Sunday, November 22, 2015

Another Name Scratched From The Concert Bucket List

The wife and I went to see Brian Wilson in Durham the other night, a thrilling and genuinely great concert, two exhilarating hours that flew by in what seemed like about 30 minutes.

Wilson doesn’t sing much these days — they say the legs are the first thing to go, and the voice is no doubt second — but he’s surrounded himself with a jaw-dropping collection of musical talent, a 12-piece backing band built around fellow Beach Boys founder Al Jardine and the spectacular LA group the Wondermints. When Wilson did take his turn at the microphone, especially on the half-dozen or so songs from his new album Pier Pressure, his voice may have sounded a bit worn in places, but was always warm and oh-so familiar and comforting. If Wilson doesn’t hit all the notes any longer, he doesn’t have to. He leaves that to his incredible band, spreading the wealth around much as he did back in the day with the Beach Boys.

Jardine’s son Matt handled Wilson’s falsetto vocal parts flawlessly (he absolutely crushed it on “Don’t Worry Baby”). Wondermints co-founder Darian Sahanaja sang the lead part on “Darlin’ ” and turned in a stunning cover that rivaled Carl Wilson’s original lead vocal from 1967’s Wild Honey album. The elder Jardine took the lead on most of the rest of the vintage Beach Boys material, of which there was an abundance. The backing ensemble was flawless instrumentally, and performed sheer magic on all those signature Beach Boys vocal harmony arrangements. It was, simply, a phenomenal concert.

And so I got to scratch one more legend from my bucket list of concerts to see before I hit life’s exit ramp. And with Brian Wilson’s name removed, the remaining list suddenly isn’t all that impressive. Six weeks from my 64th birthday, I’ve seen most of the great musical acts of my lifetime. Most of the rest are either dead or no longer playing. What remains is a rather skimpy list of performers, few of whom I’d characterize as must-see.

Van Morrison, Neil Young and Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra are probably the top three names here, each of them a heavy hitter, and I’d especially like the chance to see Morrison and Lynne. John Fogerty, Patti Smith and David Bowie also reside in rock’s high-rent district. I hope to see them all, but it’s funny how that works. I’d love to see Crosby, Stills & Nash, too, but I’ve passed on multiple opportunities to see them in the past, so what does that say? I’ve also passed on Ringo Starr more than once, but probably will break down and go the next time he plays within driving distance. He is a Beatle, after all.

All in all, it’s a lightweight list compared to the names on the stubs in my ticket-stub box — Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan & the Band, Eric Clapton, the Who, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, the Grateful Dead, Fairport Convention, Joni Mitchell, the Allman Brothers Band, and now Brian Wilson.

If there’s a moral to this story, it escapes me. I started this to pay tribute to Brian Wilson’s greatness and genius, so let’s leave it at that. Bruce Springsteen is, for me anyway, the greatest musical artist this country has ever produced, but Brian Wilson’s is one of the few names also in that conversation. And Wilson’s all-time masterpiece, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, is easily the greatest record ever made by an American act.

There is a rival band out there — fronted by Wilson's cousin and fellow original Beach Boy Mike Love — that goes by the name the Beach Boys, but don’t be fooled. Love may have won the legal claim to the name “Beach Boys” many years ago, but Wilson and his touring band are superior by a factor of about a thousand.

Brian Wilson may prove to be the last legend I'll get to scratch from my bucket list. If so, no complaints here. There’s something to be said for saving the best for last.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Upstaged By The Opening Act

Rock ’n’ roll concerts have evolved over the years. There was a time when rock shows were traveling revues of five or six or more bands, playing 20-30 minutes apiece before a headline act capped off the evening with maybe a 40-minute set of its own. This was especially true of soul and rhythm and blues revues on the Chitlin Circuit during the 1950s and ’60s, but it was true for early rock shows as well.

At some point, demand for an extended set by headliners led to fewer and shorter sets by opening bands. Nowadays fewer concerts than ever feature an an opening act, which is just as well. Most people only care about seeing the top name on the marque, and since most musicians tell time about as well as your average 3-year-old, the last thing we need to do is give them another reason to start their set two hours late.

While we’re on the subject of opening acts, we should note that there have been instances over the years when an opening act badly upstaged the headliner. Such a mismatch occurred on Oct. 16, 1971, at Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke. Yes, boys and girls, there once was a time when Cameron hosted rock concerts. In fact, Cameron used to be one of the best concert venues in the Southeast, and a sound engineer’s dream acoustically. The Duke Union’s Major Attractions committee took advantage by booking some of the best shows ever during the 1970s.

This was before Duke hired Mike Krzyzewski as basketball coach. It didn’t take Coach K long to have all the acoustic tile removed from the ceiling at Cameron, turning a sonic dream into one of the worst echo chambers in the country. You can’t blame Krzyzewski. He’s a basketball coach, not a concert promoter. He wanted it loud in there and that’s exactly what he got. But it was ruined forever as a concert venue.

Pardon the digression.

Now, where were we? Oh yes. On Oct. 16, 1971, Traffic played at Cameron Indoor Stadium. This was a pretty big deal at the time. Touring in support of its most recent and arguably most successful album, Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys, Traffic was pretty much at its peak as a commercial enterprise. Dave Mason was long gone from the lineup, but Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi still gave the band a star-studded nucleus, and they had a succession of critically acclaimed albums to their credit.

Unfortunately for Traffic, Duke Major Attractions booked the English folk band Fairport Convention as the opening act. Not as widely popular as Traffic but with a devoted fanbase, Fairport was coming off an extended period of upheaval in its ranks. In the previous two years, three of its most important players — vocalists Iain Matthews and Sandy Denny, and guitarist extraordinaire Richard Thompson — had departed, yet still the band soldiered on. With a stellar lineup that included Dave Mattacks, Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, Philip Stirling Wall and Dave Swarbrick, Fairport Convention electrified the Cameron crowd with a mostly acoustic set that nonetheless had far more rocking energy than most rock shows of the day.

Traffic, not noted for its stemwinding live performances to begin with, never stood a chance. Maybe without the over-the-top opening act, Traffic might have been able to satisfy the audience that night, but Traffic’s more subtle and nuanced material was overmatched. Fairport Convention’s rave-up performance blew them away.

Two years and four days later — Oct. 20, 1973 — Duke Major Attractions again badly mismatched opening and headline acts, this time with Commander Cody & The Lost Planet Airmen opening for the New Riders of the Purple Sage.

The New Riders (aka NRPS) were riding a small wave of popularity generated in large part by the fact that the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia played pedal steel guitar on their debut album. Playing a laid-back brand of lightweight country-rock, NRPS was a solid unit but not a likely candidate to set the world on fire, far better suited for a 500-seat theater show than the 7,000 or so rowdy fans who showed up at Cameron that night.

Commander Cody, on the other hand, was a powerhouse outfit with a well-earned reputation for incendiary, scorched-earth live performances. Their most recent album — Live From Deep In The Heart Of Texas, recorded at Austin’s famed Armadillo World Headquarters — was a dynamo of a live record, one of the best and most underrated live records of the decade. Their show at Cameron that night was even more raucous and frenzied than the record, non-stop roadhouse intensity. By the time the boys from Texas finished their 40-minute opening set, NRPS was toast. Commander Cody wore the place out.

Whoever thought Commander Cody would be a good opening act for the New Riders definitely owes the New Riders an apology.

The moral of the story thus far is not to book high-energy acts as openers for low-energy headliners. That’s definitely a formula for disaster, but what happens when the headliner conspires to make conditions even worse?

On Feb. 15, 1974, Kris Kristofferson played at the heinous Dorton Arena on the North Carolina state fairgrounds. The opening act was an unknown country veteran by the name of Waylon Jennings. You can probably see where this is going already. Despite having more than 20 albums to his credit at the time, Waylon still was so unknown that he was listed on the ticket and concert poster as Maylon Jennings. That would soon change.

Waylon’s most recent album was Honky Tonk Heroes, his stirring tribute to the legendary Texas songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, and it proved to be his breakthrough album. As a live act, Jennings had long ago established his bona fides, thanks to more than a decade of playing the rowdy roadhouses of the South and Southwest. He and the Waylors were a formidable live act and they were sensational on Feb. 15, 1974.

Kristofferson was already an established star by 1974, a huge star, in fact, and for good reason. His first several albums were masterpieces of songcraft, yielding such classics as “Me And Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever do Again),” “The Taker,” “Why Me” and “From The Bottle To The Bottom.” That last number proved to be autobiographical, unfortunately, and by the time Kristofferson came to Dorton Arena, his out-of-control alcoholism was a poorly kept secret.

Adding to Kristofferson’s problems than night, he was more of a folkie, singer/songwriter type than anything else. He was not known for high-energy concerts. So when he hit the stage that evening at Dorton Arena, with the building still smoldering from Waylon’s incredible blowout show, the combination of Kristofferson’s obviously drunken state and his abysmal sleepwalk of a performance was embarrassing and painful to witness. He had to stop his band in mid-song several times because he couldn’t remember the lyrics, and even when he did manage to stumble through a song without interruption, his performance was wobbly and unfocused at best. It was an outright disaster.

Happily, Kristofferson kicked his drinking habit a few years later, and even expanded his creative outlets to include a successful acting career. Nowadays he commands the respect and admiration he so richly deserves as one of country music’s all-time great songwriters, but it wasn’t always the case, especially on that 1974 evening at Dorton Arena when he aided and abetted to help an opening act blow him right off the stage.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

In Praise Of Ticket Stubs

There was a time, before home computers allowed us to print our own, when an event ticket really meant something. Nowadays, most of us just print our tickets on an 8-1/2-by-11-inch sheet of paper that has all the sentimental value of a college term paper or a form letter from the DMV.

An actual ticket was something else entirely. Usually printed on slick card stock and measuring about an inch-and-a-half wide and about five inches long, a ticket carried the name of the event and venue, the date of the event, the price of the ticket, the location of your seats (on each end of the ticket), and occasionally a distinctive event or venue logo, all on no more than seven square inches of paper.

When you went to the event in question and entered the venue, a ticket taker would tear your ticket in half, keep half of it for the house to count and give half of it back to you. This was your ticket stub, which served multiple purposes. The most immediate use for your ticket stub was to let you know the section, row and number of your seat. Ticket stubs had a more sentimental use, however, especially if the event was a rock ’n’ roll concert. Assuming the name of the event was on your half of the ticket, the stub made for an easy-to-lose but occasionally valuable souvenir of the event.

Few people hang onto ticket stubs, of course, especially from rock ’n’ roll shows from decades ago. We’re talking about an inch square piece of paper, after all. Most people lost them before their first trip to the bathroom. Some people kept their stubs as bookmarks and lost them when they lost the book. Others used them as drug paraphernalia. Almost no one bothered to keep their ticket stubs for posterity’s sake.

I did.

Using an old Disc Washer box for storage (if you don’t know what a Disc Washer was/is, then you’re not the vinyl snob you think you are), I managed to keep the ticket stubs from about 125 concerts, dating back to a 1970 Led Zeppelin concert at Raleigh’s heinous Dorton Arena. That Disc Washer box includes ticket stubs from rock ’n’ roll concerts, folk revivals, country shows and bluegrass festivals. It includes tickets from clubs seating fewer than a hundred to stadiums that seat 60,000 or more. It does not include stubs from dozens of club shows that either did not involve a ticket stub or involved printing your own tickets at home.

In that last category are at least three great shows by the Flatlanders and several by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, one of which, in 1997, featured a total unknown named Patty Griffin as the opening act. Likewise, I have no ticket stub from a Charlie Daniels Band-Ozark Mountain Daredevils show at Elon College in April 1975. That show was significant because the opening act was Emmylou Harris, another total unknown whose limited following at the time included a handful of Gram Parsons fans (only a handful of people even knew of Gram Parsons in 1975) and no one else. There was the Kris Kristofferson show at NC State’s Reynolds Coliseum in 1971 when the headliner was so drunk that he literally fell off the stage. No ticket stub from that one either, but the memory of Kristofferson’s pratfall is one that keeps on giving.

I’m also missing ticket stubs from several outdoor spring festivals held in the early 1970s on the campuses of NC State, Duke and North Carolina, festivals that included acts as varied as James Taylor, Pacific Gas & Electric, Canned Heat, the Steve Miller Band, Joe Cocker, the Byrds, the J. Geils Band and Hot Tuna. But rather than focus on what’s not in my Disc Washer box, let’s focus on what is.

Among the highlights: I saw one fairly historic concert — the Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers Band at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., in June 1973. I attended concerts from three legendary tours — the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street tour in 1972, the Bob Dylan and the Band tour from 1974, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s River tour in 1980-81 — and have the ticket stubs to prove it. I also have recordings of the Stones and Springsteen shows, which were spectacular, even if the recordings aren’t.

I saw the Who on their 1972 Who’s Next tour, which should rank up there with the Stones, Springsteen and Dylan & the Band, but doesn’t, for reasons we’ll get into later. There are ticket stubs in that box from a handful of shows that I vaguely remember, and a few from shows I don’t remember at all. Two or three shows I’d rather just forget, but I kept the ticket stub nonetheless.

The ticket stubs in that box evoke enough stories and memories — some happy, some not, some funny, some sad, some legal, some illegal — that they’ll be the subject of a series of future posts on this blog, beginning in the weeks ahead. I’m not sure where I’ll start, but the possibilities are almost limitless.

Remember: Old guys rock!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Look Ahead: NC State To Omaha In 2016?

For the second time in four years, Kendall Rogers — with Perfect Game USA in 2012 and now with D1Baseball — has looked into his crystal ball and chosen NC State as one of his “Eight For Omaha” for the upcoming college baseball season.

Rogers was right the first time, in July 2012, based in large part on the presence of All-Americans Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner, backed by a deep, talented and veteran supporting cast. Rogers didn’t venture too far out onto that proverbial limb to make that prediction, and the Wolfpack rode a razor’s edge for most of 2013 before ultimately advancing to the College World Series for the first time in 45 years.

Rogers’ prediction for 2016 is much more complex, much more nuanced, and much less of a sure thing. That’s not to say the 2013 Wolfpack was a sure thing, nor is it to say that Rogers is wrong about 2016. Let’s just say that if NC State wants to advance to Omaha next June, several key pieces will have to fall into place, all of them well within the realm of possibility but none of them a sure thing. Rogers briefly addressed three of them in his capsule look at the 2016 Pack.

First, he said that head coach Elliott Avent’s team will be stronger moving forward because of the 2015 team’s epic meltdown in the 2015 regional finals at TCU. Second, he noted that Avent will have to replace senior hitters Logan Ratledge and Jake Fincher. And finally, he assumed a major fact not yet in evidence (sorry, been watching too many Perry Mason reruns lately) when he asserted that a much more consistent Cory Wilder will team with rising sophomore lefthander Brian Brown to give NC State “two big-time arms in the weekend rotation.”

Let’s take these in reverse order of importance. As much as NC State will miss Ratledge and Fincher’s offensive production, it’s their leadership that Avent will have the most trouble replacing. This is especially true of Ratledge but it applies to Fincher as well. Together, they gave the Wolfpack its best team leadership since Tarran Senay, Grant Clyde, Bryan Adametz and Brett Williams led the 2013 team to the College World Series. It was Ratledge and Fincher who steered this year’s team through some tough early losses. It was Ratledge and Fincher who kept the team together through an awful losing stretch in April. And it was Ratledge and Fincher who kept the team between the ditches and barreling straight ahead as it gained momentum during its red-hot run through the month of May.

No question, Ratledge was NC State’s best player, an All-America-caliber middle infielder who got shafted by the coaches in his own conference, relegating him to third-team All-ACC. But the Wolfpack returns plenty of potent bats in 2016, led by catcher Andrew Knizner and first baseman Preston Palmeiro, but also including catcher/outfielder Chance Shepard, third baseman Joe Dunand and outfielders Tommy DeJuneas, Josh McLain and Brock Deatherage. Of that group, Shepard is a rising senior, and Knizner and Palmeiro are rising juniors. The rest will be sophomores. Add incoming freshman infielder Xavier LeGrant, an exceptional hitting prospect, to the mix and NC State should score its share of runs in 2016.

The unanswered question is who will assume the mantle of leadership, and the easy guess is Knizner and Palmeiro. Knizner was a 2014 Freshman All-America third baseman, then seamlessly moved behind the plate this year. His leadership of the pitching staff was a team strength. Palmeiro, meanwhile, grew up in major league clubhouses, tagging after his father, 20-year big leaguer Rafael Palmeiro, in late-career stops with the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles. Preston Palmeiro may have the best baseball IQ on the NC State roster, and you would be hard-pressed to name one instance during his first two years with the Wolfpack when he let the game speed up on him. He and Knizner would appear to be 2016’s natural team leaders.

Next up the list is the pitching staff. I’ve earned a reputation as something of a scold on the subject of pitchers who don’t throw strikes, so I’ll try not to dwell too long on the subject here. It is an issue, however, and it’s not just about Wilder, whose upside is so off-the-charts that even an incremental improvement in his command could turn him into a potential All-American and first-round draft pick in 2016.

If this was a matter of one pitcher fighting to find the strike zone, then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion, but as a staff — as a staff! — NC State averaged 4.62 walks per nine innings in 2015. Five Wolfpack pitchers averaged more than 5.0 walks per nine innings. Pack pitchers walked six or more 20 times in 59 games. They walked five or more 30 times. Lack of command is usually, although not always, incurable, at least in college where winning matters and the leash is subsequently short. The light may turn on for one pitcher, but the odds of several figuring it out at once, well, that’s a long shot.

With all that said, there is hope for this staff, but also considerable work still to be done. The Wolfpack held opposing hitters to a .215 batting average, second best in the conference, but erratic control — 274 walks and an ACC-worst 79 hit batters — led to a .335 opponents on-base percentage. Sixty-four wild pitches, two shy of the league lead, led to at least that many free extra bases (probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 or more extra runs, but that’s an educated guess). Deep pitch counts by starting pitchers forced the bullpen to throw 35 more innings than the starters for the season.

Despite this wild ride, NC State finished the year with a remarkable 2.93 staff ERA, second in the ACC and a tribute to first-year pitching coach Scott Foxhall, who took over a young and inexperienced pitching staff and deftly guided it all the way to the finals of an NCAA regional. And despite the meltdown in the regional finals in Fort Worth, NC State still might have beaten TCU and advanced to a Super Regional except for one of the worst balk calls in the history of the game.

Speaking of the meltdown in Fort Worth, how NC State recovers from that has to rank at the top of any list of questions facing the Wolfpack in 2016. Rogers assumes that the Pack will be stronger for it, another fact not yet in evidence (objection overruled!), yet Rogers is likely right. One thing is for certain — the 2016 Wolfpack will either be defined by that meltdown or will return to campus in the fall with a steely resolve not to let that happen ever again. This goes back to the leadership issue discussed above. With a strong and deep nucleus of experienced position players back next year, it only stands to reason this team could be one of the best and mentally toughest late-inning teams in the country.

Does all of that add up to a trip to Omaha? Not necessarily, but it should put NC State on the short list of College World Series contenders.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Leggett Firing Sends A Chill Though College Baseball

The news release arrived via email at 11:33 a.m. on June 4, with the stunning headline:

“Clemson Parts Ways with Head Coach Jack Leggett.”

Twelve days later, the brain still won’t wrap itself around the fact that somehow, a featherweight bean-counter of an AD named Dan Radakovich got away with firing a Hall-of-Fame baseball coach like Jack Leggett. It just doesn’t compute, and for those of you who don’t believe that college athletics is royally fucked up from the top down, this is Exhibit A.

Read Radakovich’s on-line bio, and then read Leggett’s. The inescapable conclusion is that Leggett’s professional body of work is more impressive, by a factor of about 10,000, than that of the man who fired him. Welcome to the Bizarro World of college athletics in the 21st century.

By all measures, Leggett was a great coach at Clemson. He won 955 games in 22 years as the Tigers head coach. He led them to six College World Series appearances and seven top-10 finishes in the national polls. His record in the NCAA Tournament was an exceptional 68-47. For his career, he ranked among the five winningest active coaches in college baseball with 1,332 victories, although Radakovich killed that one by making Leggett inactive, at least for the time being. Leggett coached the Tigers to 40 or more wins 16 times in 22 seasons, and to 50 or more wins six times, including a school-record 57 victories in 1994, his first year on the job. He sent countless players on to professional baseball, including several who excelled in the big leagues. Leggett was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame on Jan. 3, 2014.

Radakovich, by contrast, can proudly claim that in his previous stints as an AD — at American University and at Georgia Tech — he left both programs more or less exactly as he found them. His six years at Georgia Tech (2007-12) read remarkably like the six years that preceded him, except that Tech’s employees were probably much happier before he got there and are no doubt much happier since he left. Still, there’s something to be said for maintaining the status quo. Of course, it’s hard to escape the fact that “Georgia Tech Athletics: We Still Don’t Suck” isn’t exactly the most effective marketing slogan.

In fairness, Radakovich didn’t create the current environment in college athletics, but he is a product of that environment, perhaps the inevitable, quintessential product. His background is in finance, after all. That’s an all-too-attractive trait these days, given that the cost of doing business in college athletics is rapidly approaching a level that would appear economically unsustainable.

Despite huge TV and online media contracts, ultimately the money that drives the engine comes from boosters (a word that should make all of us want to take a hot shower). The internet has given fans (i.e., boosters) far too much access and immediacy, and consequently they want results now, now, now. And unfortunately, the typical college administrator would rather kill his or her own mother than ever offend one of the booster club’s heavy hitters, no matter how stupid, petty, small-minded and self-serving that booster may be (as far too many of them are).

This has led to a widespread corporatization of administration throughout college athletics. As the need to raise tons of money has risen along with the demand to win immediate championships, wearing a tailor-made suit and tie has become far more important than ever having worn a jockstrap. This is how someone with impeccable credentials like Leggett came to be working for someone with no apparent credentials whatsoever like Radakovich.

The fact that Leggett’s last College World Series appearance was in 2010 seems to be his greatest offense, which is ridiculous. Many great coaches have gone more than five years between trips to Omaha, including Jerry Kindall (Arizona), Ray Tanner (South Carolina), Jim Morris (Miami) and Mark Marquiss (Stanford), each of whom won two national championships. Meanwhile, none of the coaches (zero, not any, the null set) being rumored as Leggett’s possible replacement has ever been to the College World Series as a head coach. It just makes no sense.

South Carolina’s back-to-back national championships in 2010 and 2011 (and a near three-peat in 2012) certainly played a role in Leggett’s demise, but since Tanner stepped down as head coach to become AD in the summer of 2012, his successor, Chad Holbrook, has presided over a full-scale regression of the South Carolina program, to the point that the Gamecocks lost a regional at home to Maryland a year ago and didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament field in 2015.

South Carolina’s demise no doubt will help Leggett’s successor, even if it did nothing to save him. In the end, Radakovich, who famously trashed his Hall-of-Fame coach in an infamous newspaper interview a year ago, apparently had far less trouble walking Leggett to the gallows than his public pronouncements to the contrary would indicate.

The implications of the Leggett firing go far beyond Clemson and its rabid and often mentally unhinged fanbase. In firing Jack Leggett, Radakovich sent a deep chill throughout college baseball. There’s not a coach anywhere in the country who didn’t stop at some point over the last two weeks and ask himself, “If Jack Leggett can be fired, can I really be safe?”

The answer to that, unfortunately, is a resounding “No!”

Which brings us closer to home. NC State’s fanbase shares the same demographic DNA as Clemson’s. Wolfpack fans can be every bit as demented, delusional and irrational as their cousins south of the N.C.-S.C. state line. There is a large and loud segment of haters within the State fanbase that wants to fire somebody each and every day — be it the coach who doesn’t go undefeated every year, the AD who can’t seem to win because he’s being heavily outspent by every other school in the conference, or the poor media relations director who did nothing wrong but made a convenient target for whatever crazy reason. There’s a small subset of the aforementioned segment of haters that follows baseball, and that subset has grumbled about Elliott Avent for years. They’re grumbling louder than ever since the Wolfpack’s collapse at TCU in this year’s regional finals, but instead of grumbling they should stop and admire one of Avent’s very best coaching jobs.

Think back to February. Neither Baseball America nor picked NC State to earn an NCAA at-large bid, and why would they? The team was coming off a disappointing 2014 season that began with great expectations and ended in the play-in round of the conference tournament. Lefthander Carlos Rodon and shortstop Trea Turner, first-round draft picks and among the very greatest players in program history, were gone. The Pack also lost catcher Brett Austin and pitchers Logan Jernigan, Eric Peterson, Patrick Peterson and Andrew Woeck to the draft. The incoming recruiting class had talent but not elite-level talent. Several newcomers contributed, but only freshman lefty Brian Brown made a significant impact.

With a young and inexperienced team in an unforgiving conference and facing low expectations, Avent used a positive and upbeat approach to navigate a turbulent up-and-down season to a 36-23 final record. He deftly steered the ship through a deep slump in April, then went to the whip to bring his club down the home stretch with a red-hot month of May. Yes, the clock struck midnight six outs and one horrific balk call shy of an NCAA Super Regional. Still, who expected NC State to reach that point in the first place? Certainly, no one did back in February. Or April.

In a sane world, Avent wouldn’t have to worry about his job. His 19-year body of work at NC State is impressive — 14 NCAA regional appearances, 11 NCAA regional appearances in the last 13 years, four NCAA Super Regionals and a College World Series berth. He was national coach of the year in 2003. He’s coached 21 All-Americans, including six first-team All-Americans. He coached NC State’s only Golden Spikes finalist, and its only Brooks Wallace Award winner. He fields competitive teams year after year, and no one is more loyal to NC State than Avent. No one. Despite some flaws, Avent is an excellent baseball coach, especially on the field where his game-management skills are constantly overlooked and underrated.

Judging by the Leggett firing, however, this is not a sane world. Despite multiple years remaining on his contract and an excellent record of success, Avent works for a demanding and difficult AD (to put it kindly) who did not hire him and who already has fired and replaced eight head coaches since arriving in 2010.

So maybe Avent has good reason to worry about his job. He shouldn’t. A good reason to worry is not the same thing as the right reason to fire him. That reason exists only in the minds of the crazies on the online  message boards and the drive-time radio talk shows. Let it stay there and die there.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Doubleheader Walk-Off Back Into Contention

In the three weeks leading up to its doubleheader sweep of 19th-ranked Virginia this past Sunday, NC State lost nine of 12 games, with seven of the nine losses by one or two runs. Five were one-run losses.

The Wolfpack played well enough to win most of those games, only to lose, often in agonizing fashion. Hit batters led directly to a pair of losses. A dropped fly ball in the outfield led to another. A pickoff killed a rally in a one-run loss. Botched bunt attempts thwarted potential rallies. So close, but so far away.

Virginia began the season ranked in the top 10 in all the major national polls, then won its first 10 games and 12 of its first 13 to rise to No. 1 before reality set in. After reaching the finals of the College World Series a year ago, the Cavaliers lost the heart of their offense and most of their bullpen to the draft and graduation. A rash of injuries further depleted the roster.

After the 12-1 start, UVa lost seven of nine, including a three-game sweep at Virginia Tech. The Cavs have lost series to perennial powers Florida State, Georgia Tech and Louisville, but also swept Notre Dame in South Bend the last weekend of March and rallied to defeat Coastal Division leader Miami two out of three the weekend before traveling to Raleigh.

So how good are the Cavaliers? Maybe not as good as anticipated early in the year, but much better recently and improving every week. Virginia’s inconsistency is mostly due to youth and inexperience, not a lack of talent. The Cavaliers have as many high-level recruits on the roster as anyone, and came to Raleigh having won five of their last six games and seven of their last 11. Before Sunday’s doubleheader they looked like a team finally making its move. The doubleheader sweep likely as not is a only temporary setback.

All of which makes NC State’s doubleheader sweep that much more satisfying and that much more significant. It took 12 games for the Wolfpack to fall out of bubble conversation for the NCAA Tournament. Friday’s loss in the series opener knocked the Pack down to No. 73 in the NCAA’s Ratings Performance Index, the far-too-important RPI. It took just two games — 19 innings, seven hours, and walk-off home runs by Bubby Riley and Joe Dunand — to put the Wolfpack right back in the discussion.

Sunday’s sweep, in fact, lifted the Pack 22 spots in the RPI, all the way to No. 51. That jump put NC State right back on the bubble, with three series — Longwood, at Wake Forest, and Louisville — and an RPI-boosting  conference tournament remaining. Yes, the Wolfpack needs to win more games to get where it wants to go, but big opportunities still await. Sunday’s doubleheader sweep should serve as a reminder to all who doubted — a big mea culpa here — that no team led by the likes of Logan Ratledge and Jake Fincher will ever just roll over and play dead.

The sweep did not come without its imperfections. The Wolfpack struggled with situational hitting, but let’s be fair. Good pitching has a lot to do with that. Virginia has a load of talent on its pitching staff. More to the point, the Wolfpack pitched well and played stellar defense both games, and pitching and defense always give a team a chance to win.

NC State pitching held the Cavaliers to four earned runs (a 1.89 ERA) and a .214 batting average in 19 innings Sunday. UVa was 5-for-41 with runners on base in the doubleheader, 5-for-26 with runners in scoring position and 2-for-19 with two outs.

Starting pitchers Cory Wilder and Johnny Piedmonte combined to limit Virginia to two runs on five hits in eight innings. The bullpen allowed just two earnies in 11 innings. Will Gilbert and Tommy DeJuneas both were terrific, combining to allow four hits and strike out 11 in seven tense, shutout innings, each recording a win in the twin-bill.

Defensively, NC State was superb. The Pack committed just two errors, one on a pickoff throw, the other on a low throw on a potential force play at second base. The NC State infield cut down four Virginia runners at home plate or in rundowns between third base and home, each a crucial, potentially game-saving out. Ratledge played shortstop in both games and dazzled, even covering second base twice when his keystone partners, both converted shortstops unaccustomed to the position, were late covering.

NC State still has some issues moving runners and manufacturing runs. Several of its pitchers still have problems finding the strike zone. In the doubleheader sweep of Virginia, however, the Wolfpack showed the mental toughness it takes to win in spite of those problems, and in the process won a pair of tight, low-scoring games it had to have, the kind of games that teams need to win to advance to, and survive in, the postseason.

Senior Leadership Deluxe: As his 19th season at NC State winds down, one thing can be said about Elliott Avent’s teams in Raleigh — they never lack for toughness. They seldom do things the easy way, but 13 NCAA Tournament appearances, four NCAA Super Regional appearances and a College World Series berth don’t just happen by accident. Avent’s teams are well-coached and play hard, and if they go down they go down swinging.

In an ideal world, Avent’s clubs would have great senior leadership every year, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, the guys you envision as next year’s senior leaders get drafted as juniors and sign, often when they shouldn’t. Still, Avent has had his share of great seniors, including about eight of them two years ago when the Pack went to Omaha. It’s hard to imagine a team having two better senior leaders than Logan Ratledge and Jake Fincher, though.

Many don’t even remember that Ratledge and Fincher were part of that great recruiting class that also produced first-round draft picks and future All-Americans Carlos Rodon, Trea Turner and Brett Austin. Those three were elite physical talents and got the lion’s share of headlines and attention for that class, which is understandable. Nonetheless, there are veteran baseball observers who will tell you that as great as those three were, that class would not have been the same without Ratledge and Fincher, who both came to Raleigh as high school All-Americans and two-time first-team all-state selections.

“Those two are like the glue that holds a class like that together,” an unnamed area scout for a National League team said before Sunday’s doubleheader with Virginia. “They don’t have the physical tools those other three guys have, but they’re good players and they bring leadership and a toughness that every good team has. They’ve both played hurt and still produced. They’re just winning players, gamers, and good teams always have guys like that.”

A year ago, Rodon, Turner and Austin served as NC State’s team captains, complete with the letter “C” on the upper left breast of their uniform jerseys. There was no need to name captains this year. From day one, everyone knew who the leaders of this team would be. Fincher and Ratledge lead with their words and their deeds. When they move, center stage moves with them. That’s why Avent calls them the heart and soul of the team. As much as anyone, they’re the reason this team has hung around the playoff picture despite a mountain of adversity in recent weeks.

Walk-Off Madness: Believe it or not, Sunday’s sweep of Virginia marked the first time in nearly two years that NC State won a game in walk-off fashion, since the first game of the 2013 NCAA Super Regional vs. Rice. That’s especially surprising since the Wolfpack used to walk opponents off the field regularly. The 2005 and 2010 teams each won six walk-off games. The 2003 squad won five walk-offs, and the 2006 and 2013 teams each won four.

If you’re going to break a lengthy walk-off drought, no better way to do so than in both ends of a doubleheader. The last time NC State won back-to-back games with walk-offs was in 2010 — Feb. 23 vs. Campbell and Feb. 26 vs. Cal-Irvine, but the UCI game was not at Doak Field at Dail Park. The Wolfpack played the Anteaters in a neutral-site game in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Fans might remember that one since Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson won it with a tape-measure three-run homer in the 10th inning, capping a five-run rally and lifting NC State to a 7-4 victory.

The only other time since the start of the 2003 season that NC State had back-to-back walk-off wins was in 2005, when it won three games via walk-off in a span of four games. The first was a 9-8 win over Clemson in the finale of a weekend series. The following Friday, North Carolina came to town for a three-game set and walked unhappily off the field following a 6-5 NC State victory, its second walk-off win in a row. UNC actually scored twice in the top of the ninth inning to tie that game at 5-5, but NC State won with a run in the bottom of the inning. The Pack then won the series finale 8-7 in 10 innings.

The Virginia doubleheader sweep gave NC State its 36th and 37th walk-off victories since 2003.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Regarding Logan Ratledge, One-Run Losses And More

Logan Ratledge enters this weekend’s key Atlantic Coast Conference series vs. Virginia riding a 21-game hitting streak, which is tied for the third longest hitting streak in NC State history, behind only Greg Briley’s 26-game streak in 1986 and Tom Sergio’s 25-gamer in 1995. Ryan Matthews in 2012 and Brian Wright in 1999 also had 21-game hitting streaks for NC State. That’s the rather exclusive neighborhood Ratledge is living in right now.

Ratledge has been blazing hot during his hitting streak, batting .437 (38-for-87) with 12 doubles, a triple, two home runs, 21 runs scored, 10 RBIs and four steals in five attempts. He had two or more hits in 12 of the 21 games, including three three-hit games and Tuesday night’s 4-for-5 performance at East Carolina. During the hitting streak, he has increased his batting average from .312 to its current .384.

The streak began with a 2-for-4 outing March 18 at UNC Greensboro, and aside from a 1-for-6 game in 14 innings last weekend at Notre Dame — the one hit came in the 12th inning — Ratledge has avoided any suspenseful late-inning at-bats with the hitting streak on the line. In 10 of the 21 games, he hit safely in the first inning. In 15 of the 21 he hit safely by the third. The 14-inning affair at Notre Dame was the only game during the streak in which Ratledge did not have a hit by the sixth inning. He has taken care of business early, which has allowed him to pile up the hits. Barring an unexpected extension of the season, however, Ratledge will only be able to pile the hits so high.

With just 13 games left on the 2015 schedule, time is running out for Ratledge and the Wolfpack. NC State has lost five games to bad weather, and while the coaches are no doubt looking everywhere to add games, it’s difficult this time of year. Teams looking to add games late in the season seldom look to add games they might lose. And the teams they do want to play (in other words, bad teams) have no incentive whatsoever to extend what for them is an already miserable season.

The only other chance for the Wolfpack to extend its season is to finish strong, make the field of 10 for the ACC Championship in late May and make some noise there, and then hope for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in June. Based on recent play, the former looks possible but not without a lot of work between now and then. The latter, while still attainable, looks like a distant long shot at best.

And that’s too bad because Ratledge is having a phenomenal season that deserves to live on past mid-May, even if NC State’s season does not. Assuming the Wolfpack only plays the 13 games currently remaining on the schedule, Ratledge is on pace to finish with 78 hits, 50 runs, 20 doubles, seven home runs, 30 walks and 11 stolen bases. That’s an excellent season, but those numbers will hardly make a ripple in the school record book, and nothing could be more misleading. Extend those numbers another 10 games or so and future NC State fans might be able to look back and realize just what a great 2015 season Logan Ratledge actually had.

One-Run Futility: The statheads of the world will tell you that a team’s record in one-run games is more or less meaningless, determined as much by luck and other random factors as by anything quantifiable. It is without question the height of ego and vanity that stat geeks write off anything and everything they can’t explain as a matter of random happenstance — “If we can’t explain it, then it doesn’t exist” is the common mantra — but in this case they seem to be on to something.

The fact of the matter is that a team’s record in one-run games often explains very little and is nearly impossible to explain. Sometimes a great team has a mediocre or even poor record in one-run games. There are bad teams, on the other hand, that seem to win way more than their share of one-run contests. In other words, a team’s record in one-run games doesn’t always reflect the team’s overall record. So what does it reflect?

In 18 seasons heading into 2015, Elliott Avent’s NC State teams sported a 139-98 record in one-run games, a .586 winning percentage and an average annual record of roughly 8-5. Only five of Avent’s previous 18 teams had losing records in one-run games, the worst being a 4-7 mark in 1999.

With two exceptions, Avent’s best teams all had terrific records in one-run games. The 2013 College World Series team, for instance, was an exemplary 14-4 in games decided by one run. The 2003 team, the school’s first NCAA Super Regional team, was 12-3. The 2005 team was 8-3 and the 2006 team was 11-6. The two outliers were 1997, Avent’s first NC State team, which finished 6-8 in one-run games, and the 2012 team, which went to the NCAA Super Regional in Gainesville but was 7-10 in one-run games.

Thirteen of Avent’s previous 18 squads played in the NCAA Tournament, so he’s only had five teams that qualified as mediocre, one of them outright bad. Those teams’ record in one games was a combined 33-30. The 2000 team finished 30-28 overall but had an 11-6 record in one-run games. The 2009 team, Avent’s only losing team, was 5-4 in one-run games. Go figure.

Clearly, it’s tough to make sense of it, and that goes double for this year’s squad, which, after Tuesday’s 6-5 loss at East Carolina, was a miserable 0-7 in one-run games. Five of the Pack’s last eight losses were by one run. The Wolfpack is 0-5 in ACC games decided by one run.

NC State is batting .275 with two outs for the season, but far too many of those two-out hits have come with the bases empty. The Wolfpack is hitting .255 with runners on base and two outs, .235 with runners in scoring position and two outs. NC State has had 124 leadoff hitters reach base in 338 innings. Only 69 of them scored, 55.6 percent.

The problem has only gotten worse in recent weeks. Following a season-best seven-game winning streak in late March, NC State has lost eight of its last 11 games, with five one-run losses. The Pack is hitting .243 in the 11 games, with only Logan Ratledge (.404) and Ryne Willard (.366) hitting better than .250.  State batters are hitting .217 with runners on base in the 11 games, .146 with runners in scoring position, .205 with two outs, and .000 (0-for-9) with the bases loaded. The pitching staff has a solid if slightly deceptive 3.18 ERA in the 11 games, with 56 walks and 15 hit batters in 99 innings. Opponents are batting .203 against the Pack in that span, with a WHIP of 1.28. So despite all the traffic on the basepaths, the pitching has been good enough to win most nights.

Explaining all this in terms of one-run games is a fool’s errand, but one thing cannot be overlooked: NC State’s season has been defined by one-run losses. Had the Wolfpack won four of those seven one-run defeats, its record would be 25-13 instead of 21-17, an enormous difference. Winning just two of those five one-run ACC losses would turn State’s conference record from 9-11 to 11-9. Take a gander at the conference standings and you’ll understand how important that could be.

In the BBCOR bat era, college baseball teams need to be able to manufacture runs and throw strikes. NC State does neither, but the recent inability to execute the little game has overtaken the pitching staff’s wildness as the team’s greatest shortcoming, turning a talented offensive team into a bad offensive team. As one knowledgeable observer in the press box noted Tuesday night in Greenville, East Carolina put on a clinic in all the little things NC State can’t do.

And that, as much as anything, probably explains NC State’s 0-7 record in one-run games.

Homers Are Up: Evidence nationwide indicates clearly that the new balls used in college baseball this season have had the desired effect of increasing offense, especially home runs. Scoring and home runs are up about 10 percent nationwide. At NC State, home runs clearly are on the rise.

After long balls by Preston Palmeiro and Shane Shepard on Tuesday at East Carolina, the Wolfpack had 30 homers in 38 games. A year ago, NC State hit 30 homers in 55 games. In 2013, the Pack hit just 29 homers despite playing 66 games and advancing to the College World Series.

From 2011-14, the first four seasons using the BBCOR bats, NC State hit 140 home runs in 246 games, an average of 0.57 per game. With 30 homers in 38 games this season, the Pack is averaging 0.79 homers per game, an increase of nearly 40 percent.

Traffic Control: The fact that NC State pitchers lead the universe in walks is hardly news. To their credit, though, Wolfpack pitchers have shown a remarkable penchant for pitching around all the runners on the basepaths, even as their walk rates have increased late in the season. In the last eight games, six of them losses, three of them one-run losses, Wolfpack pitchers have walked 51 in 71 innings, 6.5 walks per nine innings, but allowed just 31 runs and only 26 earned runs for a respectable ERA of 3.30.

For the year, State pitchers have walked five or more in a game 20 times in 38 games, including seven times in the last eight games; but have allowed six or fewer hits 18 times, including 11 times in the last 17 games.

Some Recent Pitching Trends: Despite a walk rate trending in the wrong direction, righthander and Friday night starter Cory Wilder has been downright unhittable most of the season, never more so that in the last month. In his last four starts, Wilder has allowed just five runs on seven hits while striking out 26 in 21 innings for a 1-1 record and a 2.14 ERA. Unfortunately, Wilder’s walk total — 17 in 21 innings the last four games — has forced him out of games much too early. Wilder has pitched into the seventh inning just once all season, an April 2 gem vs. Florida State, even though his raw stuff has allowed him to stay in games longer than one might expect, given all the full counts and walks.

Saturday starter Brian Brown, a freshman lefthander, has dealt with his share of deep counts, but he’s largely avoided the walk bugaboo that has plagued much of the staff. Brown has allowed just four runs, three earned, on 15 hits in 23 innings his last four starts, striking out 21 and walking just six. Brown has walked more than two in a game just once in nine appearances, and has 40 strikeouts and 15 walks in 45 1/3 innings.

Sophomore righthander Ryan Williamson stumbled in his last start, allowing four runs on three hits and four walks in 1 2/3 innings April 18 at Notre Dame, but his three previous outings, two of them in relief, were good. In those three appearances, he allowed just two earned runs on nine hits and four walks while striking out 17 in 12 1/3 innings for a 1.46 ERA.

Junior lefthander Travis Orwig, a bullpen staple much of the season for the 2013 CWS team, is back after missing 2014 because of Tommy John surgery. Orwig allowed three runs on two hits and two walks in one inning in his first appearance of the season, Feb. 22 at Coastal Carolina. In six appearances since then, he is 1-0 with a 0.71 ERA in 12 2/3 innings, striking out 10 and walking three.

Another bullpen mainstay, junior lefty Will Gilbert, had a two-run hiccup April 18 at Notre Dame, but otherwise has been excellent in relief. Minus the one game in South Bend, Gilbert has allowed two runs on eight hits in 19 innings (0.95 ERA) over his last 14 appearances. For the season he has allowed 14 hits and walked 10 in 26 1/3 innings, and has an 0-1 record, two saves and a 2.73 ERA.

Starters/Bullpen Breakdown: NC State’s bullpen continues to carry more than its share of the workload. Through 38 games, Wolfpack starting pitchers are 9-11 with a 3.66 ERA in 155 innings. The bullpen is 12-6 with a 2.79 ERA and seven saves in 187 innings, meaning the pen has pitched 54.7 percent of the Wolfpack’s innings this season. The excess workload shows. In the last 11 games, the relievers pitched 49 2/3 out of 99 innings, a much better ratio, but with a 3-5 record and a slightly inflated 3.26 ERA and two saves. We’re talking about a tiny sample size here, to be sure, but even the naked eye can see that the bullpen is showing signs of wear and tear as the innings pile up.

Dial Up A Six Pack: Six is the magic scoreboard number for NC State in 2015. The Wolfpack is 18-1 when it scores six or more runs this season, but 3-16 when it scores five or fewer.