Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Unofficial Scorer’s All-Wolfpack Baseball Team 1981-2016 — Second basemen

This is the third post in The Unofficial Scorer’s All-Wolfpack Baseball Team, 1981-2016. Today, we look at second basemen.

To recap how this team was selected, current players and players who finished their eligibility prior to 1981 were not eligible. Players who began their college career before 1981 but finished in 1981, ’82 or ’83 were eligible, with their pre-1981 achievements more or less grandfathered into this. This affected several players from the 1981 and ’82 teams.

At the end of the day, both objective analysis and subjective opinion played a role in determining who made this team. I’ve taken painstaking care in going over this to make sure I’ve included everyone who is worthy. If, however, I left off a deserving name, it was wholly inadvertent. And if your favorite player did not make this team, it was not intended in any way to diminish that player. NC State has had more than its share of great players. I couldn’t list everyone.

Coming Saturday: Third basemen.

• Second Base — Tom Sergio (1994-97)
Tom Sergio came to NC State as an unheralded recruit from the Philadelphia suburbs, a late signee whose only other Division I offer was from Virginia Commonwealth. He quickly established himself as one of the best hitters on one of the best hitting teams in college baseball, and was arguably the greatest leadoff hitter in program history. When he reached base, which he did about as frequently as anyone to ever wear the uniform, he usually made his way around the bases and crossed home plate. He still holds the Atlantic Coast Conference record with 290 runs scored. His speed enabled him to break the school’s career record for stolen bases (since shattered by Trea Turner). That same speed helped him turn singles into doubles, and doubles into triples. Sergio was ACC Freshman of the Year and a Freshman All-American in 1994 after batting .366 with 72 runs scored, 15 steals in 16 attempts. He had a .441 on-base percentage while slugging .469. And that was just a taste to whet the appetite. As a sophomore a year later, Sergio truly burst on the national scene, batting .391 with 70 runs scored, 17 steals, a then-school-record .489 on-base percentage and a .515 slugging percentage. In addition to earning first-team All-ACC, he was second-team All-America by The Sporting News. Typical of many draft eligible juniors, Sergio suffered something of an offensive drop-off in ’96. He batted .317 with a .399 on-base percentage, both figures representing a decline of nearly 20 percent from his 1995 totals. On the plus side, he belted 17 doubles and stole 23 bases, both career highs. His 21 extra-base hits gave him a .455 slugging percentage. It was a down season only by his own previous standards, and he more than atoned for it all as a senior in ’97. Sergio’s finale for the Wolfpack was grand, indeed. He batted .412 with 14 doubles, 16 homers, 85 runs scored, 68 runs driven in, 18 steals in 22 attempts, 51 walks, a .700 slugging percentage and a .526 on-base percentage. He set school records that year for runs scored, walks and OBP, and also set career highs in homers, hits (100), total bases (170) and RBIs. He was All-America for the second time in three years, and this time he was just the fourth-ever first-team All-American in NC State history. Nineteen years after playing his last college game, Sergio still figures prominently in the school record book. In addition to being the ACC record-holder for runs, he ranks among NC State’s career leaders with 362 hits (2nd), 19 triples (2nd), 73 steals (2nd), 150 walks (3rd), 243 games played (4th), 521 total bases (5th), a .370 batting average (6th) and 167 RBIs (8th). Career records for on-base percentage have not been kept by the NC State athletics communication office, but Sergio’s .461 mark would have to rank near the top of the list. He finished with a remarkable ratio of 150 career walks to just 105 strikeouts. He slugged .534, giving him a career OPS of .995. For what it’s worth, he is, to my memory, the only hitter in NC State history who never, not one single time, took a practice swing in the on-deck circle. Never once. He saved his swings for when it counted. And he definitely made each and every swing count.

• Second Team — Brian Ward (1998-99)

Brian Ward looked more than a wee bit like Barney Rubble from The Flintstones. He stood about 5-foot-7 and was listed at 188 pounds. At times he appeared to be about as wide as he was tall, although that was certainly an optical illusion. Ward also was a slow runner, to put it kindly. But my, oh my, how the little guy could hit. With a bat in his hands, he was the biggest guy in the room, anywhere he went. He had quick hands, a short stroke, superb bat-to-balls skills, and a high baseball IQ. If hitting is a craft, then Ward was a master craftsman. After a record-shattering career at Brevard Community College in Orlando, Fla., where he twice led the state in batting (hitting .434 and .471), Ward came to Raleigh and twice earned second-team All-ACC honors with huge offensive years for the Wolfpack. He finished second in the ACC with a .393 average as a junior in 1998, belting 11 home runs with 66 RBIs. He had 105 hits, including 31 doubles, both of which still stand as school records. He walked 33 times. He had 267 at-bats (4th most in a single season in Wolfpack annals) and amassed 173 total bases (6th). He had a .466 on-base percentage and a .648 slugging percentage. There are times when you wonder what the voters of all-star teams are thinking, and the fact that Ward finished second in the All-ACC voting that year is one of those cases. The league’s coaches voted Clemson’s Kurt Bultmann first-team all-conference at second base, ahead of Ward. Bultmann hit .299 with 18 doubles, 10 home runs, 54 RBIs, a .383 on-base percentage and a .513 slugging percentage. Ward hit for a higher average (by .094 points), a higher on-base percentage (by .083 points), a higher slugging percentage (by .135 points), had more hits (105 to 70), hit more doubles (30 to 24) and home runs (11 to 10), and drove in more runs (66 to 54). And finished second. Whatever the coaches were smoking that day, I’m happy to report that it’s now legal in several states. A year later, Ward batted .367 with 18 doubles, 16 homers and 73 RBIs. He scored a team-best 65 runs and even stole nine bases in 12 attempts. He drew 37 walks and got hit by pitch nine times, giving him a .460 on-base percentage to go with a .671 slugging percentage. He led the team in home runs, RBIs, slugging and OPS (1.131). Again, Ward finished second in the all-conference balloting at second base, and this time the coaches got it right. Florida State’s Marshall McDougall earned conference player of the year honors by hitting .419 with 28 homers and 106 RBIs. He led the nation in RBIs and hits (126). In one game at Maryland, he belted six homers and drove in 16 runs. In one game! So Ward only got robbed by the coaches once in two years. Ward left NC State as the school’s career leader in batting average with a .380 mark, which still ranks second only to Aaron Bates’s .387 average from 2005-06. He also ranks third in school history with a .659 career slugging percentage. Again, there are no official rankings for career OBP in the school record book, but his .463 mark is two points better than Sergio’s, although in about half as many plate appearances. His career OPS was an eye-opening 1.122. The Padres drafted Ward in the 12th round of the 1999 MLB draft. After playing parts of three seasons in the Padres organization, he spent four years with Fargo-Moorhead of the independent Northern League, where he hit a combined .270 with 81 doubles and 27 homers in 364 games. After retiring, Ward spend seven seasons as an assistant coach on Elliott Avent’s staff.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Unofficial Scorer’s All-Wolfpack Baseball Team 1981-2016 — First basemen

This is the second installment in The Unofficial Scorer’s All-Wolfpack Baseball Team, 1981-2016. Today, we look at first basemen.

To recap how this team was selected, current players and players who finished their eligibility prior to 1981 were not eligible. Players who began their college career before 1981 but finished in 1981, ’82 or ’83 were eligible, with their pre-1981 achievements more or less grandfathered into this. This affected several players from the 1981 and ’82 teams.

At the end of the day, both objective analysis and subjective opinion played a role in determining who made this team. I’ve taken painstaking care in going over this to make sure I’ve included everyone who is worthy. If, however, I left off a deserving name, it was wholly inadvertent. And if your favorite player did not make this team, it was not intended in any way to diminish that player. NC State has had more than its share of great players. I couldn’t list everyone.

Coming Tuesday: Second basemen.

• First Base — Turtle Zaun (1985-88)
Not surprisingly, two names jumped off the page when I went through the candidates at first base, and this was about as close a call as I had to make. In the end, I chose Turtle Zaun by a nose over Tracy Woodson. Zaun, whose nickname was given to him as an infant and had nothing to do with his celebrated lack of foot speed, won on a combination of longevity and peak value. Woodson’s great 1984 season was the greatest individual offensive season in school history, but it wasn’t that much greater than Zaun’s two great seasons in 1987 and ’88. Woodson’s slugging percentage in ’84 was a school-record and otherworldly .930, the only time a Wolfpack player ever slugged better than .900 in a season. His overall stat line that year was jaw-dropping. Still, Zaun is the only Wolfpack player ever to slug better than .800 twice (.834 in 1987 and .811 in 1988, which rank 2nd and 3rd in school history). He still stands among the school’s all-time leaders with a .372 career batting average (4th), 54 home runs (2nd), 195 RBIs (5th) and a .711 slugging percentage (2nd). He earned first-team All-ACC honors three times — in 1986, ’87 and ’88 — and captured ACC Player of the Year honors as a senior in ’88. He is one of just two Wolfpack players, along with Pat Clougherty, to hit 20 or more homers in a season twice (22 in 1987, 25 in 1988) and holds the school record for RBIs in a season with 87 in 1988. Zaun didn’t show much power his first two seasons, but he did hit for a solid average, batting .305 as a freshman and .322 as a sophomore. Head coach Sam Esposito, looking for more than singles from a corner infielder and DH, challenged Zaun after the 1986 season, demanding more run production. So Zaun hit the weight room and the results were dramatic. No player in program history has enjoyed back-to-back seasons comparable to Zaun’s junior and senior campaigns. He batted .402 (10th in school history) with 18 doubles, 22 homers (5th), 66 RBIs and a .485 on-base percentage (8th) as a junior in 1987; then topped that by hitting .399 with 19 doubles, 25 homers (tied for 1st), 87 RBIs (1st) and a .489 on-base percentage (tied for 6th) as a senior in ’88. He was never quite as great as Woodson at his peak but he was great for longer, and the overall arc and length of Zaun’s career pushed him past Woodson and over the top here. In short, his peak was close enough to Woodson’s and lasted twice as long. In 2003, he was voted to the ACC’s 50-man 50th Anniversary team.

• Second Team — Tracy Woodson (1982-84)

Quite honestly, Tracy Woodson could have been listed as a utility player for the purposes of choosing this team. He played second base as a freshman in 1982, shifted to third as a sophomore, then settled in at first base as a junior in 1984. First base was his position from then on and in all candor, he’s here because of that 1984 season, an utterly mind-blowing campaign, which, again, he turned in as a first baseman. Woodson batted .373 in 1984 and led the ACC with a school-record 25 homers (one every 6.32 at-bats), a then-school-record 77 RBIs, and a video-game-like .930 slugging percentage. He did all of that in just 40 games. That will almost certainly stand forever as the greatest single offensive season in school history. He was an easy choice for All-ACC, ACC Player of the Year and All-America. Woodson’s ’84 season didn’t quite come out of nowhere but it kind of seemed that way. He batted just .232 as a freshman in 1982, but with a team-best eight homers and 37 RBIs in 33 games. He followed that by hitting a respectable .299 with 13 homers and 52 RBIs as a sophomore in 1983, again leading the team in homers and RBIs. That’s two solid if unspectacular seasons, but hardly predictive of the explosion to come. Woodson’s ’84 season made national headlines, yet critics and naysayers were quick to note NC State’s soft non-conference schedule, a semi-valid point that ignores the fact that Woodson hit everybody that year, not just the cupcakes. Besides, if it was that easy, how come no one else did it? We’re talking a homer every 6.32 at-bats. There are numerous players who can’t do that in batting practice. Woodson earned second-team All-America honors in ’84, becoming just the second Wolfpack All-American in 15 years (by comparison, 13 NC State players made All-America the following 15 years). At this point, we need to talk about opportunity and length, not strength, of schedule. Before 1986, the Wolfpack never played 50 games in a season, usually playing way fewer than 40. Rivals around the country, meanwhile, were routinely playing more than 60. Some West Coast teams played 90 or more games. In this respect, NC State was very late arriving to college baseball’s modern age. That was hardly Woodson’s fault but he was certainly a victim of it. The Pack played just 115 games in his three seasons. He saw action in 110 of them. By comparison, Turtle Zaun played 115 games combined in 1987-88 alone. Jeff Pierce played 135 games in his two seasons in Raleigh, 1990-91. Despite the glaring lack of opportunity, Woodson still ranks third in school history with 46 home runs and ninth with 166 RBIs. His career slugging percentage of .720 is a school record. Records for homers per at-bat have not been kept over the years, but it’s unfathomable that anyone can approach his career mark of a home run every 8.78 ABs. No one considered for this all-time Wolfpack team was even close. It’s quite fair to assume that had NC State given Woodson more opportunities by playing, say, 50-60 games a year (as opposed to 38, 37 and 40), he might well be listed ahead of Zaun on this all-time Wolfpack team. Food for thought, but I don’t deal in hypotheticals. It may be unfair because of it, but it’s Zaun and Woodson, not Woodson and Zaun. End of discussion. In 2003, Woodson was voted to the ACC’s 50-man 50th Anniversary team. The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him in the third round of the 1984 June draft, and he was in the big leagues in time to play in the 1988 World Series. He had the game-winning RBI in Game 3. He played in parts of five big league seasons for the Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals. He currently is head baseball coach at his hometown University of Richmond.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Unofficial Scorer’s All-Wolfpack Baseball Team 1981-2016 — Catchers

This is the first installment in The Unofficial Scorer’s All-Wolfpack Baseball Team, 1981-2016. We begin at catcher.

To recap how this team was selected, current players and players who finished their eligibility prior to 1981 were not eligible. Players who began their college career before 1981 but finished in 1981, ’82 or ’83 were eligible, with their pre-1981 achievements more or less grandfathered into this. This affected several players from the 1981 and ’82 teams.

At the end of the day, both objective analysis and subjective opinion played a role in determining who made this team. I’ve taken painstaking care in going over this to make sure I’ve included everyone who is worthy. If, however, I left off a deserving name, it was wholly inadvertent. And if your favorite player did not make this team, it was not intended in any way to diminish that player. NC State has had more than its share of great players. I couldn’t list everyone.

Coming Friday: First basemen.

• Catcher — Colt Morton (2001-03)
NC State has been blessed with an abundance of excellent catchers over the years. I considered about a dozen of them, but always came back to Colt Morton. Blessed with a great name, movie-star good looks, upper-deck raw power and surprising athleticism and flexibility for a big man — 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds — Morton was the complete package behind the plate. The son of a personal trainer, his flexibility was especially noteworthy, and no doubt helped him to get into a low crouch, move around fluidly and set a nice low target for his pitchers. While there was a little too much swing-and-miss in his game (174 career K’s, including 76 in 267 plate appearances his freshman season), his power was a game-changer. Most of his home runs were moon shots, the kind of majestic, tape-measure bombs that demoralize opposing pitchers. Along with Brian Wright, he is one of just two NC State players ever to hit 10 or more home runs in three consecutive seasons (12 in 2001, 13 in 2002, and 19 in 2003). He was easily the most irreplaceable player on NC State’s first-ever NCAA Super Regional team, the 2003 squad, which went 45-18 despite playing just 10 games at Doak Field due to stadium renovations. He led the team in homers (19), RBIs (54) and walks (43) while guiding a talented but razor-thin pitching staff that featured three All-Americans. His game-tying bomb vs. Virginia Commonwealth at the 2003 NCAA Wilson Regional not only left Fleming Stadium, but also cleared the parking lot beyond the left-field fence, estimated by a Wilson Tobs official at about 500 feet. Morton belted 35 doubles to go with his 44 career homers, giving him a .520 career slugging percentage. Consistent from start to finish, Morton batted .260, .263 and .265 in his three seasons at NC State, not great averages, no, but he augmented that with 98 walks, giving him a .366 on-base percentage. He averaged a homer every 15.07 at-bats for his career, and upped that ratio to every 12.5 ABs in ’03. Defensively, he was a plus receiver, and fielded his position adroitly, blocking balls in the dirt, and vacuuming up bunts and dribblers in front of the plate. He had a plus arm and cut down the running game. He handled pitchers extremely well and was always — ALWAYS — the man in charge. On fly balls to the outfield with runners on base, Morton’s call to the outfield (“no tag” when the runner wasn’t tagging up, or the number of the base to throw to when the runner was tagging) was audible throughout even the loudest and most hostile stadiums. Most significant, at least to me, Colt Morton was the last NC State catcher to call pitches without prompts from the dugout. There are reasons why college coaches call every pitch, not the least of which is their tendency to be control freaks. The biggest factor, however, is the amount of skull work entailed in calling pitches. A catcher has to know his pitchers. He has to know the opposing hitters. As the game wears on, he has to remember how certain hitters were pitched, the exact pitch sequences, in previous at-bats. He has to understand game situations — the ball-strike count, the number of outs, runners on base and which bases, and whether those runners are a threat to steal or hit-and-run. And he usually has to boil all that down in a split second, pitch after pitch, before signaling the next offering from his pitcher. It’s not easy and it takes tremendous effort to learn. Morton was as smart behind the plate as he was physically gifted. His baseball IQ and understanding of game situations were unsurpassed. And all of that separated Colt Morton from the rest of a crowded field of NC State catchers.

• Second Team — Greg Almond (1992-93)

Greg Almond was NC State’s best defensive catcher of the last 36 years, and the Wolfpack, as mentioned previously, has had more than its share of great backstops. Catcher’s ERA is largely discounted by statheads. At some point, though, you have to believe the data and assume it’s not just a coincidence or luck. In the three years before Greg Almond arrived at NC State (1989-91), the staff ERAs were 4.54, 4.93 and 4.18. During Almond’s two seasons, that dropped precipitously, to 2.98 and 3.48. In the three years after he left, the staff ERA ballooned to 5.01, 5.08 and 6.95. To be fair, Almond wasn’t the only variable in the equation. In particular, the 1992 starting rotation may have been the best in school history, and the ’93 rotation wasn’t far behind. Still, behind every great pitching staff is a great catcher, one who can give a pat on the back or a kick in the ass as needed, who can be trusted to block that 0-2 breaking ball in the dirt, cut down the running game, and quickly field balls dribbled in front of home plate. That was Greg Almond. Wild pitches and passed balls both dropped by about half during his two years, and while the rules of baseball charge wild pitches to the pitcher, don’t think for a second that the catcher isn’t a huge factor. It was a rare sight, indeed, to see Almond chasing an errant pitch to the backstop. The running game slowed with Almond in the lineup, with the number of successful steals and total stolen-base attempts dropping by about 25 percent. And rather than risk running into outs, opponents tended to play station-to-station with Almond behind the plate. And if you didn’t believe the numbers, there was always the eye test. Almond was like a hockey goalie. Balls in the dirt got knocked down and smothered. Short-hop throws from the outfield or relayed from infielders never seemed to handcuff him. He set up a nice, low target and framed pitches well. Pitchers loved working with him. A good hitter overshadowed by several great hitting teammates and one extra-famous in-conference rival, Almond batted .251 with eight homers and 38 RBIs as a junior for the Wolfpack’s 1992 ACC championship team. A year later, he hit .315 with five homers and 31 RBIs for NC State’s 49-game winner, which was the school record for W’s until 2013. He posted a .281 career average with a .377 OBP and a .461 slugging percentage. Surrounded by the likes of Pat Clougherty, Tim Tracey, Vinny Hughes, Andy Barkett and Robbie Bark, standout hitters one and all, Almond’s offense was overlooked, even taken for granted. Then there was the presence of Georgia Tech’s Jason Varitek, an all-world catcher and future big league star who overshadowed everyone in college baseball those years. Varitek was genuinely great, especially with a bat in his hands. Behind the plate, however, Almond was better. In fact, Almond was easily the ACC’s best defensive catcher in both 1992 and ’93, no contest, and NC State’s best defensive catcher since 1981, hands down.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Unofficial Scorer’s All-Wolfpack Baseball Team 1981-2016

About four years ago, I was talking with a major league scout — a cross checker for an American League East team, I believe — who asked who my favorite NC State player of all time was. He then started asking me about the best NC State players I’d seen at each position on the diamond. Our conversation was interrupted when other scouts arrived and changed the subject, but that conversation stuck with me and got me to thinking about which players I would choose for my own personal all-time NC State all-star team.

Not to boast, but no one is more qualified to choose such a team. I started working NC State baseball games in 1981 and have worked and/or covered Wolfpack baseball pretty much continuously ever since, serving as radio broadcaster, reporter, public address announcer, official scorer, and baseball SID. While I don’t consider myself an historian, NC State baseball was my primary occupation for about three decades, and I still follow the program closely. I feel quite safe in saying that I’ve seen more Wolfpack baseball games — somewhere just south of 2,000 and counting — than anyone alive, and I dare say I know more NC State baseball history than anyone, alive or dead. I know where the bodies are buried.

Four years after my conversation with that AL cross checker, I sat down at the computer and began to put this thing together, figuring that if nothing else it would be a pleasant way to pass some time during a long, boring offseason. It was hard work at times, but it also was a blast. For about six weeks, it was all I did. By summer’s end, to give myself some perspective and to let my thoughts percolate on low heat for a bit, I had to force myself away from it for a few months before returning to it in November. The time away helped. Once I got back to it the remaining entries came together quickly.

A huge thanks to Cavan Fosnes for allowing me to plunder and pillage the records in the NC State Athletics Communications office, which gave me some substance, numbers and verifiable detail to fill in the gaps that exist in my memory. In particular, going through the old box scores and scorebooks helped me determine who played which positions, especially in the outfield. I’m doing left, center and right fields as separate positions, and some of those distinctions had grown a little fuzzy over the years.

My choices here are based on both objective analysis and subjective opinion. I tried to be completely objective at all times, but I had to break a few ties and personal opinion came into play a time or two. I had no axes to grind with any individual player or players. I rooted hard for every guy who ever wore that uniform. Still do. I have my favorites but I also have well-informed reasons why they’re my favorites. I saw all of them play. Most of them, I saw every game of their college career. You can disagree with my choices and you won’t necessarily be wrong, but please understand that I’ve taken painstaking care to make sure I considered everyone who is worthy. With that said, it’s certainly possible that someone fell through the cracks. If I left off a deserving name, it was wholly inadvertent.

Some choices were easy, others quite difficult. I used a few loosely applied criteria to sort out some of the tougher calls, but there were no hard rules or tiebreakers. I didn’t rule out anyone who played just one year at NC State, a group that includes such standouts as Greg Briley, Tony Ellison, Jamie Wolkosky, Mark Wells and Adam Everett. Longevity and peak performance were the two factors I most frequently had to weigh against one another. Each case was different, and some of these choices were subjective. It’s my blog, after all.

All-America and All-ACC honors definitely played a role, but they were not be-all, end-all either. I reserved the right to use those honors as I saw fit. If a player was All-ACC twice, for instance, that didn’t necessarily break a tie with another player who was All-ACC just once, or even never. Ditto for making an All-America team. Two of NC State’s greatest players, Brian Bark and Jake Weber, never made All-America, not once between them, which says more about the people naming All-America teams than it does about Bark or Weber. I took extra care to remember the seven NC State players who were chosen to the ACC’s 50th Anniversary Team. Six of them were eligible for this team, including Bark and Weber.

This All-NC State team includes players who played between the years 1981 and 2016. There’s no question that Mike Caldwell, Chris Cammack and Steve Martin from the 1968 College World Series team would be included on just about any list of the greatest NC State baseball players. I fully acknowledge that, but other than a few games I attended when I was in high school, I never saw them play. This is about players who were active while I was working the games. Current players were not eligible. Those stories are still being written. Players who began their college career prior to 1981 but finished in 1981 or later were eligible. I saw them for at least one year, and what I know of their pre-1981 exploits were considered and grandfathered in. This affected only a few players from the 1981 and ’82 teams.

Some surprises popped up the deeper I delved into this. Some players had far better careers than I remembered, while others weren’t really as good. Some I remembered as being good but I was surprised at just how great they were. I was surprised at how little depth there was at some positions, such as the two outfield corners. Stunned, in fact, but part of that had to do with coaches moving players around and not settling them into one position. Because of that, several players qualified at utility-DH, more than I’d expected or intended, while left and right field were left a little thin. On the other hand, I was equally taken aback at how deep several other positions were, such as catcher and second base. NC State has had some great catchers and second basemen, and because of that, some players who were more than good enough to make this team at another position wound up in the honorable mention list. So it goes.

First up will be catcher. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

In Search Of Omaha, Redux

Fall baseball practice opens up soon, and for the second year in a row, NC State appears to be a prime candidate for high preseason expectations as we look ahead to 2017.

A year ago, the Wolfpack returned the bulk of a team that came within a few outs of running fourth-ranked TCU out of its own stadium in a regional finale that the Pack ultimately gave away amid a flurry of walks and wild pitches, two misplayed routine ground balls, and one of the most egregious balk calls in NCAA Tournament history.

Flash forward to the fall of 2016 and the Wolfpack returns to campus still licking its wounds from a regional finale that got away on its own home field, a devastating ninth-inning collapse to eventual national champion Coastal Carolina. That’s two heartbreaking regional finals that NC State let get away in as many years. And while it’s foolhardy to think the Wolfpack would have traversed the same path to a national championship that the Chanticleers did, the safe money here says that if you took a poll of the Coastal Carolina coaches and players as to which was their toughest postseason opponent, NC State would be the near-unanimous winner.

NC State was College World Series good in 2016, and the bulk of that team is back, and probably carrying a pretty big chip on its collective shoulder. First baseman Preston Palmeiro (.337 average/.412 on-base percentage/.539 slugging percentage/.951 OPS), catcher Andrew Knizner (.292/.359/.388/.747 OPS) and catcher/designated hitter Chance Shepard (.279/.384/.558/.942 OPS) must be replaced from the everyday lineup. On the mound, Ryan Williamson (7-2, 2.69) is gone from the weekend rotation, and bullpen magician Will Gilbert (5-1, 2.22, 6 saves) will be by far the most difficult of the departed to replace. Those are signifiant losses, but the returning nucleus is deep and dynamic, and there are multiple candidates available to replace most of the dearly departed.

For some historical perspective, the 2017 everyday lineup has a chance to be head coach Elliott Avent’s best since 2012, maybe his best since his extraordinary 2006 squad, which batted .333 as a team, scored 8.5 runs per game with a .976 team OPS, and was the best defensive team I’ve seen in 36 years working college baseball. Avent has been overheard in recent months touting the 2012 team as his best everyday squad, but the 2006 team was better by leaps and bounds. Aside from Trea Turner, who played third base in 2012, shortstop Chris Diaz and right fielder Ryan Mathews, no one on the 2012 team would have started in 2006. And Diaz and Mathews would have to change positions to crack the ’06 lineup.

So what does that mean for 2017? Simply that this year’s Wolfpack could be in that class, based on the returnees from 2016. Shane Shepard (.258/.396/.461/.857 OPS) should move in at first base, with Jack Conley (5-for-6 in limited action) taking over at catcher. Second baseman Stephen Pitarra (.291/.376/.347/.723 OPS), shortstop Joe Dunand (.297/.345/.424/.769 OPS), third baseman Evan Mendoza (.362/.417/.449/.866 OPS), left fielder Brett Kinneman (.296/.405/.526/.931 OPS), center fielder Josh McLain (.300/.359/.465/.824 OPS) and right fielder Brock Deatherage (.317/.395/.482/.877 OPS) all return from a team that batted .303 and scored 6.9 runs per game with an .836 team OPS. Kinneman and Conley are sophomores. The rest are juniors. It’s a talented, versatile and experienced group. As good as 2012? Probably. As good as 2006? Almost certainly not, but damned good by almost any measure you care to take.

The pitching will start with junior lefty Brian Brown (7-3, 3.70), with 14 wins and 167 innings under his belt through his first two college seasons. Joe O’Donnell (3-2, 4.02), assuming he’s recovered from the shoulder injury that sidelined him most of last season, and Cory Wilder (3-4, 4.61) bring a wealth of experience to the starting rotation.

Then there’s Cody Beckman (2-0, 6.05), who came back from injury a year ago and closed the season with a rush. Beckman was especially impressive out of the bullpen in May and June. In particular, he turned in a dominating performance in the regional final vs. Coastal Carolina, recording five vital outs, four of them strikeouts, before rain halted play in the top of the ninth inning with NC State holding a 5-3 lead. The New York Mets drafted Beckman in the 25th round last June but he opted to return to Raleigh. He could move into the rotation in 2017.

Johnny Piedmonte (1-3, 5.56), Austin Staley (3-1, 3.16), Evan Brabrand (1-1, 7.23), Sean Adler (0-1. 6.94) and Tommy DeJuneas (2-3, 6.23, 6 saves) should make for an experienced bullpen nucleus, but one with a history of hiccups. Staley was impressive in a support role most of last season. Piedmonte struggled going through a lineup twice as a starter but flourished as a reliever in May and June. His dominance of Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship was an eye-opener. Brabrand, a former walk-on, has shown steady improvement in his first two seasons with the Wolfpack. Adler, a transfer from Southern Cal, has big upside but struggled with his command.

DeJuneas was a revelation as a freshman in 2015, going 3-3 with a 1.82 ERA and six saves. Blessed with a blistering fastball and plus raw stuff overall, he entered 2016 as a potential All-American but never really got untracked. His 6.37 ERA fails to do justice to just how badly his season ended. Command has been DeJuneas’s downfall. He’s worked 69 1/3 innings in two seasons, striking out 84 but walking 44. At his best, he’s nearly unhittable. At less than his best, he can be a mess. After the unceremonious end to his 2016 campaign, DeJuneas headed to Harwich of the Cape Cod League, where he saw little game action — 12 appearances, 15 1/3 innings — but no doubt got plenty of bullpen work with respected Harwich pitching coach Steve Gruenberg. DeJuneas has 12 career saves, tied for fourth most in school history. He has as much upside as just about any pitcher in the country. It’s unfair to say he’s the key to success in 2017 because that’s just not the case. If he could start to fulfill some of that promise, however, that would make a huge difference.

With that kind of experience back, as erratic as some of the pitching might be, Avent is in the enviable position of bringing his recruiting class along at its own speed without having to rely on any newcomers who aren’t ready for prime time. Several of this year’s recruits, however, could well play significant roles in 2017.

In particular, Brad Debo, from Durham and Orange High School, is an elite-level hitter and catcher, a top-100 national recruit who will push Conley for time behind the plate. Righthander Dalton Feeney, another top-100-caliber recruit, brings some health concerns, with whispers of a partially torn UCL following him, but if healthy Feeney is the Wolfpack’s best pitching prospect since Carlos Rodon arrived in the fall of 2011. Nolan Clenney, a two-way performer who helped lead Brunswick Community College to the 2016 NJCAA World Series, has the potential to be at least a midweek starter, not a high-end prospect but a strike-thrower capable of eating innings.

Several other newcomers could earn roles of varying importance in 2017, but again, Avent will have the luxury of not depending on any freshmen to carry the team.

So what does it all mean for 2017? At first glance, this team probably has the best chance of reaching the College World Series of any Wolfpack team since the 2013 squad went to Omaha. This team’s everyday lineup is light years better than the 2013 team, which struggled to score runs much of the season and finished with a team OPS of just .742. The 2013 team made up for a lack of pop by stealing a school-record 110 bases, but overall that club’s offense was Turner, Jake Fincher and a carload of unheralded seniors who provided guile, guts and tremendous leadership, but not much in the way of actual offense.

On the mound, this year’s team has no Carlos Rodon, but it should have a deeper rotation than the 2013 club, which struggled when Rodon wasn’t on the hill. The remainder of the 2013 rotation — Ethan Ogburn, Brad Stone and Logan Jernigan — averaged 3 2/3 innings per start, putting immense pressure on a bullpen that was up to each and every challenge.

Grant Sasser (3-0, 1.03, 8 saves, 33 appearances, 43.2 IP), Chris Overman (1-1, 0.33, 6 saves, 21 appearances, 27.1 IP) and Josh Easley (7-2, 1.38, 25 appearances, 45.2 IP) were the bellwethers of what was arguably the best bullpen in the country and almost certainly the best bullpen in NC State history. As much as anyone on the team, the troika of Sasser, Overman and Easley was responsible for NC State’s 2013 march to Omaha.

So the question that must be asked is: Does a solid and deep rotation, an erratic but promising bullpen, and a talented and dynamic everyday lineup add up to a College World Series berth? Clearly, that remains to be seen. There’s a lot of work to do and a lot of games to play between now and then. All kinds of things can happen. Luck and injuries will play a role.

What we do know, however, is that, based on all available evidence, this team has a chance to be special, and in late August that’s the best you can ask for, a chance.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

And Down The Stretch They Come

In mid-April, the Atlantic Coast Conference baseball race was clearly defined, with four teams — Louisville, Miami, Florida State and NC State — separated from the rest of the field, followed by a nine-team muddle fighting for a spot in the top 10 and a berth in the conference tournament.

A month later, as we head into the final weekend of the regular season, little has changed. Four teams are firmly established at the top of the league standings, followed at a distance by eight teams muddling along, all within two games of one another. Six of the eight will be in the top 10 at the end of play Saturday and thus headed to Durham for the ACC Tournament.

Two things have changed in the last month, however. First, Pittsburgh is pretty much DOA at this point. For the Panthers to make the top 10, they’ll need to sweep Duke this weekend and hope like crazy that Boston College, Notre Dame and either North Carolina or Georgia Tech all lose big. Not likely to happen, meaning Pitt is very unlikely to make an appearance at Durham Bulls Athletic Park next Tuesday.

The other thing that’s changed is that NC State and Virginia have traded places. The red-hot defending national champion Cavaliers — winners of eight of their last 10 league games — have jumped into the top four, while the Wolfpack has fallen into the eight-team muddle by losing eight of its last 10 ACC games.

What happened? Well, UVa’s veterans started playing like veterans, and its talented youngsters finally grew up. Weekend starters Connor Jones (10-1, 1.96) and Adam Hasely (7-3, 1.97) are pitching like All-Americans. Matt Thaiss (.367/.468/.561), Ernie Clement (.345/.382/.408), Pavin Smith (.335/.429/.511), Daniel Pinero (.311/.423/.424) and Nate Eikhoff (.309/.340/.479) have come together to form the nucleus of a very strong and consistent everyday lineup. No one is predicting Virginia will win the national championship — of course, no one did a year ago either — but this young and talented team will surprise no one if it makes a deep run in the postseason.

In Raleigh, meanwhile, key injuries to a painfully thin pitching staff and an everyday lineup facing a steady diet of top-shelf pitching, especially lefthanded pitching, brought the high-flying Wolfpack back to earth. Friday starter Joe O’Donnell has been out eight weeks now and probably isn’t coming back. Bullpen ace Will Gilbert missed three weeks with tightness in his left bicep, and didn’t look anything like his old self in two appearances since returning. On top of that, Sunday starter Ryan Williamson came out of the finale of the Clemson series two weeks ago with forearm tightness, took his regular turn this past Sunday at Louisville, and looked like a pitcher with forearm tightness. He faced eight batters, got three outs, allowed four runs on three hits, walked two and didn’t come close to a strikeout.

NC State heads into the final weekend of the season at home but going in the wrong direction and facing a dangerous and somewhat desperate North Carolina team that has lost five of its last seven conference series, 14 of its last 21 conference games, and 16 of its last 29 games overall. After a blistering 19-3 start that included impressive series wins at UCLA and at home against Oklahoma State, the Tar Heels have watched their season swirl down the drain hole much the way they did a year ago. North Carolina enters the series in Raleigh in ninth place in the overall standings thanks to a tiebreaker, but in a virtual four-way tie with Duke, Notre Dame and Boston College.

NC State, two games ahead of the four ninth-place teams with three to play, is almost a lock to get to Durham — almost — but needs at least one win this weekend, maybe two, to avoid Tuesday’s play-in round. The Wolfpack catches several breaks in the schedule. Four of the teams chasing NC State are playing one another, meaning two of them will lose. Wake Forest, just a game behind the Pack but losers in the three-game series in Raleigh last month, and thus the tiebreaker, hosts Louisville, maybe the best team in the country. Wake probably needs to win the series and maybe sweep it to pass NC State. Good luck with that.

For NC State, it comes down to this: Win just one game in the series with UNC, and Wake Forest will have to sweep Louisville in order to pass the Wolfpack. Win just one game in the series with UNC, and whoever wins the Georgia Tech-Boston College series will need to sweep that series in order to pass NC State. Win just one game in the series with UNC, and the Wolfpack will finish ahead of Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Boston College no matter what those teams do.

Just one win.

Sounds so easy, but based on recent history, maybe not so much. The Wolfpack has lost its last four ACC games and five of its last six. Clemson won two of three from the Pack two weeks ago and Louisville easily swept NC State a week ago in Kentucky. The Wolfpack returns home this week and North Carolina is a far cry offensively from Clemson or Louisville. On the other hand, the Tar Heels can pitch, ranking second in the conference with a 3.02 staff ERA, led by righthander Zac Gallen (5-5, 2.35) and lefthander J.B. Bukauskis (6-2, 2.86).

At this point, the Wolfpack’s weekend rotation is less than a sure thing, with lefty Brian Brown (7-2, 2.83) and righthander Cory Wilder (3-3, 4.79) certain to start, and Williamson (7-2, 2.86) still a likely starter despite events of the last two weeks. What order they pitch and how much Williamson has in the tank, all that remains to be seen.

We took a close look at NC State’s recent offensive problems a week ago and speculated that they might find little to cure what ails them in Louisville. And so it went. Aside from Evan Mendoza (more on him in a moment), the Wolfpack had a long weekend at the plate, hitting .173 and scoring three runs in the three games. Mendoza went 5-for-12, drove in two of the three runs, and extended his hitting streak to a now-serious 23 games. Stephen Pitarra was 3-for-12 and Andrew Knizner 2-for-10. The other six regulars in each hit less than .200. Chance Shepard, Brett Kinneman and Josh McLain combined to go 1-for-29.

Before you get too alarmed at all that, understand what the Wolfpack was facing in the Cardinals. Friday starter Brendan McKay (10-2, 2.02) will be a high first-round pick in the 2017 MLB draft, maybe one of the top three players taken. Sunday starter Kyle Funkhouser (7-3, 4.24) was a first-round pick a year ago, 32nd overall to the Dodgers, and is suddenly pitching like a first-rounder again after a rocky start. Saturday starter Drew Harrington (10-1, 1.80) isn’t the top prospect that McKay and Funkhouser are, but he is arguably their best, one of the most accomplished and polished pitchers in the college ranks. Harrington carves up lineups with an upper-80s fastball and a slider from hell, and he definitely carved up the Wolfpack. The Louisville rotation is so stacked that Kade McClure has to pitch midweek games despite a perfect 10-0 record and a 2.45 ERA. When the starters tire in the late innings, closer Zack Burdi (1-2, 2.25) comes in throwing 99-102 mph with a slider that tops out around 90. He even gets his fastball to sink, which should be illegal. He throws both pitches for strikes, as evidenced by 42 K’s and seven walks in 24 innings. Burdi will be a first-round pick next month and probably will be pitching in the big leagues by the end of August.

You get the picture. What happened to NC State’s hitters last weekend has happened to others and could happen to anyone. How does facing a staff like that prepare a team for North Carolina? We’ll find out this weekend. UNC’s pitching isn’t as good or as deep as Louisville’s, but it’s very good nonetheless.

Just one win.

One win and the Wolfpack will probably finish sixth overall and avoid the play-in round. Maybe easier said than done.

• The Curious Case Of Evan Mendoza: There is a great old baseball movie called "Damn Yankees," about a middle-aged Washington Senators fan named Joe Boyd who makes a deal with the devil and becomes young Joe Hardy from Hannibal, Missouri. Joe Hardy, slugger extraordinaire, leads the Senators past the Yankees to the American League pennant.

No one is suggesting that Evan Mendoza sold his soul to the devil, but his emergence out of nowhere is eerily similar to Joe Hardy’s. Who is this guy? Mendoza came to Raleigh a year ago as a heralded two-way player from Sarasota (Fla.) High School, but mostly as a pitcher. In fall practice his freshman year, he may have been the best pitcher on the staff, baffling hitters with an assortment of quality pitches and above-average command. He also saw time at second and third base but did not figure to get much playing time as a position player, especially considering how good he looked on the mound.

The 2015 season did not go as planned for Mendoza. His first appearance on the mound, a start against Davidson at Doak Field, went well enough, five innings, four hits, one run, one win. His second, a start at Coastal Carolina a week later, was an unmitigated disaster — six batters faced, two hits, three walks, five runs, one out, and Mendoza’s first and, at this point, last college loss.

Mendoza made one start as a position player in 2015, April 26 in the first game of a home doubleheader against Virginia, and got three at-bats. He made the least of them, striking out out twice and flying out. Bubby Riley pinch-hit for him in the ninth and hit a walk-off solo home run.

Fast forward a year and Evan Mendoza is not only NC State’s best and most consistent player (.383/.446/.456 with 23-game hitting streak intact), but in most any other ACC season he’d be a lock for first-team all-conference. Unfortunately for Mendoza, Wake Forest third baseman Will Craig is well on his way to winning back-to-back ACC Player of the Year awards. Talk about bad timing.

Mendoza not only went 5-for-12 against Louisville’s big-league rotation last weekend, he’s hitting .513 (20-for-39) in his last 11 games, and .442 (34-for-77) for the duration of the hitting streak, which is now three games from matching Greg Briley’s school-record 26-game streak in 1986.

Mendoza’s hitting streak began April 2 at Virginia and ended a four-game hitless streak. This is not one of those empty hitting streaks marked with lots of one-hit games and games where the only hit came in the late innings after the issue was settled. Mendoza has gone past the sixth inning without a hit just four times during the 23-game streak — April 6 at Charlotte, April 11 vs. Wake Forest, April 29 vs. Duke, and May 8 vs. Clemson. Ten of the 23 games are multiple-hit games, including eight of the last 11.

He’s also hit all over the lineup during the streak, and hit well everywhere: three games hitting second (.545), two games hitting third (.375), one game hitting fourth (1.000), three games hitting fifth (.500), four games hitting eighth (.313) and 10 games hitting ninth (.455).

In addition to his spectacular hitting, Mendoza has been a revelation at third base, showing quick and sure hands to make numerous standout plays.

To accomplish all of that after essentially sitting on his duff and watching all of last year, well, he’s not Joe Hardy and he’s not gonna make first-team all-conference, but there are few if any stories in college baseball this year better than Evan Mendoza.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Trying To Recapture That Missing Mojo

The numbers say NC State’s offense is rolling. The Wolfpack scored 16 and 26 runs in its last two Atlantic Coast Conference series, against Duke at Doak Field and at Clemson a week ago. Forty-two runs in six ACC games, that’s an even seven runs per game.

The Pack batted .295 in those six games, with a .367 on-base percentage and a .395 slugging percentage. Dating back even further, to the final game of the Georgia Tech series on April 17, NC State is hitting .309 as a team with a .403 on-base percentage and a .464 slugging percentage in 11 games, averaging 8.36 runs per game. That’s tearing the cover off the ball, right?

Maybe not.

There’s an old saying that there are lies, damned lies and statistics, and that appears to be the case with NC State’s recent offensive stats. Mixed in those 11 games are three blowouts victories — 25-1 over N.C. A&T on April 24, 12-2 over Duke on April 30, and 20-9 over Clemson on May 7. That’s 57 runs and 54 hits, 13 of them for extra bases, in three games, and those three blowouts skew the Wolfpack’s recent offensive numbers quite a bit. 

The reality is that after riding an explosive offense for most of April, NC State has fallen into a slump in May. Take those three blowouts out of the picture and you have an entirely different story, an eight-game stretch — yes, a tiny sample size but not a meaningless one — in which the Wolfpack batted .253 with a .348 on-base percentage and a .411 slugging percentage. The Pack scored 4.38 runs per game in the eight games, losing five of them and being outscored 49-35. The last two weekends, NC State scored 10 runs in the four games it did not win by rout, which computes to 2.5 runs per game.

The lineup that was so solid one through nine is suddenly leaking oil from several spots in the order. Evan Mendoza (.481/.548/.593 in the eight games in question) is hitting at a Hall-of-Fame clip, while Brock Deatherage (.345/.406/.552) and Preston Palmeiro (.281/.343/.531) aren’t far behind. Chance Shepard (.250/.438/.583) and Brett Kinneman (.250/.382/.607) have been quite productive despite misleading .250 batting averages. Joe Dunand is hitting .258 with a .324 on-base percentage, but is slugging a puny .290.

And then it gets ugly. Josh McLain, who suffered a broken metatarsal in his left hand when struck by a pitch in the finale of the Georgia Tech series, is hitting .188 since then, with a .235 on-base percentage and a .290 slugging percentage. Playing with the broken bone won’t cause further injury but McLain is playing with pain and no doubt it’s affected his swing. He was the team’s hottest hitter by a wide margin heading into the Georgia Tech series.

Stephen Pitarra, in his first season as a regular and as leadoff hitter, seems to have hit the wall. During the team’s eight-game funk, Pitarra is hitting .156 with a .229 on-base percentage and a .156 slugging percentage.

Then there’s Andrew Knizner, one of the best pure hitters in the ACC the last two years. Knizner is batting .156 (4-for-32) during the eight-game slide, with a .176 OBP and a .156 slugging percentage. Even with more days off behind the plate this season thanks to the improved defensive play of Shepard, Knizner is still logging most of the innings at catcher, which takes a physical toll. Knizner was having a solid season through the Georgia Tech series, but is hitting .186 in the last 11 games. We can only hope this is not a late-onset of junioritis, a mysterious disorder that strikes draft-eligible players as the June draft approaches.

With so much on the line the next few weeks and with the pitching staff dinged up — more on that in a moment — this was an inopportune time for half the Wolfpack lineup to go into a collective slump. And this weekend may not offer many cures for what ails them. Louisville is one of the nation’s deepest and most talented teams. The sixth-ranked Cardinals lead the ACC in ERA at 2.83, with starters Brendan McKay (9-2, 2.22) and Drew Harrington (9-1, 1.73) ranking among the league’s best. Louisville’s Sunday starter, senior Kyle Funkhouser (6-3, 4.54), is no slouch either. Funkhouser was a first-round draft choice a year ago (35th overall by the Dodgers) but did not sign. He got off to a slow start to 2016 but has pitched progressively better each start for the last month. Closer Zack Burdi (1-2, 2.49, 7 saves) throws 99 mph with a good slider.

• Pitching Woes Continue: While the Wolfpack offense has jumped the rails the last month, the pitching staff continues to feel the longterm effect of two key injuries. 

Righthander Joe O’Donnell, at one time NC State’s Friday starter, has now been out of action seven weeks and counting since exiting in the first inning of the Wolfpack’s 8-5 loss March 25 at Florida State. Heading into that game, O’Donnell was 3-1 with a 2.64 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings.

Three weeks later, lefthanded reliever Will Gilbert came out of the middle game of the Georgia Tech series, on April 16 to be precise, and was out until the ninth inning of the Clemson series finale last weekend. He faced one Tiger batter and gave up the game-winning hit, but one hitter is not a good barometer of how far Gilbert is from the all-star form he exhibited before the injury. NC State needs Gilbert in the worst way — he was 1-0 with two saves and a 0.82 ERA in his last five appearances before his injury and is 3-0, 2.31 with four saves in 18 appearances overall — but even assuming he’s healthy, Gilbert has some rust to knock off following a three-week absence.

NC State has allowed 46 earned runs in 78 1/3 innings in its last three ACC series, a 5.29 ERA, but that includes three games against a hapless Duke offense that ranks next-to-last in the ACC in batting and dead last in runs scored per game and on-base percentage. Take those three games out of the equation and the Wolfpack’s ERA in series vs. Georgia Tech and Clemson is an alarming 7.48.

Not all of that is due to the absence of O’Donnell and Gilbert, but this is not a deep staff. There is, in fact, little margin for error, and losing those two is probably more error than the Wolfpack needs, especially at this point in the season.

There is some good news on the pitching front, specifically lefty starters Brian Brown (7-1, 2.48) and Ryan Williamson (7-1, 2.63). Brown has been the Wolfpack’s best starter for two seasons now, a 14-game winner for his career with at least four more starts coming this season. Williamson stepped into the weekend rotation on April 3 at Virginia and except for a blow-up at Georgia Tech he has pitched like an ace, going 3-1 with a 2.84 ERA his last six starts, 3-0, 1.39 not counting the game at Georgia Tech.

Williamson pitched his best game as a collegian and one of the best games by an NC State pitcher in recent memory last Sunday at Clemson, allowing just one unearned run on three hits in 7 2/3 innings. He struck out six, walked one, and generally made the Clemson hitters look like school children.

A cautionary note about Williamson, however. He had to come out of that game at Clemson in the eighth inning with tightness in his left forearm. He’s been cleared to pitch this weekend at Louisville. NC State can only hope he’s okay.

• The Run Support King: There’s nothing a pitcher likes more than run support from his teammates, and lefty Brian Brown has been swimming in run support this season. NC State has scored 113 runs in Brown’s 12 starts, an average of 9.42 runs per game.

The last month, however, the Wolfpack has scored enough runs for Brown to last a lifetime. It all began April 16 at Georgia Tech, a 15-6 rout for the Pack. A week later, Brown was the starting pitcher for NC State’s 25-1 annihilation of North Carolina A&T, and the following Saturday he got the win in the Wolfpack’s 12-2 romp over Duke. Last weekend, NC State blew up Clemson by a 20-9 score. Yes, Brown was the starting pitcher.

In Brown’s last three starts, NC State scored 57 runs, 35 of them while Brown was still in the game. (Two years ago, Carlos Rodon made 14 starts for the Wolfpack, which scored all of 48 runs in those 14 games. Explains a lot, doesn't it?) In Brown’s last four starts, the Pack scored 72 runs, 48 of them while Brown was in the game.

• Mendoza Still Raking: Evan Mendoza not only leads NC State in hitting with a .380 batting average, .041 ahead of runner-up Josh McLain, he is tied for sixth in the ACC in hitting, and also leads the Wolfpack in on-base percentage at .444.

Mendoza rides a 20-game hitting streak into Louisville this weekend, and as the streak has gone on he has hit with more and more authority. Six of the last seven games in the streak were multiple-hit games. Over his last 10 games, Mendoza is hitting .531 (17-for-32) with two home runs, 11 runs scored and nine RBIs. For the 20-game streak as a whole, Mendoza is batting .446 (29-for-65) with a double, two home runs, 16 runs scored and 14 driven in.

The NC State record for consecutive games with at least one hit is 26, set by Greg Briley back in 1986. Tom Sergio came within a game of matching that in 1995. Since then, three players — Brian Wright in 1999, Ryan Mathews in 2012 and Logan Ratledge a year ago — posted hitting streaks of 21 games.

• Snakebite: A quick note here on head coach Elliott Avent’s absence from the Louisville trip due to a copperhead bite. Those of us who live in Wake County know that copperheads are ubiquitous, especially in the county’s northern and northwestern suburbs. Their bite can be especially nasty. No, they’re not rattlesnakes and death from copperhead bite is extremely rare, but never underestimate the misery a copperhead can inflict. Pit vipers such as copperheads are especially dangerous this time of year when they’re fresh out of hibernation and their venom is strong and in plentiful supply.

The fact that Avent offered little resistance to his doctors when they told him not to travel this weekend speaks volumes about the pain he must be in and how serious this particular snakebite is. Avent is a Type A workaholic. To him the No. 1 responsibility in his job description is coaching games. The only games he ever missed were because of a suspension, the result of one of college baseball’s most spectacular ejections ever, and even though not allowed to coach the following weekend, he still made the trip to Charlottesville and managed to drive the press box crazy with constant phone calls for score updates.

Five years ago, he was in an auto accident on Oberlin Road in Raleigh and had to spend the night in the hospital with a concussion. Told to stay home and get plenty of bedrest for several days, Avent instead made the trip to UNC Wilmington two nights later, despite being in a thick mental fog most of the night. He even managed to get ejected that night without knowing it. Three batters into the next half-inning, the home-plate umpire stopped the game and had the surprised and wobbly Avent gently escorted to the team bus. He also coached a series a few years ago despite being nearly doubled over in pain from kidney stones.

For that same man to willingly miss one of the most crucial series of his career — this is not to say he was happy about it because he most certainly was not — says all you need to know about just how serious Avent’s snakebite is.

So make all the jokes you want about Avent and the Wolfpack being snakebit. Next time you go walking in tall grass or near a woodpile or along a city greenway, keep your eyes open. It could happen to you.