Monday, February 25, 2013

NC State’s 5-0 Week And What It Means

After stumbling out of the starting blocks with a lackluster performance against an under-appreciated Appalachian State team, NC State went 5-0 last week against four largely overmatched opponents and stands at 5-1 nine days into the 2013 college baseball season.

While the competition was light years from Atlantic Coast Conference caliber — a so-so Charlotte club was easily the best of the four teams the Pack blitzed through during the week — the five-game sweep was noteworthy on a number of fronts.

First, the pitching put up silly numbers: three earned runs in 45 innings and a 0.60 ERA. NC State pitchers finished the week by throwing 27 ⅔ consecutive innings without allowing an earned run. The Wolfpack allowed 20 hits in 45 innings for the week, although that one is greatly mitigated by the level of the competition and by the combined no-hitter that Carlos Rodon and Karl Keglovits tossed against LaSalle.

LaSalle was helpless vs. Rodon. It was the biggest mismatch of the season thus far. The no-hitter was so ho-hum that the most interesting thing about it was the presence of super agent Scott Boras and two of his top associates, Bobby Brower and Calvin Murray. Rodon cut through the LaSalle lineup with ease, striking out a career-best 14. He fanned the last six men he faced and nine of the last 11. Rodon walked one and allowed a baserunner on an error (you can’t fault him for that). He set down the last 14 men he faced.

Much was made of Rodon taking his first loss in more than two years in the Appalachian State game, but that concern was badly misplaced. Did anyone really think he’d go unbeaten all the way through college? What few seemed to notice was that Rodon retired eight of the last nine Appalachian State batters he faced. Tack that onto the no-hitter against LaSalle and he now has faced 31 consecutive batters without allowing a hit, striking out 16 of them. He retired 28 of the 31 men he faced in that span.

The real culprit in the loss to Appalachian State was the offense, or lack thereof. Trea Turner had two hits, including a double, and scored two runs. The rest of the lineup went 2-for-26, scored one unearned run, and had no extra-base hits. It was a miserable performance.

The hitting was hardly a juggernaut last week, but a 14-run outburst Thursday against Villanova and Sunday’s absurd doubleheader thrashing of Wagner at least allowed some players to walk with a little bit of a bounce in their step again. The Wagner doubleheader, in particular, allowed for some serious stat-padding.

The Wolfpack scored 43 runs in the twin-bill, going 34-for-81 (.420) with 12 doubles, nine home runs and three grand-slam home runs — by Turner, Grant Clyde and Brett Williams. State hitters drew 16 walks in the doubleheader and struck out just nine times. The Pack scored in 14 of 16 offensive innings. The Wolfpack’s on-base percentage for the doubleheader was .528, the slugging percentage .901.

As one-sided as the doubleheader was through 16 innings, it got much worse in the bottom of the eighth of the second game. In that blood-soaked inning, the Wolfpack went 8-for-12 with two doubles and three home runs, scoring 13 times. State hitters walked twice in the inning and hit two sacrifice flies. Wagner pitchers also plunked a pair of Wolfpack batters (running their total of HBPs for the day to seven). The first 13 State batters of the inning reached base safely, two on errors. Three hit home runs.

There were plenty of offensive heroes Sunday, the obvious one being Williams, who hit three doubles and three home runs on the afternoon. Williams drove in five runs in each of the two games, and also turned in a pair of spectacular diving catches in the outfield. Batting second in the order, Williams and a pair of late-inning substitutes, Clyde and John Mangum, combined to make the two spot in the lineup the place to be. The two hole in the NC State lineup went 8-for-10 with three doubles, four home runs, two of them grand slams, and 15 RBIs.

Turner went 4-for-8, scored six runs, drove in seven and stole a base. Sam Morgan went 6-for-10, drove in six runs, scored seven, and belted three doubles and two home runs. Clyde got three at-bats and went 3-for-3 with two homers and seven RBIs. Bryan Adametz was 4-for-7 with a double, scored four runs and drove in three.

You can point all you want to the caliber of the competition, and you’d be correct. In particular, the three teams that came to the Doak this weekend — Villanova, LaSalle and Wagner — may struggle to win 50 games between them. But after the psychological beating the Wolfpack took from the Appalachian State loss, and then having to sit and stew on it as the weather forced the remainder of the series to be cancelled, there's something to be said for building confidence and allowing players to feel good about themselves.

The competition of the past week did little to physically prepare NC State for the ACC season, but the role of confidence is as difficult to quantify in athletics as it is in economics. If self-esteem plays a big role in the success of a college baseball team — and it’s intuitive to believe that it does — then the past week did plenty of good for NC State.

The big kids show up soon enough, starting with Florida Atlantic and Coastal Carolina in Myrtle Beach this weekend, and Clemson at the Doak the weekend of March 8-10. Let the Wolfpack enjoy the cupcakes for now. There aren’t many left after this.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tribe Offense Much Better, But The Starting Pitching Is Still Thin

Cleveland Indians fans have enjoyed a nice offseason, and we have every reason to look forward to the 2013 baseball season.

From signing Terry Francona as manager to the acquisitions of Nick Swisher, Brett Myers, Trevor Bauer and Michael Bourn, the Cleveland front office did a terrific job of overhauling the roster and vastly improving the ballclub. The team that opens the 2013 season could be a good 12-15 games better than the one that ended 2012.

That said, no one should look to the upcoming season and think that anyone other than the Detroit Tigers will be the favorites in the American League Central. The Indians lost 94 games a year ago, so an improvement of 15 games means an 83-79 record. That's not gonna get it done. So before you start ordering World Series tickets, remember that while the everyday lineup is greatly improved, the starting pitching, an utter catastrophe last year, remains a weakness.

The addition of Myers will help. A proven innings-eater, Myers should give the Tribe a chance to win most every time he takes the ball. In addition, Justin Masterson should be better than a year ago, for two reasons: 1.) He's better than what he showed in 2012, and 2.) he has a very positive relationship with Francona, dating back to his days in Boston. Francona argued hard for the Red Sox not to send Masterson to Cleveland in the 2009 deal that brought Victor Martinez to Boston, but lost that argument. Reunited with Francona, Masterson should be better in 2013.

The rest of the rotation is another story. Calling Ubaldo Jiminez's first season-plus in Cleveland a train wreck is an insult to train wrecks. Using a delivery that seems to have a dozen stops and starts before approaching his release point, Jiminez has played hard-to-get with the strike zone throughout his time in Cleveland. As a result, he was one of the worst starting pitchers in the big leagues last year, losing 17 games.

The list of candidates for the other two spots in the rotation is underwhelming. Carlos Carrasco was an intriguing prospect when acquired from Philadelphia in the Cliff Lee swindle, but he’s coming off Tommy John surgery and is a question mark at best. Zach McAllister had several decent starts in his brief time in Cleveland a year ago, but was only a marginal prospect when acquired from the Yankees in 2010 for Austin Kearns. Bauer is one of the top prospects in the game and may have the best arm in the organization, but he’s likely to start the year at Triple-A Columbus. The other names in the mix are pretty much all misfits and 4-F's: Corey Kluber, David Huff, Scott Barnes. Non-roster invitees Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka (also reunited with Francona this spring) look pretty good by comparison.

And so the scuttlebutt is that the Indians may be looking to trade for pitching, and the bait for such a deal would come from their outfield depth. In particular, MLB reporters and bloggers keep saying that Drew Stubbs, acquired from Cincinnati in the three-team deal that brought Bauer to the Indians from Arizona and sent Shin-Soo Choo to the Reds, would be the ideal candidate to dangle for pitching help. With the signing of Bourn, Stubbs has been displaced from center field to right, with Swisher shifted from right field to first base, and Mark Reynolds from first base to designated hitter, and that supposedly makes Stubbs a good candidate to trade.

The logic in all this is flawed on many fronts. First of all, the aforementioned defensive changes improved the Indians at every position mentioned. Bourn is probably the best defensive center fielder in the game. Stubbs, an excellent center fielder himself, is better in right than Swisher, who in turn is better at first than Reynolds. That gives the Indians above-major-league-average defense in center field, right field and first base, meaning all those moves made sense. If the pitching is suspect — and it is — then improving the defense is imperative. Trading Stubbs will hurt the defense, not help it.

The other reason the "trade Stubbs for pitching" argument makes no sense is that Stubbs has no real trade value. A former first-round draft pick, Stubbs is a superior defensive center fielder with great speed and occasional power. He steals bases at a high percentage and has 59 career homers. On the other hand, from day one in the big leagues, he's had an awful time getting on base, with a career on-base percentage of .312. His OBP with the Reds in 2012 was a dreadful .277. Forget getting on base, however. Stubbs has an awful time just making contact. With 588 career strikeouts in less than four full big league seasons, Stubbs fans an average of about once every third plate appearance.

If the Indians do trade for pitching, it will have to be for young, major league-ready pitching, meaning a pitcher or pitchers who can help the team win now, who don’t make much money, and who have years remaining before arbitration. Teams nowadays rarely trade that kind of pitching, especially not for a collection of red flags like Drew Stubbs.
For Carlos Santana? Sure. For Asdrubal Cabrera? Absolutely. For Drew Stubbs? Not a prayer, at least not now.

No, the Indians are stuck with Stubbs, at least for the time being, and that's not a bad thing. If the change of scenery from Cincinnati to Cleveland helps him re-establish his career, then he can definitely help the Tribe win in 2013. Or, if he has a big year but the team's pitching is as bad as it looks and the Indians fall out of the race by late July, then they could deal him for some long-term pitching help. And if he continues to flail away at the plate and shows no sign of improvement, they'll non-tender him next winter and be done with him.

For those of you who were all hot to trade Stubbs for the 2018 Cy Young Award winner, whoever that may be, don't hold your breath. What you see in Indians camp right now is what you're likely to see on opening day. The everyday lineup will be exciting. The starting pitching, not so much. And that's still a massive improvement over last year, so don't complain. Enjoy it.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Wolfpack Baseball Drops Opener To Appalachian State

RALEIGH, N.C. — Eighth-ranked NC State looked like anything but the eighth best college baseball team in the country Friday, dropping its 2013 season opener 6-3 to visiting Appalachian State.

All-America lefthander Carlos Rodon went six innings and served up three home runs in taking his first college loss and his first loss anywhere since May, 21, 2010, the final game of his junior year at Holly Springs High School. Rodon went 11-0 as a senior at Holly Springs, 9-0 as a college freshman for the Wolfpack a year ago, and 2-0 for USA Baseball last summer, a winning streak of 22 consecutive decisions, snapped by the Mountaineers.

Rodon’s biggest bugaboo was the long ball. He gave up three of them, two on very poorly located first-pitch fastballs. He wound up tossing six innings and allowing five runs, all on home runs. He allowed five hits, two singles and three homers. He struck out eight and walked one. It wasn't a great performance, but it was far from awful.

The Wolfpack’s problem was not the pitching, but the offense. It didn’t show up. Trea Turner had two of NC State’s four hits, one of them a double he legged out after hitting a Baltimore chopper over the third baseman’s head and into shallow left field. Aside from Turner, the Pack was a woeful 2-for-26 at the plate and made Mountaineers starter Jamie Nunn look like the All-American in the pitching matchup. Take nothing away from Nunn. He threw strikes, pitched ahead in the count and hit his spots. That said, the home team helped him out immensely with a poor approach at the plate, up and down the lineup.

Appalachian State freshman center fielder Jaylin Davis got the Mountaineer offense rolling by crushing the first college pitch he ever saw, a fastball up in the zone from Rodon, for a three-run homer. Davis also split the gap in right-center for a double in the ninth, and ran down a line drive in deep center field off the bat of Turner to end a sort-of Wolfpack rally in the fifth.

NC State got nice relief outings from senior Josh Easley and
junior Andrew Woeck, both righthanders. Easley, returning to action for the first time after Tommy John surgery, pitched 1-2-3 innings in the seventh and eighth before running into trouble in the ninth. Woeck followed Easley to the mound with runners on second and third and none out in the top of the ninth. He walked Preston Troutman to load the bases, then uncorked a wild pitch to score an unearned run. He recovered by retiring the next three batters, two of them on strikeouts. The wild pitch hurt, but Woeck still pitched out of serious trouble and allowed minimal damage.

Baseball America recently featured NC State on the cover of its annual college preview issue. The Pack did nothing to justify that on Friday. If anything, the State players looked as though they'd spent a little too much time reading about themselves and way too little time getting ready for the 2013 season. Coached by former NC State assistant Billy Jones, and with former Wolfpack players Michael Rogers and Matt Payne on the coaching staff, Appalachian State came ready to play, and it showed. The Mountaineers took it to the Pack from the first inning on.

Saturday’s weather forecast is not good. With rain and snow on the way, the game was moved from a 4 p.m. start time to 1 p.m., but that may be too late to miss the coming precipitation. And if it does snow and there’s any accumulation, the chances of playing Sunday will be in jeopardy. The Wolfpack needs to get back on the field to get the bad taste out of its mouth. The weatherman may not allow that.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Expectations Run High For NC State Baseball In 2013

RALEIGH, N.C. — This is a good time to be NC State baseball. Coming off a 43-20 season that included an NCAA regional championship, two All-Americans — one of them a Golden Spikes finalist, the other the NCAA stolen-base leader, both of them freshmen — three Freshman All-Americans, the ACC Pitcher of the Year, and National Freshman of the Year (and that’s just a sample), the Wolfpack enters 2013 generating a buzz like never before and with expectations this program has never experienced.

Ranked No. 8 in Baseball America’s preseason national poll and featured on the cover of BA’s college preview issue, head coach Elliott Avent’s program enters the new season in previously uncharted water. The top 10 preseason ranking is the first ever for the Wolfpack. So is the cover story in Baseball America, which the Pack shared with top-rated North Carolina, the story’s upshot being the emergence of North Carolina as a college baseball hotbed. Based on last season’s success and the avalanche of publicity generated by Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner, the aforementioned All-America freshmen from 2012, NC State has nearly doubled its season-ticket base and could sell out the season in advance. After years of counting empty seats as customers (counting season-ticket holders who didn’t actually, you know, attend the game as having attended the game), the Wolfpack’s bean counters might be able to back up their attendance figures with actual crowds in 2013.

Let’s hope that’s the case because this should be an extremely talented and balanced team that deserves all the fan support it can get. The Wolfpack returns a strong, exciting nucleus from a year ago, the backbone of which is a sophomore class that almost certainly will go down as the most accomplished class in NC State baseball history. Familiar and productive faces should be the order of the day up and down the lineup, and Rodon leads a talented pitching staff with a formidable rotation and a deep bullpen. Backup catcher will be a concern after the transfer of Danny Canela. Infield defense will bear watching with Turner moving to shortstop, Logan Ratledge likely taking over at second base, Tarran Senay moving from left field to first base, and an as-yet unnamed new face moving in at third.

Those are minor questions, though, which is what you would expect with a top 10 team. And that leads us back to expectations. In the past, NC State has always set the College World Series as one of its goals, and has come very close on several occasions. Given the hype surrounding this team, coming close in 2013 might not be good enough for some, and that’s a new kind of pressure the Wolfpack will face in the weeks and months ahead.

Asked about that at the team’s preseason media luncheon on Friday, Avent was almost dismissive.

“I hope you have expectations every year,” Avent said. “I don’t think you have expectations because somebody else gives them to you. You have expectations within the program every year. You don’t let anyone define how good you are. Hopefully that comes every year.”

There’s a great deal of truth in Avent’s words, and a healthy dose of coach-speak as well. To be certain, good teams expect great things of themselves. That’s why they set goals, and they always set them high, such as getting to the CWS. The players on this team are extremely confident and will no doubt expect great things of themselves. In that regard, Avent is exactly right.

That said, however, lofty expectations surround this team. At the media luncheon, Baseball America managing editor John Manuel handed out complimentary issues of the college preview issue and presented Avent with a mounted blow-up of the cover. That cover features a group shot of Rodon and Turner along with North Carolina All-Americans Kent Emanuel and Colin Moran in front of Durham Bulls Athletic Park, home of the 2013 ACC Championship. That’s an incredible collection of talent, four great college players, and it signals what is hopefully a golden age of college baseball for North Carolina’s Research Triangle area.

Golden age? Baseball America cover boys? Top 10 ranking? That’s a lot of hype and it’s generating a lot of expectations along with the season-ticket sales. The media luncheon was packed, which would have been inconceivable five years ago. The media treated Rodon, a potential No. 1 overall draft pick 16 months from now, like a rock star, besieging him during the player interview session.

Avent can dismiss the expectations of others all he wants. As someone who knows him well, I’m dead certain he knows that managing those expectations is vital. His players read the newspapers and troll the web. They read everything that’s written about themselves, they hear everything that’s said. The world is watching them and they know it.

The fact is, this team could have an incredible season and still not get to Omaha. That would be disappointing, but it happens. Every year there is at least one great team that stumbles and falls on the road to the College World Series. There are those who would deem that a failure for this team and that would be incredibly unfair. That’s the kind of pressure Avent needs to deflect away from his players, and he knows it.

How they handle that will go a long way in determining how successful this team will be in 2013. For the record, I expect this team will handle it just fine. This is a pretty tough bunch. At this point, however, it’s definitely a factor and it shouldn’t be ignored.

• • •

NC State followed last year’s program-making freshman class with another strong recruiting group, but one that will be brought along more at its own pace. Players returning from injury will give the Wolfpack its biggest boost in 2013. Specifically, lefthander Grant Sasser, righthander Josh Easley and center fielder Brett Williams all missed 2012 with injuries, and it’s not a stretch to say that all three could have been impact players a year ago. They’ll get the opportunity to make that impact in 2013 instead.

Williams was the Wolfpack's best returning position player from 2011 as the 2012 season began, but tore his ACL in the fifth inning of the first game and was lost for the year. His return gives the everyday lineup a significant jolt. He’ll bat in the middle of the order, brings speed and pop at the plate, and highlight-reel defense in center field.

Sasser and Easley, both coming off Tommy John elbow surgery, add quality depth to the pitching staff. Sasser has successfully filled almost every role on the staff in his time in Raleigh and will add a huge veteran presence in the late innings. Easley could be in line to start midweek games, an often thankless task that can be the difference between going to a regional and hosting one, between being a regional host and being a national seed. The Wolfpack plays 14 midweek games this season and needs to win as many of them as possible.

Sasser, a delightful sixth-year senior who baffles hitters with an assortment of offspeed junk that would make Jamie Moyer envious, was in rare form at the media luncheon. Holding court with members of the fourth estate and talking a mile a minute, Sasser gave the normally fast-talking Avent his money’s worth when it came to cramming as many words as possible into a single minute.

“For me, it’s kind of weird, and everybody asks me that, and I’m kind of glad I went through it,” Sasser said of his elbow injury and subsequent surgery. “I didn’t mind the process. It was a long process. After going to Dr. [James] Andrews and getting the surgery, we found out that [the injury] actually happened in high school and I pitched through that, so I was fortunate enough to learn how to pitch because of that. But going through the process, I had family members going through it, and there are millions of baseball players that go through it, and they say that they’re so worried about it, but going into it I said I would give it all I’ve got and not be soft about it, and if I throw it out, I throw it out. And I threw a lot. I threw all last season. Even when we travelled, like when we went to Florida State. I probably threw too much, but now, my arm has never felt stronger. In the past four years, five years, it was always waking up and asking, ‘How bad does it hurt today?’ Since having the surgery, I’ve felt great and, knock on wood, I’ve thrown well in scrimmages and done really good, and it’s felt good, so I’m just trying to keep my rehab up and keep doing the things I have to do to prepare for the season. It feels good so far.”

The above 234-word soliloquy comprised the answer to one question and took just 58 seconds to deliver. Maybe he has gills because it didn’t appear that Sasser took a single breath during that entire stem-winder of a speech. Grant Sasser’s fastball may not register on a radar gun, but when it comes to words per minute, he’s in a class by himself.

Avent no doubt is thrilled to have Sasser back in the bullpen, maybe in part to get him out of the dugout. Avent probably doesn’t need the verbal competition in there, especially during games.

• • •

For 16 years at NC State and eight years at New Mexico State before that, Elliott Avent’s teams used Louisville Slugger TPX bats. That marriage ended after the 2012 season, and the Wolfpack will use Rawlings bats and gloves in 2013. The players are happy.

“I like them better than the TPX,” catcher Brett Austin said, echoing the feelings of many of his teammates. “They’ve got good weight distribution, and I think they have more pop.”

No doubt the folks at TPX have charts and studies to show that their bats have comparable weight distribution, are just as lively and have just as much pop as any bats on the market, and it’s entirely possible that the unpopularity of Louisville Slugger among hitters, not just at NC State, is largely psychological. So be it. Perception is reality, and once a player gets a notion in his head, there’s no dislodging it. And it’s just as possible that the Rawlings bats are genuinely better. Who knows?

No bats were more unpopular than Nike among college hitters, and Nike finally relented in 2012 and allowed schools with Nike equipment contracts to use other bats, freeing players at those schools to use any bat they wished. Most took advantage of the opportunity.

At North Carolina, a longtime Nike school, hitters used every bat imaginable in 2012, including TPX. Nike bats were hard to find at Boshamer, with one exception. Colin Moran — the same Colin Moran on the Baseball America cover with Rodon and Turner and arguably the best hitter in college baseball — never switched from Nike bats and batted .365. He missed about 20 games after punching a bathroom door in the dugout and breaking his hand during the Tar Heels’ series with the Wolfpack, but when Moran used a bat instead of his bare hands, it didn’t matter what bat he used.

Still, perception is reality. Patients given placebos in controlled medical experiments often feel relief from symptoms. Given a bat they believe to be better than the one they’re currently using, hitters are likely to hit better. That’s just the nature of the beast.

“I think it may have gotten in our heads a little last year with the old bats,” Austin admitted, “but we’re happy with the new bats this year.”

Whatever works.