Eight radar guns and nearly as many video cameras stirred behind home plate as Carlos Rodon took the mound, a gaggle of major league scouts holding pens at the ready. A few scouting directors and general managers tried to look inconspicuous on the concourse behind them at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
It was a typical crowd for a Rodon start, all of them hoping to see something different after a series of uninspiring performances to open the season. From the fifth inning on, after Rodon settled in and kept the ball down, they saw what they came to see. N.C. State coach Elliott Avent called the final innings Rodon’s best performance of the year.
By then, it was too late for the Wolfpack to close the gap against Duke in a 2-0 loss. It also may be too late for the Wolfpack, which fell to 5-11 in the ACC, 19-14 overall. And it may be too late for Rodon, who entered his junior season as the consensus No. 1 pick in the draft but has seen his stock fall.
This week, Rodon was omitted from USA Baseball’s 50-player midseason watch list for the Golden Spikes Award, which goes to the top college player. More disconcerting, Baseball America dropped the stocky left-hander to No. 3 in its draft rankings behind two high-school pitchers, citing concerns over his fastball velocity, command and ability to handle adversity – none of which had been an issue earlier in his career.
“Those guys are just writers,” Rodon said. “They’re not the ones who make the decision. It doesn’t really matter to me.”
Yet Jonathan Mayo, MLB.com’s draft analyst, can’t remember another slam-dunk prospect at the top of the draft who had similar issues in his draft year, especially one with as large and impressive a body of work to his credit.
Rodon dominated the ACC as a freshman and sophomore and starred internationally for USA Baseball during the summer. But his tentative performances to open this season raised red flags for scouts, even if Rodon is unlikely to fall past the first few picks.
“After his freshman year, if he had been draft-eligible, he would have been the first pick,” Mayo said. “Even last year. He may still be the No. 1 pick anyway, if he can unlock that same stuff. But the longer you go with these uneven results, the more questions it raises.”
Rodon’s fastball was in better shape Friday than it has been at times this season, consistently in the mid-90s or better, and after a midgame adjustment to keep his fastball down and rely more heavily on his slider, he ended up allowing only the two runs on six hits, striking out 11.
Avent, happy with the improvement, left him in for a career-high 134 pitches, but only after Duke’s David Perkins blasted a Rodon fastball to deep center in the second and the Blue Devils tacked on another run in the third.
“His slider was unhittable tonight,” Avent said. “He commanded the glove side of the plate the best he’s done it all year. And got the ball down. He’s had some balls up. The ball Perkins hit was up. ... That’s what they’re going to hit against him. But from the fifth inning on, he got the ball down.”
Rodon’s 2-6 record is largely beyond his control, with the Wolfpack scoring one or no runs in seven of his nine starts. A season that began with the highest of expectations for Rodon and the Wolfpack, willingly and gleefully inflated before the season amid talk of a national championship, continued to disappoint with Friday’s loss.
Now the Wolfpack is scrambling just to make the ACC tournament, let alone the NCAA tournament, and Rodon is under pressure to prove himself all over again. Friday night was at least a step in that direction, but time is running short.