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.

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