Thursday, February 20, 2014

Crawl In From That Ledge, Wolfpack Fans

RALEIGH, N.C. — With one week of the college baseball season now safely in the books, NC State fans can take a moment to catch their collective breath and get over the panic attack that set in with that 3-0 opening-day loss to Canisius.

There are no good losses and no bad wins, but there are shades of gray in between. The Wolfpack was not going to go undefeated in 2014, so we got that one out of the way the first day. Canisius won its conference championship a year ago, played tough in the NCAA Chapel Hill Regional in June, and returned almost the entire lineup and pitching staff from that team. So the opening-day opponent was hardly a pushover.

Then there was the “we’re so beautiful” factor. The Wolfpack players spent most of the last several months hearing everyone tell them how great they are, and they played that first game like a team in desperate need of a wakeup call. And Canisius delivered. It was hardly a knockout punch. Carlos Rodon, State’s all-everything lefthander, was far from his typically dominant self, but he pitched well enough to win. With some defensive support, in fact, the game could have been scoreless after nine innings. As it was, the Griffs managed just one earned run on five hits, but it seemed like a blowout.

Offensively, NC State simply did not show up. Canisius starter Rohn Pierce, a veteran righthander, had little difficulty mowing down a Wolfpack lineup featuring five newcomers, four of them freshmen. All-America shortstop Trea Turner went 3-for-4. The rest of the State lineup was 4-for-29 with nine strikeouts. When the Griffs went ahead 2-0 in the top of the third, you could almost see the uncertainty in the eyes of some of the State hitters, and you couldn’t miss it in their body language. This was not supposed to happen. But it did.

Head coach Elliott Avent promised wholesale lineup changes for the next day, and he delivered. Most notably, he started just one freshman, third baseman Andrew Knizner. Rodon was the DH and batted seventh. John Mangum moved behind the plate, and Brett Austin shifted to right field and the leadoff spot. Turner dropped to third, with center fielder Jake Fincher hitting second.

Perhaps the most significant change was the insertion of Jake Armstrong at first base. Armstrong won’t wow anyone physically, but he won’t let the game speed up on him either. In an offense that hit just 29 home runs a year ago — fewest by the Wolfpack since the aluminum bat era began in 1972 — Armstrong keeps the line moving. In 50 games a year ago, he batted .266 with just 12 extra-base hits, but he also drew 30 walks and got in the way of 21 pitches, stole seven bases in as many attempts, and grounded into just one double play. His .440 on-base percentage was second on the team behind Turner’s .455.

Armstrong went 0-for-2 in that second Canisius game, but he laid down a successful sacrifice bunt, got hit by a pitch (he may be a walking bruise, but he spends most of the game on base) and drew a walk. In three games since since he moved into the lineup, Armstrong is hitting .333 with five walks and four HBPs — both team highs — for a team-best .733 on-base percentage. He hit the team’s first home run of the season in Wednesday’s 15-0 disembowelment of overmatched N.C. A&T, giving him an .833 slugging percentage, which also leads the team.

In an offense featuring the likes of Turner, Austin, Fincher, and Logan Ratledge, a guy like Jake Armstrong won’t draw much attention, but every great team has a guy like that in the lineup.

• Twin Power: The Peterson twins, Patrick and Eric, made their debut on the mound in the A&T win, and while the opposition may have been less than daunting, both Petersons were impressive, throwing multiple pitches for strikes, to both sides of the plate. Both consistently pitched ahead in the count and combined to allow three hits in eight tidy innings.

Patrick, the lefthander, started and allowed three hits in 5 ⅔ innings. He retired 13 of the last 15 men he faced, and 16 of 20 overall. One of the four baserunners he allowed reached on an error. Eric came out of the bullpen with two down in the sixth and ended the inning with one pitch, then cruised through the eighth, retiring all seven men he faced. Between them, Patrick and Eric retired 23 of 27 batters, including 20 of 22 from the second inning through the eighth.

The Petersons transferred to NC State from Temple in January amid much publicity and some hard feelings from the Owls coaching staff. With Temple cancelling its baseball program after the 2015 season and with a chance to pitch for a College World Series contender and play right away, the Petersons made the jump. It would appear that they could be major contributors for the Wolfpack in 2014.

• An Unprecedented Offensive Eruption: NC State has scored in double figures in each of the last three games. This marks the first time the Wolfpack has scored 10 or more runs in three consecutive games in the BBCOR bat era, which dates back to the beginning of the 2011 season. The last time State scored 10 or more runs in back-to-back-to-back games was a five-game stretch from March 4-9, 2010, vs. Xavier, Quinnipiac (3 games) and North Carolina A&T. The Wolfpack played 241 games between that five-game stretch in 2010 and the current three-game stretch without scoring in double figures three consecutive times.

• Missed First Step: This season's 3-0 season-opening loss to Canisius on Feb. 16 was the first time NC State was shut out in its season opener, home or away, since 1978. The Wolfpack opened the '78 season at home vs. East Carolina, and the Pirates whitewashed the Pack 5-0. The Wolfpack scored at least one run in the next 36 season-opening games before Canisius broke the spell this year.

• Quick Starter: Cold weather notwithstanding, south-Florida native Trea Turner likes the month of February. At least, he likes playing baseball in February. In 20 February games thus far in his college career (through Wednesday's 15-0 pistol-whipping of North Carolina A&T), Turner is a .459 hitter (34-for-74) with five doubles, two home runs, 29 runs scored, 22 RBIs and 21 steals in as many attempts. He batted .414 in eight February games as a freshman in 2012, stealing 11 bases, scoring 13 runs and driving in eight. A year ago, he sizzled to the tune of .483 in eight February games, stealing five bags, belting three doubles and two home runs, scoring 16 times and driving in 10 runs. So far in 2014, Turner has played four February games with eight hits in 16 at-bats, five runs scored, four RBIs and five stolen bases.

• Big Inning: The Wolfpack's eight-run fifth inning Feb. 19 vs. N.C. A&T tied for NC State's biggest inning during the BBCOR era. State scored eight runs in the second inning on Feb. 18, 2012, in a 14-3 pounding of Youngstown State, the only other time since the introduction of the new bats for the 2011 season that the Pack crossed home plate eight times in a single inning. NC State had three innings of nine runs or more in 2010, the last season with the old bats, or “joke” bats. The Pack opened the 2010 season with a 10-run inning Feb. 19 in a record-setting 32-3 stemwinder of a romp over La Salle. A few weeks later, on March 6, NC State dropped a nine-run fourth inning on Quinnipiac in a 14-3 blowout. On April 7, Coppin State came to Doak Field at Dail Park, and the Wolfpack welcomed the Eagles to Raleigh with an 18-1 thrashing that included an 11-run second inning.

• Not So Lonely At The Top: Through four games, the top third of the NC State lineup has been especially productive. Wolfpack leadoff hitters are batting .474 (9-for-19) with a .545 on-base percentage. Hitters batting second in the order are batting .462 (6-for-13) with a .650 on-base percentage and a .538 slugging percentage. The three-hole hitters are batting .333 (6-for-18) with a .381 on-base percentage.

• Power Outage: NC State batters used up 119 at-bats in 2014 before someone went deep. Jake Armstrong broke the homer drought with a one-out solo blast to left in the fourth inning Feb. 19 vs. North Carolina A&T. Logan Ratledge hit a three-run homer to left one inning later, and then added a solo shot in the seventh. A year ago, NC State hitters went 124 at-bats before Tarran Senay's two-run homer in the sixth inning of a 5-0 victory over La Salle. The Wolfpack finished with just 29 home runs in 2013, the fewest since aluminum bats were introduced to the college game in 1972. And the 2013 Wolfpack hit nine of those 29 homers in back-to-back games in a Feb. 24 doubleheader vs. Wagner. In the first game of the twin-bill, Brett Williams hit a pair of long balls, and Grant Clyde, Senay and Sam Morgan hit one apiece. Williams homered again in the second game of the doubleheader, and Trea Turner, Clyde and Morgan also went deep once in the nightcap. State hit just 20 homers in its other 64 games of 2013.

• On Base Streaks: Trea Turner, Andrew Knizner, Jake Fincher and Brett Austin all have reached base safely in each of the first four games of the 2014 season, but Turner now has a 16-game streak of reaching base safely, dating back to the final 12 games of the 2013 season.

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