Friday, October 25, 2013

NC State And The College World Series: The Sequel?

NC State took 45 years after its first trip to the College World Series to make a return trip to Omaha a year ago. The plan in West Raleigh is to reduce the gap between trips two and three to just 12 months.

That’s certainly an attainable goal. The Wolfpack returns a talented and experienced nucleus from last year’s CWS team, led by All-Americans Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner. Rodon (10-3, 2.99 ERA, a nation-high and school-record 184 strikeouts in 132 ⅓ innings) and Turner (.368/.455/.553 with 13 doubles, seven home runs and 30 steals while playing most of the season on a broken ankle) are elite talents at critical positions — starting pitcher and shortstop, respectively. Both figure to be taken high in the first round of the 2014 MLB draft, with Rodon the likely first overall pick.

Beyond those two, center fielder Jake Fincher (.313/.399/.553 with 14 steals), catcher Brett Austin (.251/.333/.361) and second baseman Logan Ratledge (.250/.309/.307) return to provide veteran leadership and production up the middle. Fincher, Austin and Ratledge, like Rodon and Turner, are juniors and should figure prominently in scouts’ plans for the 2014 draft.

That nucleus alone is reason for optimism as 2014 approaches, but the Wolfpack has its question marks as well. In particular, how well can head coach Elliott Avent navigate the 2014 schedule without the incredible bullpen that pulled State’s fat out of the fire time after time a year ago?

How good was NC State’s bullpen in 2013? Consider: During one 18-game stretch, from March 1-27, Wolfpack starting pitchers failed to pitch the required five innings to qualify for a win 14 times. They failed to get out of the fourth inning 11 times, and failed to get out of the second inning nine times. The average outing by a starter in that stretch was less than three innings. NC State went 10-8 in those games. In games in that stretch not started by Rodon, the Pack was 8-6. That’s how good the Wolfpack bullpen was.

NC State’s bullpen was deep, versatile and talented. For the season, Wolfpack relievers were 31-5 with a 2.57 ERA and 19 saves. In 315 innings — approximately 4 ⅔ innings per game — they limited opposing hitters to a .210 batting average. Lefthander Grant Sasser (3-0, 1.03, 8 saves) and righthander Chris Overman (1-1, 0.33, 6 saves) anchored the back end of the pen and were money in the bank all year. Opponents batted .193 against Sasser, .110 against Overman. Setting up those two, Josh Easley was 7-2 with a 1.31 ERA and a save. He held opponents to a .228 average.

It wasn’t just those three. Andrew Woeck (6-1, 3.09) and Ryan Wilkins (4-1, 3.82) came up huge in long relief roles. Travis Orwig (3-0, 1.56) and D.J. Thomas (2-0, 2.89) were reliable lefty specialists. Ethan Ogburn was 2-0 and didn’t allow a run in 11 relief innings covering three outings, including the Super Regional-clinching victory over Rice. Whenever NC State’s starters got in trouble, which was almost every time Rodon didn’t pitch, or so it seemed, Avent was able to go to the bullpen and shut the other team down cold.

Not this year. Overman, Sasser, Easley, Ogburn and Wilkins all were seniors. Orwig had Tommy John surgery after the season and will not pitch in 2014. Woeck and Thomas are all that remain from that group, and both could wind up as midweek starters, a situation still to be determined.

The candidates to fill the many empty spots in this year’s bullpen are largely untested. True freshmen Ryan Williamson, Joe O’Donnell, Cody Beckman and Cory Wilder all came highly touted, but are untested freshmen. Ditto for redshirt-freshman Johnny Piedmonte. Sophomores Brian Donovan, Will Gilbert, Karl Keglovits and Jon Olczak combined to pitch 30 ⅔ innings in 2013.

Replacing seniors with freshmen and seldom-used sophomores is a tried and true way to keep coaches awake at night, but that’s the life Avent will have to lead this season. The less he exposes his bullpen with the game on the line, the better NC State’s chances of success. And the best way to protect his bullpen is for the starting pitchers to pitch deeper into games and for the everyday lineup to score more runs.

We’ll exempt Rodon from this discussion. He was not the problem. A two-time first-team All-American and the early favorite to win the 2014 Golden Spikes Award, Rodon is already the best pitcher in the country, and could be pitching in the big leagues before the season is over. It’s the rest of the rotation that Avent will have to worry about.

Logan Jernigan, a strong-armed but erratic junior righthander, was 1-1 with a most-deceptive 1.56 ERA last season. A potential high-round draft pick this coming June, he began 2013 in the weekend rotation and promptly pitched his way out of it. Despite a great arm and raw stuff comparable to Rodon’s, Jernigan’s failure to throw strikes dogged him early in the season. After failing to pitch out of the first inning of a start March 19 vs. UNC Greensboro, he challenged a cement wall in the clubhouse to a fistfight. The wall won, Jernigan broke his pitching hand, and Avent was short a starting pitcher for about five weeks.

Jernigan returned a humbled and noticeably wiser pitcher. Instead of trying to throw the ball through the catcher, umpire and backstop, he concentrated on making quality pitches. When he got in trouble, he threw softer instead of harder. Avent limited Jernigan’s innings as he made his way back from the injury, allowing him to ease into a more prominent role as the season went along. He responded with a 2.70 ERA in 13 ⅓ postseason innings, including an excellent start against eventual national champion UCLA in the College World Series. He limited hitters to a .196 batting average during the postseason.

Jernigan pitched this past summer at Harwich of the Cape Cod League and continued to harness his control and add polish to his game. It’s still something of a work in progress, but his command was better this fall than at anytime during his college career. If he continues that in the spring, the combination of Rodon and Jernigan will give NC State a 1-2 starting punch as good as, if not better than, any in the nation.

Freshman lefthander Brad Stone (3-2, 5.49) moved into the starting rotation March 10 in the finale of the Clemson series and steadily improved as the season progressed. He fashioned a 2.77 ERA in 13 postseason innings over three appearances, two of them starts. His stuff doesn’t overwhelm hitters the way Rodon or Jernigan’s do, but he keeps hitters off balance with a good assortment of pitches. He struck out 60 in 60 ⅔ innings and limited hitters to a .234 average. He was second on the staff in starts (13), innings pitched and strikeouts.

With a week remaining in fall practice, Rodon, Jernigan and Stone looked like an outstanding weekend rotation. The midweek spots were another story, with all the aforementioned bullpen candidates also hoping for a chance to start. That narrative most likely will have to wait until preseason practices open in February.

Scoring more runs shouldn’t be a problem either. In fact, it’s hard to imagine NC State scoring fewer runs than it did in 2013. The Wolfpack batted an anemic .277 as a team last spring, scored just 5.3 runs per game, and slugged just 29 home runs, fewest by a Wolfpack team in more than 30 years. This year’s team doesn’t figure to be power-laden either, but the returning nucleus of juniors, augmented by several newcomers and improved veterans, should have no trouble putting more runs on the board.

The best news is that Turner looks fully recovered from the broken ankle, which bothered him all spring and summer, and into the fall. He still had an All-America season but prior to the injury, suffered on the last play of the first conference game of the season, March 8 vs. Clemson, Turner was playing at a level that would have had him in the running for the Golden Spikes Award. For those old enough to remember, think Nomar Garciaparra at Georgia Tech in 1994, only with plus speed. The injury robbed Turner of much of that elite speed — he stole 56 bases as a freshman to lead the nation — and his defensive mobility, especially on plays to his right. He wasn’t the same player after the injury. With a week left of fall practice, he looked fully recovered, and that’s extremely bad news for the rest of the ACC.

Outfielder Bubby Riley, a transfer from Delgado Community College in New Orleans, has hit the ball with authority all fall. He’ll play left or right field. Chance Shepard, a sophomore catcher and outfielder, was the most improved player on the squad through late October, hitting for average and power. Sophomore outfielders Brian Taylor and Will Nance also showed flashes of power at the plate. With a strong veteran nucleus around them, true freshmen Preston Palmeiro and Andrew Knizner — the front-runners at first and third base, respectively — can develop at their own pace without any pressure to carry the team. Both look perfectly at home on a baseball field and should hit more than well enough to stay in the lineup.

The bullpen is an enormous concern, and it should be. There is, however, abundant reason for optimism at Doak Field. If Jernigan, Stone and the everyday lineup are as improved as they appear to be, NC State will feature strong starting pitching, speed up and down the lineup, adequate power in the middle of the order, and strong defense up the middle of the diamond. In other words, this team could be every bit as strong as the one that finished fifth in the nation and broke NC State’s 45-year College World Series drought.

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