#1 North Carolina vs NC State, 3:00 PM, ESPN2
Who is ready for another 18 innings?
For the fourth time this season, UNC will face in-state rival NC State on the baseball diamond with each game escalating in terms of importance. Three weeks ago the two teams met in the ACC Tournament and the Tar Heels walked away 2-1 in 18 innings despite NC State's Carlos Rodon pitching ten innings. With that game in mind, NC State has been looking for another shot at UNC and will get it on college baseball's biggest stage.
That stage and the respective teams' response to it might be an important factor in this game. The Tar Heels both as a program and many of the players have been to Omaha before. Kent Emanuel, who will start against NC State, pitched here in 2011 and got a win over Texas in an elimination game. As a program, UNC expected to be at the College World Series and simply being here isn't enough, it is about winning the NCAA title.
Which is not to say NC State doesn't have the same goal but there tends to be an element of the "getting here" being the accomplishment. The Wolfpack have not been to Omaha since 1968 and the program in recent years has been building up to this moment. How will they respond? More importantly is how will Rodon handle the big stage. He is said to excel in the "big games" will that be the case here?
In fact the pitching match-up is an intriguing one. Emanuel will have questions stemming from his recent outings where he struggled to put together the same efficient and effective starts seen earlier in the season. Normally Emanuel would be good for a solid eight innings of work while holding the opposing offense in check, This was not evident last week as he struggled against South Carolina. Mike Fox said it wasn't fatigue but mechanics. Whatever the case, Emanuel needs a "big game" effort to keep the Tar Heels out of the losers' bracket.
On the other side of the equation you have UNC facing Rodon for the third time this season. In those 16.2 innings, the Tar Heels scored just two earned runs and those came in the regular season game. Will seeing Rodon for a third time this season provide any advantage for the Heels or does the Wolfpack hurlers dominant pitches make it a moot point? The hope for the Tar Heels is the former is combined with a little pressure from the big stage to open the offensive door just enough for the Heels to get what they need.
UNC's road to Omaha was rough with wins in elimination games that saw the pitching staff tested from top to bottom. NC State's path was less daunting. While much is made of Rodon's dominance, UNC is 3-1 against NC State when Rodon starts. Making it 4-1 will be a tall order. Getting offense in general off Rodon will be exceptionally tough, especially given some of the recent offensive struggles for the Tar Heels. Of course, college baseball has a way of being unpredictable so while a game where both pitchers dominate is the expectation, something vastly different would not be all that surprising.