Carlos Rodon would rather pitch than talk. He’d also rather fish than talk, actually, he’d rather do just about anything than talk.
This is how it has always been for Rodon, the N.C. State All-American pitcher from Holly Springs who is poised to be just the fourth Triangle product to go in the top 3 of the Major League Baseball draft and first since Raleigh’s Josh Hamilton went No. 1 overall in 1999.
“Carlos has always been a quiet kid and easy-going off the field,” his father, Carlos Sr. said. “He’s polite but he has always had very few words and usually in short sentences, unless he’s talking about fishing.”
Rodon skipped a predraft media availability at N.C. State this past Thursday to go fishing, in part because as he said earlier in May, “the draft is a blown-up thing.”
“It’s just going from a small pond to the big ocean,” Rodon said in an interview earlier in May. “You still have to prove yourself after you get drafted.”
Rodon’s numbers usually say enough about his prodigal career. In three seasons at N.C. State, he won 25 games, had a career 2.24 earned run average, struck out 436 batters (one of four players in ACC history with more than 400) and helped the Wolfpack to the College World Series in 2013 for the first time in 45 years.
At Holly Springs High School, he started as a freshman for the varsity and as a senior in 2011 led Rod Whitesell’s team to the 4A state title.
Like Hamilton, the No. 1 overall pick out of Athens Drive High 15 years ago, Rodon’s talent was conspicuous from an early age. The reaction of N.C. State coach Elliott Avent after the first time he saw Rodon pitch, after Rodon’s sophomore season in high school, was the same as most of Rodon’s teammates, going all the way back to T-ball.
There is no skinny-kid-cut-from-the-JV to Rodon’s narrative. His frame as a 21-year-old, which could pass for an NFL linebacker, and his maturity were evident when he was a hard-throwing 16-year-old.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Avent said of the first time he saw Rodon pitch, which was actually in Chapel Hill during a summer league game. “He was unbelievable. You saw him and you went ‘Wow,’ he was a man already.”
Finding ‘his ticket’
Rodon inherited a love of both baseball, fishing and competition from his father. Carlos Sr. was born in Cuba and when he was 5 in 1967 moved with his family to Miami. The elder Rodon never played organized baseball, but his father, Lincoln, had instilled a passion for the game, a national obsession in their native country.
Growing up in Miami, Carlos Sr. would follow the games of the Baltimore Orioles, who had spring training nearby, on the radio.
“WQAM,” Rodon’s father said remembering the station’s call letters. “It wasn’t like today where you can just follow any team.”
Carlos Sr. and his wife Julie, who is from Miami but is also of Cuban descent, started their son in T-ball before he turned 4.
“They start them young in Florida,” Rodon’s father said.
And Rodon’s natural talent was obvious, even at the rudimentary level. Any throw in from the outfield, otherwise an adventure in T-ball, was on a rope from Rodon.
“I remember thinking, ‘That’s going to be his ticket,’ ” the elder Rodon said of his son’s arm strength. “I never dreamed then he would go this far, though.”
By the time he was allowed to pitch in Little League, there was a noticeable difference when Rodon was on the mound.
“He always used to throw hard,” said Marshall shortstop Sergio Leon, who grew up in south Florida with Rodon. “He’d throw a couple, a little wild, against the backstop right away just to show you what he could do. I can still remember his arm.”
High school coach gets first glimpse of star
Carlos Sr. and Julie moved the family to Holly Springs in 2001 when their son was 8, to get to a “better environment” than Miami, the father said.
Rodon excelled on travel teams and by eighth grade had caught Whitesell’s attention. It didn’t take long for Whitesell to figure out he was about to have a special player in his program.
“From the first time I saw him in eighth grade, you could tell the velocity was there,” Whitesell said.
Rodon started as a freshman for the varsity. His control was off early in his first season, but he started to trust his pitches, already hitting in the mid-80 mph range on the radar gun. By the end of his freshman year, Rodon had back-to-back starts with 15 strikeouts, and Whitesell knew it was only the beginning.
Tom Hayes, a former N.C. State pitcher who runs the Hit and Run batting cages in Fuquay-Varina and has been a longtime assistant coach at Fuquay-Varina High School, started working with Rodon when he was a freshman.
Hayes marveled at Rodon’s natural ability to pick up different pitches. The major-league ready slider that is Rodon’s bread-and-butter? “I think he taught himself that pitch,” Hayes said.
But talent alone is not what makes Rodon exceptional.
“Whatever ‘it’ is, he has it,” Hayes said. “You could tell after one bullpen session.”
And, Hayes said, that’s not all.
“He works hard,” Hayes said. “You take that with the talent and it’s a special combination. And he’s intelligent. There’s nothing that he’s missing.”
Rodon went on to beat Hayes’ Fuquay teams five times in his prep career, including throwing a no-hitter. By his senior year, Rodon was 11-0, helped the Golden Hawks win the state championship and was a 16th-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers.
“I’m glad he moved here,” said Whitesell, who remains close with Rodon.
One off night leads to All-American career
Rodon chose to stay close to home and play for the Wolfpack over signing with the Brewers out of Holly Springs. An off start during his senior high school season, in front of a large group of scouts, caused Rodon’s pro stock to drop.
“He had an issue with his back and his velocity dropped that one night,” Whitesell said. “It hurt him, but in the end, I think it worked out for him. He went to State and had a great career and he has put himself in a great position now.”
Rodon said he wasn’t ready to go pro out of high school. He chafed at the idea of being put on a pitch count and not really getting a chance to compete in the minors.
“I’d be on a 75-pitch count,” Rodon said. “I came here and now I know how to win. I know how to go 7-8-9 innings and find that fastball when I need it at 132 pitches.”
Avent quickly learned why everyone was so enamored with not only Rodon’s talent but his competitive drive. As a freshman, Rodon went 9-0 with 135 strikeouts in 114 1/3 innings.
“He’ll compete with you in anything,” said N.C. State catcher Brett Austin, who lived with Rodon and shortstop Trea Turner for three years.
“Anything” includes batting average (Rodon, who started 11 games at designated hitter this season and hit .283), the video game “Call of Duty,” pingpong and, of course, fishing.
“That’s my fault, I turned him onto fishing at an early age, we lived behind a lake in Florida,” Carlos Sr. said. “The competition started when he was young – who caught the most fish? who caught the biggest? – and it has just carried over.”
Avent didn’t quite understand how competitive Rodon was until a rain delay in the first game of the Super Regional round of the NCAA tournament at Florida in 2012. Rodon had a perfect game through three innings against the host Gators, the No. 1 seed in the tournament. After a 51-minute delay, Rodon wanted to go back out on the mound. Avent refused.
“He was about to punch me in the mouth,” Avent said.
Rodon said that Florida game was the one game he’ll remember from his three seasons at State.
“I wish we were able to play that one out,” Rodon said. “That was probably when I felt my best, I was perfect through three and I felt it.”
It was 0-0 when the rain hit. Rodon never came back after the delay. Florida went onto win the game 7-1 and the next game 9-8 in 10 innings, continuing the Wolfpack’s College World Series drought.
Big leagues, big expectations
Rodon led N.C. State’s big breakthrough in 2013. He went 10-3 with 184 strikeouts and a 2.99 ERA. His best outings – a complete game, 1-0 win over William & Mary in the NCAA regional and another complete game 8-1 win over UNC in the College World Series – came when N.C. State needed them most.
An encore was more difficult to come by for the Wolfpack this season. Two of the oldest axioms caught up with N.C. State: the new season doesn’t begin where the old ends; and you’re only as good as your second-best pitcher.
Rodon finished 6-7 this past season with a 2.01 ERA and 117 strikeouts in 98 2/3 innings. The numbers were on par with his performance in 2013, but of the 39 runs opponents scored on Rodon, 17 were unearned. And in Rodon’s seven losses, the Wolfpack’s offense scored a total of two runs.
Nevermind the preseason top-5 prediction from Baseball America, Rodon had his own expectations about the season. None included watching the NCAA tournament from home.
“That’s the way it is for good teams, good players, the expectations are the killers,” Rodon said. “When they’re set high and you don’t reach them, people are going to be tough critics. They’re going to critique every little thing you do wrong and even when you do things right, they’ll overlook it.”
There’s actually a benefit to the disappointment of this season, Rodon’s father said.
“He hadn’t faced that kind of adversity before,” Rodon’s father said. “It was a rough year for him, but I thought he handled it well.”
After Thursday’s draft, a new set of expectations will follow Rodon and the next chapter of his career will begin.
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