By ERIC OLSON
OMAHA, Neb. — Hobbs Johnson didn’t feel any pressure when he learned shortly before game time he’d be matched up against North Carolina State ace Carlos Rodon.
The unassuming Johnson went out and did his thing, which was more than good enough to keep No. 1-seeded North Carolina alive in the College World Series on Thursday night.
Johnson turned in the longest outing of his career while combining with Chris McCue on a five-hitter, and the Tar Heels broke open a close game late to beat the Wolfpack 7-0.
Rodon, projected as a possible No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, started on three days rest after throwing 108 pitches in an 8-1 win over Carolina on Sunday.
“I can’t really say that I think a whole lot about facing him,” Johnson said. “Obviously, he’s a great pitcher and you have to pitch well to beat him. For me it’s just going after their hitters and giving us a chance to win.”
Johnson allowed five singles, walked two and struck out six before leaving with one out in the ninth. The Tar Heels won three of five meetings with the Wolfpack this season.
“We’ve had some great battles with them, but tonight was all about Hobbs,” Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “Just an incredible performance. We really needed it. He gave us exactly what we needed.”
Now Carolina (59-11) must beat UCLA twice — first on Friday and again Saturday — to reach the finals. North Carolina State (50-16), in the CWS for the first time since 1968, was shut out for the first time this season.
Michael Russell drove in three runs for the Tar Heels, the first on a sacrifice fly that resulted in a close play at the plate to open the scoring in the fourth inning.
Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Colin Moran had three singles, reached base four times and drove in two runs to become the first ACC player with 90 RBIs in a season since Florida State’s Buster Posey in 2008.
Johnson (5-1), a 14th-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers, bounced back from a dismal start in the super regionals against South Carolina. He lasted just 1 2-3 innings and gave up five runs in an 8-0 loss that day.
But he had turned in a strong start the last time he faced the Wolfpack, and he did again Thursday. He relied on a fastball that reached the low 90s to keep the Wolfpack in check. He got an assist from a 22-mph wind blowing in at a ballpark that has surrendered only two home runs through 10 CWS games.
“Every single pitch he threw was a fastball. Even when McCue came in, he threw one changeup and it was supposed to be a fastball,” Carolina catcher Brian Holberton said. “We just went right after them and wanted them to put the ball in play and let our defense work.”
NC State coach Elliott Avent originally planned to start Brad Stone. Rodon (10-2) was scheduled to throw an extended bullpen session Thursday, but Avent and pitching coach Tom Holliday scrapped it and decided to go with Rodon and give him a 75-pitch count that stretched to 80.
Rodon, who held the Tar Heels hitless into the fifth inning on Sunday, had his fastball humming in the mid-90s but wasn’t as dominating.
The Tar Heels, who had runners in scoring position in the first and third innings, broke through in the fourth on Russell’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly. NC State right fielder Jake Fincher made a perfect throw home, but the headfirst-sliding Holberton touched the plate with his right hand just ahead of catcher Brett Austin’s tag.
Austin bounced his mask off the ground and Rodon, backing up on the play, threw his glove in the dirt as Avent bolted out of the dugout to confront umpire Joe Burleson. TV replays appeared to support Burleson’s call.
Burleson, wearing a television microphone, told Avent that Holberton beat the tag.
“You really believe that, Joe?” Avent asked.
“I do,” Burleson said before warning Avent he would eject him if he didn’t quit following him.
After the game, Avent said he didn’t get an adequate explanation.
“He was kind of hard to talk to,” Avent said. “I certainly didn’t want to get thrown out on this stage, at this great event. Maybe the guy’s hand got in. The ball just beat him, so maybe we didn’t block the plate well enough.”
Rodon caused some of his own problems in the fourth. Moran singled leading off and was safe at second when Rodon bounced a throw into center field as he tried to get Moran on Holberton’s bunt. He walked Cody Stubbs to load the bases with none out.
Moran was forced out at home on Skye Bolt’s grounder to third, and then Russell delivered his sacrifice fly.
Rodon hit Parks Jordan leading off the fifth, and Moran’s two-out single to center brought him home.
The Tar Heels made it 6-0 with a four-run eighth, with Russell singling in two runs and Mike Zolk doubling in two more.
“We laid a foundation for future classes,” NC State’s Trea Turner said. “Hopefully we can get some good classes next year and years following that and make some trips back here and win it for the ACC and for North Carolina State.”