Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Does Carlos Replace Casey (At The Bat, That Is)?

Everyone knows lefthander Carlos Rodon’s accomplishments as a pitcher. His resume is unmatched in college baseball.

Two-time first-team All-American, 2012 ACC Pitcher of the Year, 2012 National Freshman of the Year, 2012 Golden Spikes Award finalist, two-time member of the USA Collegiate National Team, 2013 national strikeouts leader, you name it and Rodon has probably done it. Ticket sales skyrocket for games he’s scheduled to pitch, and for good reason.

Rodon is not so well-known as a hitter, mostly because it’s been three years since he had regular at-bats. That was at Holly Springs High School in 2011, when he batted .370 with three homers and 25 RBIs in 29 games. Watch him take batting practice and you know the guy can swing the bat, but he’s had precious few opportunities at the plate since coming to NC State.

With his team’s collective backs against the wall Saturday night in the finale of the Florida State series, Rodon had the finest offensive moment of his collegiate career. Inserted into cleanup spot in the lineup as the designated hitter, Rodon went 3-for-5, walked twice, scored three runs and drove in one.

He singled, drove in a run and scored to tie the game in State’s three-run rally in the third inning. He singled and scored an unearned run in the Pack’s two-run fifth. He singled to lead off the seventh and eventually came around to score the tying run, again. The multiple-hit game was only the second of his collegiate career. He went 2-for-3 on April 2, 2013, vs. East Carolina.

About a year ago this time, NC State was limping along with a 16-9 record when head coach Elliott Avent put Grant Clyde and Bryan Adametz into the lineup, Clyde at third base and Adametz in left field. Those moves seemed to ignite the Wolfpack, which went on to win 21 of its next 23 games, and 31 of 35 overall through the NCAA Super Regional en route to the College World Series.

Could Rodon ignite the 2014 Wolfpack in a similar fashion? Perhaps. Still a little rusty from a lack of regular ABs, Rodon has some pop in his bat, and he plays the game — both on the mound and at the plate — with a salty edge about him, something this team could use.

Rodon’s competitiveness seemed to rub off on his teammates Saturday in the final game at Florida State, which had dominated the Wolfpack the first two games of the series. With Rodon seemingly in the middle of every rally, the Pack overcame a pair of deficits, including a three-run hole in the third inning, and pushed the Noles into extra innings before falling in 13. Yes, FSU swept the series, but with Rodon batting cleanup and helping to spark the offense, NC State showed toughness and resiliency that was absent earlier in the series, and throughout much of the season, for that matter.

So does Rodon’s immediate future include hitting as well as pitching? That’s a tough call for Avent. On the one hand, he has an obligation to protect Rodon the pitcher, who happens to be this team’s biggest asset, and who has a lucrative future ahead of him pitching professionally. On the other hand, Avent has an obligation to the team, the university and the Wolfpack fan base to put his best team on the field, and his best team just might be the one we saw Saturday night in Tallahassee, with Rodon batting cleanup.

Stay tuned.

• More On That Final Game In Tallahassee: While the final outcome was not satisfactory, NC State’s offensive output in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader at Florida State clearly was a step in the right direction for the struggling Wolfpack.

NC State managed its second-highest hits total (17) of the season, its highest runs total (8) in seven games, its first home run in seven games, and the third-most total bases (20) in a game all season. Yes, it was 13 innings instead of nine, but the game-by-game numbers took a disproportionate spike upwards Saturday night against the Seminoles.

In the previous three games on the Florida trip (including Tuesday’s 6-1 victory at Stetson), NC State hitters batted .240 (23-for-96) and scored a grand total of nine runs. The Pack had four extra-base hits, all doubles, and slugged a less-than-robust .281. They were 10-for-49 with runners on base, 4-for-28 with two out, and 5-for-29 in RBI opportunities.

In the finale vs. the Seminoles, the Pack scored eight runs and was 17-for-53 at the plate, including 10-for-29 with runners on base, 4-for-15 with two out, and 7-for-21 in RBI opportunities. After going 2-for-4 with runners on third and less than two out the previous three games, the Pack went 4-for-5 in that situation in the FSU finale.

Finally, after coming from behind to tie a game or take a lead just twice in the previous seven games, NC State came from behind to tie or take a lead twice in a span of five innings Saturday night against FSU.

• Kniznerific At The Plate: Freshman infielder Andrew Knizner, whose last name causes all kinds of issues with an auto-correcting app on an iPhone or iPad, has established himself as the Wolfpack’s MVP through the first third of the regular season. In addition to leading the ACC in hitting by a whopping 57 points (.448 to .391) over teammate Brett Austin, Knizner has gotten better and better as the season has gone along.

He batted .308 with three doubles and four RBIs through the first seven games. In nine games since then, he’s caught fire, batting .562 (18-for-32) with two home runs and 11 RBIs. In that stretch, he had two two-hit games, two three-hit games, and Saturday’s five-hit game in Tallahassee.

So far, the only thing that’s slowed Knizner down has been an ankle injury that occurred March 8 vs. Notre Dame. He came out of that game after one hitless at-bat, snapping a 10-game hitting streak. He batted .474 (18-for-38) with four doubles, two homers and 12 RBIs during the 10-game streak. He missed the next three games before returning to action for the Florida State series, and hit safely in all three games vs. FSU.

Knizner was the designated hitter his first two games back in the lineup, and went 2-for-6. Back at third base for the series finale, he erupted for five hits and three RBIs in seven at-bats, the most hits in a single game by a State batter since Tarran Senay on March 15, 2013. Knizner is batting .462 (24-for-52) when not the designated hitter.

• Austin Hitting Up A Storm: Andrew Knizner is not the only Wolfpack hitter on a hot streak. Junior catcher Brett Austin brings an eight-game hitting streak into this week’s action. Austin is hitting .469 (15-for-32) with a double, a triple and nine runs scored out of the leadoff spot during the hitting streak. He had multiple-hit games in five of his last six games, batting .500 (13-for-26) with 11 runs scored in those six games. Austin has appeared in 18 of State’s 19 games this season and batted leadoff 16 times with a .419 average atop the lineup.

• Turner, Armstrong Riding Hitting Streaks: Junior shortstop Trea Turner brings a 10-game hitting streak into this week’s action, but it’s been a quiet hitting streak. Turner is hitting .268 (11-for-41) during the streak, with just one multiple-hit game. Junior infielder/outfielder Jake Armstrong, meanwhile, is riding a nine-game hitting streak, hitting .312 (10-for-32) during his streak, also with just one multiple-hit game.

• Fincher Also Wielding Hot Bat: While junior center fielder Jake Fincher does not bring a lengthy hitting streak into action this week, he has swung the bat well for NC State recently. Fincher has hit safely in seven of his last eight games, batting .367 (11-for-30) with four walks, five RBIs and six runs scored.

• Situational Hitting Woes: To illustrate NC State’s offensive woes to date, through 19 games, Wolfpack hitters are batting .298 (100-for-336) with runners on base, but only .274 (62-for-226) with runners in scoring position. With runners aboard and two out, the team average drops to .268 (38-for-142). With runners in scoring position and two away, the team is hitting a meager .219 (23-for-105) with an equally meager .267 slugging percentage.

• Long Ball Alert: Until Trea Turner unloaded his first homer of the season in the top of the first inning of the FSU finale, the Wolfpack had gone 204 at-bats since its last long ball, a three-run shot March 5 by Andrew Knizner vs. N.C. A&T.

• Get Ahead In The Count: It’s much too early for the data to mean much, but it’s worth noting that coaches aren’t just blowing hot air when they preach the virtue of getting ahead in the count. Coaches often say the difference between a 1-2 count and a 2-1 count is about 200 points in batting average. Given the small sample size through 19 games, we won’t go too deep into this yet, but the numbers show conclusively that a 1-2 count is certainly death on a hitter.

Opposing hitters are hitless in 15 at-bats against Logan Jernigan when they put the ball in play with a 1-2 count. They’re 4-for-30 against Carlos Rodon, 3-for-14 against Brad Stone and 3-for-18 against Andrew Woeck. Against the Peterson twins, Eric and Patrick, it’s 1-for-9 and 1-for-8, respectively.

The same holds true for the Wolfpack’s hitters. They pretty much bury themselves when the count gets to 1-and-2. At .231 (3-for-13), Trea Turner is the only State hitter batting better than .200 on balls in play with a 1-2 count. Jake Fincher and Jake Armstrong both are 2-for-11 (.182), and Brett Austin and Bubby Riley are both 1-for-8 (.125).

• Good Pitching Numbers, Still: Florida State did its part to deflate the Wolfpack’s previously gaudy pitching stats. Even after the weekend sweep at the hands of the Seminoles, however, the Wolfpack pitching staff still ranks fourth in the ACC with a 2.67 ERA, and Logan Jernigan (1.55, 7th) and Carlos Rodon (2.45, 15th) still rank among the league leaders in the individual ERA race.

Florida State did a serious number on the Wolfpack bullpen, but NC State relievers still have a 5-1 record with a 2.58 ERA and five saves while limiting opposing hitters to a .230 batting average. The trio of Andrew Woeck and twins Patrick and Eric Peterson are a combined 4-1 with a 1.27 ERA, two saves and 44 strikeouts in 35 ⅓ innings out of the pen.

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