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Rodon struggling, but N.C. State lefty could still be No. 1 pick

Photo: Nati Harnik/AP

Carlos Rodon helped N.C. State reach the College World Series last year, but both he and the Wolfpack are off to slow starts this year.

RALEIGH, N.C. -- All Carlos Rodon could do was shake his head and smile.

Sitting in the dugout as the rain fell down last Friday night in Raleigh, the North Carolina State lefthander who many believe will be the number one overall pick in this June's MLB draft, spoke about having the plug pulled after six innings on what had been his best start of the season. Pitching against the University of Miami and trying to snap the Wolfpack's six-game ACC losing skid, Rodon had allowed one run on four hits while striking out five. The game was tied 1-1 when the umpires called for the tarps.

"What are you going to do?" Rodon said. "This was a big game for us and I wanted to try and help get us back on track in the league. But some things you just can't control."

It's been that kind of spring so far for Rodon, a 6-foot-3, 234-pound junior, who entered the season with a career record of 19-3, but who has begun this season going 2-4 and said, "I've never been two games below .500 in my life, and I don't like it."

Rodon has still had several strong outings. He threw seven innings and allowed two runs (one earned) against the defending College World Series champion UCLA Bruins on March 1, but N.C. State got shut out 2-0. He battled for 6 2/3 innings at Florida State, allowing two runs, but the Pack lost 6-1. He did struggle against Maryland on March 22, failing to get out of the fifth inning, but he also struck out eight in that brief start.

"He's been very good," said longtime N.C. State coach Elliott Avent. "Don't be fooled."

A scout -- a national cross-checker for a National League team -- is not quite on board with Avent, saying of Rodon, "He appears to have lost some of his power. Where last year, he pitched at 92-93 [miles per hour] and amped up to 96-97, this year he's pitching at 90-91 and occasionally touching 95. I also see him throwing more sliders than last year."

Asked if there's cause for concern, the scout said, "I don't think so, because of the body of work. As a freshman and sophomore, he showed he could beat the best college teams. And in the summers, on Team USA, he pitched against Japan and Cuba. To me, he looks like he's holding back a little right now, like maybe he's saving some bullets for later."

"I try not to think about the draft," Rodon said. "I know people are going to talk about it and write about it, but I'm just trying get better and to help our team improve. ... What I'm focused on is trying to help our team get back to Omaha and the College World Series."

In 2013, the Wolfpack made their first trip to the CWS in 45 years thanks largely to Rodon, who won nine straight decisions before falling to North Carolina in an elimination game where he was asked to pitch on short rest. This year, while they have another likely first-round pick in shortstop Trea Turner, the Wolfpack are a young team that's going to have to turn things around quickly to get an NCAA tournament bid. Miami ended up winning all three games in Raleigh, extending N.C. State's conference losing streak to nine games. This weekend they travel to Clemson, where Rodon will pitch against the 15th-ranked Tigers on Saturday with his team in desperate need of some wins.

Rodon, who in 2012 became the first freshman to be named ACC Pitcher of the Year and is now 14 strikeouts short of setting N.C. State's school record, is used to pitching with pressure. He's been the Wolfpack's ace since arriving on campus, and his starts have been regularly attended by a host of scouts for even longer. He says he first started noticing them gathering behind the screen in high school. Word spreads fast when a left-handed kid starts touching 90 mph as a teenager.

The fans soon followed the scouts to Holly Springs, N.C., as Rodon ran up a three-year record of 23-2 in high school. As a senior in 2011 he led Holly Springs High to a State 4-A championship, not only as a pitcher but as a .370 hitter. When he was drafted in the 16th round that year by the Brewers, he chose college in part because Avent did not rule out that he'd let him DH if he proved he could hit. In 28 at bats so far this season, Rodon has 10 hits, good for a .357 average, and three RBIs. The only problem Avent has with Rodon's offensive game is that he can get a bit overzealous running the bases.

"Carlos' number one thing, above anything," Avent said, "is that he loves to win. He's a throwback. He's Bob Gibson. He's Pete Rose. I recruited him to play both ways, because he's a good hitter. Most guys, knowing the type of money that's going to be swirling around after this season, would go to their coach and tell them they want to focus on pitching. He begs me to hit. That shows you what kind kid he is. When the game's over, he looks back and sees how he did. He doesn't calculate things as they're going on."

When it comes time for self-evaluation, Rodon does not go easy on himself. Prior to the Miami start, he beat himself up for having poor command of his fastball, and he spent the week trying to lock himself in mechanically so he could locate the ball where he wanted. His fastball, slider and cutter are all above average pitches, and he's working on a changeup.

"I've noticed hitters are coming up a little more aggressively," Rodon said. "I see more guys swinging early in counts. I've got to use that to my advantage. There's nothing better than getting a guy out on the first or second pitch. I'll take that over a strikeout any day."

Rodon gave up 33 hits in his first six starts, including 10 to Notre Dame. That was just the second time in his college career that a team had recorded double-digit hits against him.

"Carlos has had to grow a lot as a pitcher since he came here," Avent said. "Things like holding runners on base, he never had to do that in high school when he just struck everybody out. Parts of his game have really grown. His freshman year, he'd get angry when somebody got a hit off him. The catcher would throw the ball back to him and he'd catch it barehanded. Now, he's learned how to focus and channel that kind of emotion."

Born in Miami to Cuban parents, Rodon moved with his family to Holly Springs when he was eight. His father, who manages a Staples, was not a baseball player, but saw his son's love for the game and allowed it to flourish.

"I had one of those big red bats," Rodon said. "And my dad would throw to me in the backyard and I'd just keep hitting the ball. From a young age I really loved the game."

He knows the day is coming -- soon -- where he will be able to pay his parents back. Even with Rodon's uneven start to this season, the NL scout said, "He won't fall past three in the draft, and that's the worst case scenario. I think Houston takes him with the first pick."

All Rodon can do again is smile.

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