earned run average, In Ogburn’s last appearance, he struck out six batters over the last five innings of a 17-frame victory over Rice to conclude the Raleigh Super Regional.

Stone is younger and more inconsistent than Ogburn, a freshman with a 5.28 ERA. However, he has the benefit of being a left-handed pitcher. Southpaws such as Stone and Rodon have experienced considerable success against North Carolina’s lefty-heavy lineup. Six of UNC’s starting nine hitters bat left-handed, including ACC Player of the Year Colin Moran.


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