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May 25, 2013DURHAM, N.C.--- The Atlantic Coast Conference can't be displeased with how its annual baseball tournament has played out so far, as the matchup between local rivals North Carolina and N.C. State Saturday night has a direct bearing on the tournament's outcome and therefore is on a lot of people's minds this Memorial Day weekend.
A sellout crowd will pack into the Durham Bulls Athletic Park this evening for a showdown of Southpaws between N.C. State's sophomore ace, Carlos Rodon, and UNC's crafty junior veteran Hobbs Johnson.
To the winner lies a spot in Sunday's ACC Tournament championship against Virginia Tech.
"It should be fun. I hear there's a big crowd expected. It should be exciting. I know our players will look forward to it, and I'm sure they (NCSU) will be too," said UNC head coach Mike Fox.
"Obviously we have a lot on the line to get to the championship game, so it will be another great, fun game to be a part of."
Speaking just minutes after the Diamond Heels had taken down Clemson in a marathon 14 inning affair, Coach Fox was quick to point out that it wasn't 'tomorrow's game.'
The battle with the Tigers had stretched on past midnight, making it a same-day situation for Carolina.
"The game is today," Fox said, drawing laughs from the media. "Right now we're all exhausted, so we've got to fill our tanks."
NCSU had the advantage of resting up Friday evening after their 7-1 win earlier in the day over Miami, and they've also got a big advantage in arguably the nation's top pitcher in Rodon, who enters Saturday's contest with an 8-2 record, 137 strikeouts against just 38 walks in 91 innings and a win earlier this season over the Tar Heels over in Raleigh.
"He's a phenomenal pitcher. It's a big-time game. It's kind of fun to face a good pitcher. There's going to be a lot of people there. I'm looking forward to it," said third baseman Colin Moran.
The fact that UNC has seen Rodon this season, as well as last season, may give them some familiarity on what to expect, but that only goes so far against a guy with such a strong assortment of pitches, along with great control and solid command of his fastball and offspeed deliveries.
Rodon has a 3.86 ERA, so it is possible to hit him, but he's also capable of blowing through a lineup with seemingly little effort when he's on top of his game.
"Momentum is still just pitch to pitch. As soon as Rodon gets out there and throws the first pitch 94 or 95 in twilight, the momentum will go back and forth," said Fox. "It will be just a great experience, a great environment."
"The more familiar you are with the pitcher the easier it gets, but with him (Rodon) it's not much easier," added Moran.
Saturday night's game is a sellout, which means that more than 10,000 fans will pack into the Durham Athletic Park and many will even choose to stand and watch the game.
It remains to be seen if it surpasses the DBAP ballpark record of 11,674, set during a Durham Bulls game a couple years back, but there's definitely the potential to surpass the mark of 10,229 fans that packed into Greensboro's NewBridge Bank Park last May to watch these same two teams meet up in this same event.
A year ago UNC didn't have nearly as much to play for as NCSU, as the Wolfpack were trying to play into Sunday's championship while the Diamond Heels had been eliminated from championship competition.
But the Diamond Heels played their hearts out, standing strong behind pitching and fine defense to play NCSU to a scoreless stalemate through nine innings before finally breaking through in the 12th inning for four runs in a 4-0 triumph.
Truth be told, that game wasn't much different than UNC's win over Clemson on Friday, aside of the fact that more runs were scored.
Given the large number of fans on hand in that game in Greensboro last year---and the opponent---the UNC players readily admit that the ACC Tournament win over the Wolfpack was one of the more exciting environments of their college careers, at least so far.
"Yeah, I think so (last year's NCSU ACC Tournament game was the biggest environment I've seen outside of Omaha)," said Holberton. "Maybe a few Super Regional games my freshman year, but that was pretty big, especially against them with all those fans, and to do on that big stage. It was fun."
"Yeah, that (the NCSU win in 2012) was definitely the biggest game I've been a part of," added Moran, who hasn't yet played in Omaha at the College World Series. "It was an extra inning game, just like this, so it was nice to get a 'W'.
While on paper the Wolfpack have the advantage with their ace Rodon on the hill, along with the fact that NCSU has been designated the 'home' team, UNC isn't exactly throwing chicken feed out there, as Johnson comes in 4-0 with a 2.18 ERA in 13 starts as Carolina's usual Sunday starter.
UNC also has a refreshed group of relievers on call in case they're needed.
Although the Tar Heels relied heavily on freshman Reilly Hovis in Friday's victory, a few other arms in the UNC bullpen were saved in the likelihood they'd be needed Saturday.
"We didn't use Trent Thornton (against Clemson)," said Coach Fox. "There were some thoughts about that in terms of the games (coming up). We didn't use him (Thornton). We didn't use Chris Munnelly. "We didn't throw Chris McCue as many pitches as we may have."
"From a pitching standpoint I think we're in pretty good shape, and it's sort of scripted out like we wanted considering it went five extra innings (on Friday night)."
While some have questioned the validity of a round-robin setup for a conference baseball tournament, Coach Fox stressed some of the positives of such a format, and reiterated that any game this time of year is a big game, no matter the opponent or the circumstances.
"I personally like this format, because you get all three of your starters a start, and you get a day off. So I think most of the coaches probably like this format," he said.
"Anybody that watched this game (against Clemson) and stayed here for five hours, I don't think anybody thought once the game started that it doesn't matter. From my standpoint, it mattered because this was a great game to be a part of."
When UNC and N.C. State match up in any athletic endeavor it draws some attention, but this is different.
For the second straight year, the Diamond Heels and Wolfpack are coming together in a matchup that is helping re-invent the ACC Baseball Tournament into an attention-grabbing spectacle bigger than it's ever been in its history.
Passions run so deep in this series that it's no surprise there's going to be a sellout crowd in Durham Saturday night, and nothing short of the annual men's basketball and football games come close to measuring up.
When you add in the stakes of the game, that it's now essentially an single-elimination ACC Tournament semifinal and one of these teams will play for the ACC title Sunday and one won't, there's a entirely higher level of anticipation and excitement for this renewal of one of the South's great collegiate rivalries.