Duke will play host to highly-touted southpaw Carlos Rodon and N.C. State for a three-game series beginning Friday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park—the Blue Devils' first series of the year at their home away from home. First pitch of the opener is set for 6 p.m., followed by 1 p.m. starts Saturday and Sunday.
A 6-foot-3 junior, Rodon put professional league scouts on notice last season by posting a 10-3 record and racking up 184 strikeouts. Since 2003, only five players nationwide have recorded as many punchouts in a single season—four of those are Tim Lincecum, David Price, Stephen Strasburg and Jered Weaver, who went on to become studs in the major leagues.
Featuring a fastball that can run as high as 94 miles per hour, Rodon keeps hitters off-balance with a devastating slider. Duke head coach Chris Pollard said he expects to see the N.C. State ace Saturday afternoon.
"Carlos is going to get his strikeouts. If not the best pitcher in the country, he's certainly in the conversation for best pitcher in the country," Pollard said. "[The slider] has really been the bread and butter for him all year. He's going to get his swings and misses. What you try to do is get in good counts and when you do get a fastball you have to be ready for it because it might be the only one you get the entire at-bat."
Duke (18-16, 7-8 in the ACC) tagged Rodon for six runs—four of them earned—in his start against the Blue Devils last season, but the left-hander also struck out 15 hitters in nine innings of work. The Wolfpack won that game in 10 innings. Duke had the bases loaded twice in the early-going of that contest, but Rodon was able to minimize the damage.
Rodon has been a tough-luck loser this season, though, going just 2-5 in eight starts despite a 2.44 ERA. The culprit has largely been spotty defense behind him—half of the runs scored against the junior this year have been unearned.
After pushing across just eight runs during a four-game losing streak, the Blue Devil offense broke out of its collective funk Tuesday with nine runs on 10 hits against N.C. Central. Pollard noted several positives that could, if continued, propel the Blue Devils back into contention in the ACC.
"We did a really good job with two strikes. We did a really good job with situational hitting, scoring guys when we had an opportunity to score them —we didn't leave a lot of meat on the bone," Pollard said. "I've told our club numerous times this year that with as well as we've pitched and played defense, once we get a couple of key guys hot we have the ability to go on a run."
The Wolfpack (19-13, 5-10) have juggled their rotation of late, so it is unclear who else the Blue Devils will face this weekend. Southpaws Brad Stone and Ryan Williamson are two likely options, meaning Duke would face left-handed arms in every game of the series. Andrew Woek, usually reserved for use in the later innings, could earn a starting nod as well.
Duke will counter with its usual trio of weekend starters in Drew Van Orden, Trent Swart and Michael Matuella. Swart, who will toe the rubber Saturday for the Blue Devils, will be making his second rehab start as he continues to recover from an elbow injury. The junior threw two hitless innings last weekend at Georgia Tech but struggled with his command and needed 40 pitches to get through the first two frames. Pollard said the plan is to lengthen Swart's outing against the Wolfpack.
The Wolfpack have three thumpers in their lineup in Andrew Knizner, Trea Turner and Logan Ratledge, who all have four homers on the season. But given the consistency of the Blue Devil staff all season long, Pollard said he expects runs to be at a premium this weekend.
"Pitching has been a strength of our team all year," Pollard said. "I'm going to be very surprised if we don't pitch well again this weekend. The key's going to be to have a good offensive approach and push some runs across."