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.

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