Five weeks into the 2013 college baseball season, NC State may be the nation’s most perplexing team.
Picked in or near the national top 10 in virtually every preseason poll, the Wolfpack’s season has been a succession of sudden lurches and stumbles, one step forward, one step backwards, one step sideways. Whereas most national contenders are hitting their stride in late March, NC State is wobbling along at 16-6, wondering why the engine is misfiring and throwing oil.
There are plenty of reasons for this. Let’s focus on three of them, in reverse order:
3.) The injury to Trea Turner. Turner sprained his left ankle on the final play of the first ACC game of the season, a 10-5 loss to Clemson at Doak Field. At the time of the injury, Turner was arguably the best player in the country, batting .464 with five doubles, two triples, five home runs, 18 RBIs and 26 runs scored in 14 games. He had eight steals in as many attempts. After a one-year detour to third base in 2012, Turner moved back to shortstop this season and was excellent there as well. Turner carried the offense the first three weeks of the season. At times, he was all the offense NC State had. Turner is supposed to be out 4-6 weeks but may return a week sooner than that. The sooner the better.
2.) Overlooked personnel losses from a year ago. NC State’s preseason expectations were based in large part on the performance of last year’s freshman class, the best in the nation. Unfortunately, most of us either forgot or failed to notice that the Wolfpack lost several great players from a year ago. Replacing them has been easier said than done.
Shortstop Chris Diaz batted .346 with a team-high 25 doubles in 2012. He was second on the team with 56 RBIs and 55 runs scored, and third in slugging at 479. Diaz also stole eight bases and was absolutely rock solid defensively at shortstop. The freshmen got all the headlines, but Diaz was, without question, NC State’s best and most valuable player.
Right fielder Ryan Mathews batted .327 with 16 doubles, 17 home runs and 62 RBIs, staggering numbers in the BBCOR bat era. An absolute terror the second half of the season, Mathews slugged .628 and was a PRESENCE in the middle of the lineup, something the current NC State team sorely lacks.
First baseman Andrew Ciencin batted .278 with 14 doubles, five home runs, 41 runs scored and 36 RBIs. More important than Ciencin’s offense, however, was his leadership. A two-year captain, he was an acknowledged team leader almost from the day he stepped on campus. Lack of senior leadership is another issue the current Wolfpack faces.
Given the glitz and glitter of last year’s freshmen, it was easy to overlook the workmanlike excellence of Diaz, Mathews and Ciencin. And if losing those three wasn’t enough, catcher Danny Canela left school in December. High-maintenance, overweight and out of shape, Canela was a baseball savant, a hardball natural who somehow batted a team-best .348 while unable to see clearly out of his right eye, his front eye (Canela is a lefty batter). He hit 18 doubles, six home runs, and added 46 RBIs.
The quartet of Diaz, Mathews, Ciencin and Canela batted .326 and accounted for 305 hits, 73 doubles, 30 home runs, 190 runs scored and 200 RBIs. Their great seasons allowed the freshmen to flourish without the burden of carrying the team on their own. They have that burden now and it’s not going all that well.
1.) Horrific starting pitching. If anything, NC State expected its pitching to be a strength, with a solid weekend rotation of Carlos Rodon, Logan Jernigan and Ethan Ogburn, backed by a deep, versatile and talented bullpen.
Rodon is the focal point of the staff and team, so let’s start with him. At 2-2 with a 5.04 ERA, he hardly looks like the guy who was 9-0 with a 1.57 ERA and 135 strikeouts as a freshman. His velocity, normally in the 92-96 mph range a year ago, has been more like 87-90 this time around. Complicating things, his command has been off, leading to deep hitters’ counts and five home runs in 30 ⅓ innings. He allowed two home runs in 114 ⅔ innings in 2012.
Rodon shouldered a heavy workload last spring, then pitched all summer with Team USA. With nine new pitchers on the roster to evaluate, plus two others coming off injury, the coaches gave Rodon a needed break in the fall and let him swing the bat but not pitch. That inactivity, combined with unusually cold weather in the early season, is the probable cause of his drop in velocity. He appears healthy. His slider certainly looks healthy, perhaps even better than a year ago. Rodon has 54 strikeouts and opponents are hitting .183 against him. He threw a no-hitter (with two innings of relief from freshman Karl Keglovits) against LaSalle. So Rodon isn’t hurt, and he’s not the problem. He's not the problem, but he's not the solution, either.
Giving Rodon a hall pass does not excuse him or the rest of the starting pitchers for the mess they've created. After posting a 4-1 record and a 2.33 ERA in eight games in February, the starting pitching spun out, hit the wall and exploded in a fiery crash the moment the calendar turned to March. The coaches are still working at extinguishing the flames. Wish them luck.
In 14 games so far this month, NC State starting pitchers failed to survive the second inning seven times. In four of those seven games, head coach Elliott Avent had to yank his starter in the first inning. A starting pitcher is required to pitch at least five full innings to qualify for a win. In 14 games thus far in March, NC State starters qualified for a win just three times, twice by Rodon and once by Ethan Ogburn. The starters' ERA in March is 7.22. Their average start has been 2 ⅔ innings.
So there you have it. Three essential issues facing NC State baseball in 2013. Issue No. 3, Turner’s injury, will take care of itself. Issue No. 2, the absence of Diaz, Mathews, Ciencin and Canela, is not going away. How well the Wolfpack addresses Issue No. 1, the starting pitching, will most likely determine what kind of season this turns out to be. There is still more than enough talent on the roster to win the conference championship, host an NCAA regional and reach the College World Series.
Because of the awful starting pitching, however, a tipping point is rapidly approaching. If the starters can’t do better than 2 ⅔ innings per start or a 7.22 ERA, then the bullpen, the team’s one true strength, will soon blow out as well and this team pass the point of no return.