Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Lost Weekend Examined

There’s a lot here, but a lot transpired during NC State’s ACC series at Florida State, most of it not so good for the local nine. We start with rumors that there are scouts who believe that Carlos Rodon’s star is falling, followed by the ongoing saga of the Wolfpack’s missing offense (a problem compounded by a no-show by the bullpen), and, finally, a ray of hope in the final game of the series.

Rodon Struggling? Well, Not Exactly
What in the world is wrong with Carlos Rodon? That’s the question making the rounds on the internet these days, but the evidence says that when it comes to Carlos Rodon, it’s just too soon to panic.

Based on his two dominant seasons at NC State, Rodon began the year as the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 MLB draft. Recent internet chatter, however, indicates that his stock has fallen because of inconsistent early-season performances.

In an on-line chat on earlier this week, Keith Law fielded several questions about Rodon and expressed the opinion that the Wolfpack lefthander’s status among scouts had fallen significantly since the start of the season. Clearly, the alarm bells are sounding.

Forgetting the scouts for a moment, let’s take a closer look at Rodon’s season to date, including Friday’s 6-1 loss at No. 2 Florida State. Through five starts, his velocity has generally been where it was most of the last two years — sitting at 91-94 mph and occasionally brushing 95 or even 96. His command has been on and off, however, and he’s lacked consistency with several of his pitches, including his fastball and that devastating slider.

So Rodon is not in midseason form. What else is new? It’s not like he’s been horrible. All things considered, when a guy has a 2.45 ERA and 42 strikeouts and just 11 walks in 36 ⅔ innings, when opposing hitters are batting just .208 against him, it’s a little unfair to brand that as anything less than pretty good, despite the inconsistency. If anything, he’s pitching far better now than he was at this point in 2013, and that turned out pretty well.

Through five starts a year ago, Rodon was 2-2 with a 5.04 ERA. His velocity was down significantly, to about 87-89 mph. He had an ugly five-run hiccup in six innings on opening day vs. Appalachian State, and an unsightly eight-run blowup in 4 ⅓ innings March 4 vs. Clemson.

The Mountaineers hit three homers off Rodon in the first four innings of the season. For context, he allowed just two long balls in 114 ⅔ innings the entire 2012 campaign. His second start came against an overmatched La Salle team, and he combined with Karl Keglovits on a no-hitter, striking out 14 in seven innings. A week later he turned in his one truly impressive outing of the early season, holding a good Florida Atlantic team to a run on two hits in seven innings, striking out a career-high 16.

Clemson rolled into Raleigh the following weekend, though, and Rodon imploded. Tigers coach Jack Leggett halted the game, twice, to complain that Rodon did not have his back foot against the rubber, demanding at one point that the grounds crew come out to do some landscaping on the mound. The delay worked. Rodon responded with the worst outing of his career. A week later, he labored in a start at Wake Forest, consistently falling behind in the count and allowing three runs on five hits in six innings. He came away with the win, but it was hardly an artful performance.

The 2013 early schedule included two teams — FAU and Clemson — that went on to earn No. 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, and three that were a combined one game over .500. Rodon’s numbers were definitively worse against that schedule than they are against equal, or even better, competition this time around.

This year’s slate has included Canisius, the defending champion in the Metro Atlantic Conference and the favorite to repeat; UCLA, the defending national champion and the world’s most opportunistic team; and second-ranked Florida State, one of the best and most balanced teams in college baseball.

Rodon lost to all three, but in doing so he gave up just seven runs combined, only four of them earned, while his teammates scored him a grand total of one. His ERA in the three losses was 1.83. He allowed 12 hits in 19 ⅔ innings, struck out 26, walked eight, and held opposing hitters to a .174 batting average. He fanned 12 in 6 ⅔ innings Friday night against a terrific FSU squad. With a little support from his teammates, Rodon might be 5-0.

Everybody understands where scouts are coming from. The first overall pick in the draft is going to sign a contract that includes an enormous signing bonus. The general manager of that team — in this case Jeff Luhnow of the Houston Astros — has every reason to expect greatness in return, not just very good. Fair enough. He should expect nothing less, or he’s not doing his job.

Rodon’s track record says he’s still capable of a great 2014 season. After last year’s 2-2, 5.04 start, he went 8-1 with a 2.38 ERA, 130 strikeouts and 34 walks in 102 innings the rest of the way. He was 7-1, 1.78 in his last 10 starts; and 2-1, 1.09 in his last five, all of them in the postseason. He utterly dominated the last two months in 2013. And again, he’s much closer to that level of performance now than he was 12 months ago.

For the scouts, for Keith Law, and for everyone else who covers the draft, we all need to remember that the first pick is still 11 weeks away. If Rodon is no longer favored as the consensus No. 1 pick, so be it. No one else is either at this point. And that means Rodon has as good a chance as anyone to re-emerge as the favorite.

Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. There are no guarantees. If you know his history at all, though, you know that Carlos Rodon is not a guy you want to bet against.

So let’s wait and see what happens in June. Until then, there is no draft and there is no first overall pick. From now until June, the only thing that matters is winning games. And as Florida State showed, in emphatic fashion, the Wolfpack has enough to worry about just trying to win games.

Beaten From Pillar To Post
NC State went to Tallahassee for this weekend’s showcase showdown against Florida State looking to make a statement. Instead, the Wolfpack received a loud wake-up call in the form of a three-game sweep at the hands of the clearly superior Seminoles.

Before we pick apart NC State’s performance, let’s give all due credit to Florida State. On offense, the Seminoles make every at-bat an ordeal for the pitcher, taking pitches, fouling off borderline pitches and generally running deep pitch counts. Every plate appearance seems to go to 3-and-2. The Noles may not have the most firepower in college baseball, but no team takes better at-bats or wears out pitchers the way they do.

The FSU pitching staff is a mostly veteran group that throws strikes and changes speeds effectively. They don’t possess overpowering stuff, but they keep hitters off-balance, they throw offspeed pitches for strikes in fastball counts, and they work both sides of the plate. And they all seem to field their position like shortstops, which came into play several times in the series with the Wolfpack. In other words, Florida State’s pitchers don’t beat themselves, which is half the battle.

Offensively, NC State batted .273 in the series, only 10 points below its season average, but two hitters, Andrew Knizner and Brett Austin, combined for 14 of the Wolfpack’s 33 hits in the series. Jake Fincher and Carlos Rodon combined for seven more.

Take those four bats out of the lineup and the Wolfpack batted .143 (12-for-84) against Florida State. We’ve discussed NC State’s offensive shortcomings here before, but Florida State exposed more flaws in the Wolfpack offense than were previously apparent. In particular, NC State’s inability to execute the little game, especially its failure to execute in bunting situations, was exposed for all to see. It was not pretty.

For the statheads out there, you can argue against the merits of bunting all day and you won’t get much of an argument here. When you only get three outs in an inning, it doesn’t make much sense to give one of them away in an attempt to score one run. That said, when a team proves wholly incapable of advancing runners any other way, the bunt becomes a more attractive option.

Also, bunting in college is an altogether different proposition than in pro ball. College defenders are much more likely to let the game speed up on them, especially in the late innings of close games, especially early in the season. Generally speaking, the more pressure you can put on a college defense, the better.

One situation in particular cries out for the bunt — none out with runners on first and second in a one-run game. A successful bunt in that situation forces the opposing head coach to make a crucial decision: Play the infield back and concede the tying run on a ground ball, or play the infield in and maybe give up the tying and go-ahead runs on a routine grounder through the drawn-in defenders.

NC State faced that situation five times over the weekend and successfully bunted the runners over once. The Wolfpack also botched a pair of squeeze bunts, resulting in outs at home plate. Countless bunts were fouled off or popped up. Several were bunted right back at the pitcher, forcing lead runners and short-circuiting potential rallies. FSU pitchers Luke Weaver and Brandon Liebrandt in particular deserve credit for their defensive prowess, but at some point, hitters on a team with national championship aspirations have to be able to bunt better than this. NC State, which had just three extra-base hits all weekend, had two sacrifice bunts and a bunt single the entire series. If you don’t have punch, you’d better execute. The Wolfpack failed to do either.

One also has to wonder what’s happened to the Wolfpack’s running game. This is, after all, a lineup built primarily on the speed of Turner and Fincher, yet NC State has attempted just eight steals the last 11 games — none against FSU — and was successful just five times. Turner, who stole 57 bases as a freshman two years ago and 27 last season, hasn’t even attempted a steal since Feb. 25 against Davidson.

The hitters should not bear the whole burden of blame here. The pitchers got exposed as well, especially the Pack’s previously impregnable bullpen. State relievers, who were 5-0 with a 1.27 ERA heading into the series, allowed 14 runs on 26 hits in 16 ⅔ innings against the Seminoles. Opponents batted .171 against State relievers the first 16 games of the season. FSU battered the Pack bullpen to the tune of a .377 batting average. State relievers issued nine walks and hit five batters.

Andrew Woeck and twins Patrick and Eric Peterson appeared in the 13-inning series finale and pitched admirably, keeping the Pack alive for 11 ⅔ combined innings. The rest of the NC State bullpen was laid to waste by the Seminoles.

Defensively, the Wolfpack did little to distinguish itself. While the stat sheet says the Pack committed just three errors in the series, NC State misplayed cutoffs and relays all weekend, throwing to the wrong base, overthrowing cutoff men, and in one instance throwing to an uncovered base, leading directly to a run.

The bottom line is that the game appeared to speed up on NC State this weekend, and that’s a bad sign for a team with this much College World Series experience. Again, give credit where it’s due. Florida State came into the series ranked No. 2 and may be the best team in the country. Still, the Wolfpack came in ranked No. 5, with no reason for anyone to believe that ranking was not legitimate. Three games later, you have to wonder a little.

The good news for NC State is there are 35 regular-season games left and Florida State is in the rear-view mirror. Despite the lost weekend in Tallahassee, this team, worst case, should be a very good team. Of course, this is not a club that aspires to be very good. It’s a club that aspires to greatness, and it’s a long way from here to there. Not that it can’t be done.

Last year’s team stumbled out of the gate and was 16-9 the last week of March before winning 21 of its next 23 games and 31 of 36 to reach the College World Series. Whether this team can pull off a similar stretch run remains to be seen, but enough players from that team are back that we know it’s possible and they know what it takes to get there.

A Glimmer Of Hope
As disheartening as the sweep in Tallahassee was for NC State, the Wolfpack showed serious signs of life in the final game of the series. Head coach Elliott Avent shuffled his lineup, putting All-America lefthander Carlos Rodon at DH in the cleanup spot, with freshman third baseman Andrew Knizner, arguably the team’s best hitter, moving from the comfort zone of the bottom of the lineup to the five spot. Bubby Riley moved from fourth to seventh, and Jake Armstrong dropped down to eighth.

This lineup will never be mistaken for the Wolfpack’s comparative juggernaut of two years ago. Ryan Mathews and Chris Diaz are still gone and they’re not coming back. For an offense struggling to find its identity and show some grit, however, this lineup not only exhibited the Wolfpack’s first genuine feistiness of the weekend, but arguably of the entire season.

The key components are Rodon and Knizner. Rodon is a salty competitor whether he’s on the mound or at the plate. He’s never had regular at-bats, but he is a capable hitter with some pop in his bat. Moreover, he demands excellence from himself and everyone around him, and he plays with an edge that’s contagious. Playing him everyday may not be something Avent wants to do, given Rodon’s importance on the mound, but Rodon seems to bring something to the lineup that’s missing when he’s sitting on the bench.

Knizner, who batted seventh, eighth or ninth in his previous 15 appearances, has been the Pack’s best hitter pretty much from the get-go. He leads the ACC in hitting with a .448 average, and is batting .565 (13-for-23) with 11 RBIs in six games since State’s 2-0 loss to UCLA on March 1. He had a 10-game hitting streak earlier in the year, and has hit safely in 14 of the 16 games in which he’s appeared. He had five hits and three RBIs in the series finale in Tallahassee, both team highs. The last time a State player had five hits in a game was one year earlier to the day, when Tarran Senay had five hits against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. Four of Knizner’s five hits came with runners on base, and he was 3-for-3 in RBI opportunities.

In the first two games of the series, the Pack scored just one run after falling behind and never overcame a deficit. State scored seven runs after first falling behind in the finale, and came from behind twice to take the lead after trailing. Brett Austin went 3-for-7 out of the leadoff spot and scored twice. Rodon was 3-for-5, walked twice and scored three runs. Knizner was 5-for-7 with three RBIs. Those are numbers heretofore missing from NC State box scores.

Tempering this ray of sunshine is the possibility that Riley might miss significant time after injuring his right shoulder while making a spectacular game-saving catch to end the bottom of the eighth inning. With runners on second and third and two away, Riley made a diving catch of Justin Gonzalez’s line drive at the warning track in right-center, then banged his head and right shoulder hard into the wall before falling prone on the warning track. He eventually got up and left the field under his own power, but was unable to continue and had to leave the game. TV cameras spotted him in the dugout later, with his right arm in a sling.

There was no official word as of Sunday as to the extent of the injury or of Riley’s prognosis.

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