Nine seconds swung Carolina's CWS hopes
Posted June 21, 2013
Even the great philosopher Meat Loaf recognized the significance of one of sports' signature moments.
"Here's the throw, here's the play at the plate. Holy Cow, I think he's gonna make it…"
Baseball, like most sports, is essentially a succession of individual moments, some more significant than others. Last night, with the bases loaded and one out in the top of the fourth inning, one of the most significant moments in the college baseball season unfolded in front of our eyes and it determined the fate of one team and allowed the other a chance at one more game.
Carlos Rodon, North Carolina State's left-handed ace, who demanded the ball on three days rest from his coach Elliott Avent, was at times dominant and at times sketchy. Through the first three innings, Rodon was mostly himself, allowing just two hits and striking out six, but Carolina did have scoring threats in the first and third innings that the future No. 1 pick in the Major League Baseball draft was able to negotiate.
Would he be able to do it again, however, in the fourth?
It's not often in baseball, or in sports for that matter, that on a given play or a given moment everyone involved does his job to perfection. But, with the Tar Heels mounting their biggest threat in their last three games against the Wolfpack southpaw, the stars aligned to give us exactly that. Michael Russell stood in against Rodon with the most significant base runner of UNC's season, catcher Bryan Holberton, 90 feet from a 1-0 lead.
Rarely though, has 30 yards seemed so far away, even as Carolina's shortstop lifted a 1-1 pitch in the direction of NC State right fielder Jake Fincher. The only question was: Would it be deep enough to score the run?
That Rodon even was on the mound Thursday night was somewhat of a surprise, though in retrospect, maybe it shouldn't have been. Since making the second of his (now) 34 career starts in a Wolfpack uniform, Rodon had never even pitched on four days rest let alone the three he would take with him to the bump in an elimination game at the College World Series. Yet, you could absolutely understand why, with their season nine innings from extinction, Carlos would want -- maybe even need -- to have the fate of his team in his left hand.
Fincher drifted back and eased over towards the right field line. Though he was moving away from his target, he was able to plant and uncork a laser beam of a throw that reached catcher Brett Austin on the fly.
To illustrate the challenge placed in front of North Carolina heading into the game Thursday night, one only needs to list their troubles in solving Rodon over his five career starts against the Heels. Rodon, who in general has dominated everyone, was even better when opposing his biggest rival. Prior to Thursday, Rodon had worked 41 1/3 innings and allowed just seven runs, only four them earned. That's a 0.87 earned run average if you're keeping score at home. On top of that, before Sunday's 8-1 Wolfpack win in their first College World Series showdown, Rodon had never allowed a run-scoring hit to Carolina. He'd also struck out 51 batters, while allowing just 24 hits and walking 12 in compiling a 2-0 record in those starts.
To their credit, however, the Tar Heels had managed to win three of those five games, so it's not as though all hope was lost. But, they still had to figure out a way to break through against Rodon when it mattered. And, with Holberton charging down the third base line and Fincher's throw from right field in the air, nothing mattered more than this moment in Omaha.
Austin caught the ball and pivoted towards Holberton, who had already started a head-first slide just to the right of home plate. Austin did everything right, his left foot blocking the Carolina base runner from a clear path to the game's first run, and it appeared that Fincher's incredible throw would maintain the scoreless tie and allow Rodon to escape a dangerous situation for the third time in the first four innings.
Sometimes though, the other guy is just a little bit better, and when Holberton leaned just enough to the right side of the plate, pulled his left arm back and out of the reach of the Wolfpack catcher and juuust managed to swipe his right hand across home plate ahead of Austin's tag, the home plate umpire, Joe Burleson, signaled "safe," and North Carolina had the only run they were going to need to see a third straight elimination game Friday night.
Russell did what he had to do, he put the ball in play into the outfield, giving his team a chance to break through on the scoreboard. Fincher responded in kind, unleashing a throw from right that former Pirates' star Dave Parker would have been proud to call his own. Austin gathered the ball and, with no wasted motion, turned to apply the tag. However, the final move in this State vs. Carolina chess match of a moment belonged to Holberton, whose slight of hand allowed him to execute one of the best slides you will ever see, leaving it up to the man behind the plate to render judgment on the play and quite possibly, the season. And Burleson got the call right.
Nine seconds in time, in Omaha, in the most significant baseball game ever played between these two schools, with, quite possibly, the best pitcher in Wolfpack history on the mound trying to carry his team past their arch nemesis, and everyone did their job to perfection.
However, in sports, there can only be one winner. Thursday night, in the fourth inning, with the college baseball world watching, Holberton's slide -- and Burleson's correct call -- was just a little bit better than Fincher's throw, and it was enough to allow the Tar Heels to live for another day.