Monday, March 31, 2014

Getting Swept Is Getting Monotonous

This is not the way the season was supposed to unfold. At 15-11 overall and 3-9 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, NC State, a preseason favorite to advance to the College World Series, is on a nine-game ACC losing streak and in danger of not even qualifying for the ACC Tournament in May.

Miami came to Raleigh this past weekend and swept the Wolfpack by scores of 2-1, 2-1 and 12-5, handing NC State its third conference sweep in a row and knocking the Pack into 12th place in the ACC’s 14-team overall standings. Only the top 10 teams qualify for the conference tournament.

“This league is so tough that you know it could happen, but you never think it as a player,” center fielder Jake Fincher said. “I never even thought about not making the ACC Tournament.. It’s kind of crazy to think that we have to battle back now and move up in the conference just to get in there.”

During the Wolfpack’s nine-game conference losing streak, which is one loss shy of the school record of 10 set in 2002, NC State has struggled in every facet of the game. The Miami series was a classic example of not hitting to back good pitching and not pitching to back good hitting.

The pitching staff allowed four runs on 12 hits in 18 innings the first two games of the series, but lost as the offense managed just two runs. In the series finale, the Wolfpack overcame a 4-0 deficit and took a 5-4 lead after six innings, thanks in large part to long sixth-inning home runs by Jake Knizner and Jake Armstrong, only to watch as Miami scored eight runs in the final three innings to win going away.

“It’s very, very frustrating,” head coach Elliott Avent said. “Being down 4-0 and on a losing streak is a concern, but the guys battled back. When Jake [Armstrong] hit that home run to make it 5-4, especially the way he hit it, and with Knizner having hit one just before that, it lifted the level of confidence in the dugout and you felt really good. But the pitching just could not hold the lead.”

During the nine-game losing streak, NC State is batting .227 and averaging 2.7 runs per game. The pitching staff has allowed a 5.65 ERA, given up 89 hits and walked 46 in 79 ⅔ innings, while unloading six wild pitches and hitting 18 batters.

“It’s a tough league and you can get into a bit of a rut,” Avent said. “It’s about when you play teams, too. You play somebody in this league when you’ve got a couple of injuries or when you’re down, or you play them when they’re hot, it makes a difference. Then you lose a couple and you start doubting yourself. Confidence becomes an issue. But it’s more than that. It might not be through a lack of confidence, but we’re not getting some things done, on the mound, defensively or at the plate.”

Getting Back To Basics
After setting school records for stolen bases each of the last two seasons and generally creating havoc with its speed on the basepaths, NC State veered away from the running game much of 2014, especially during the recent nine-game ACC losing skid.

The Wolfpack stole 21 bases in 25 attempts the first eight games of the season, then somehow started playing station-to-station baseball. In the 15 games leading up to the Miami series, NC State attempted only nine stolen bases, and was successful just five times. Trea Turner, who obliterated the Wolfpack single-season record with 57 steals as a freshman in 2012 and then swiped 30 more a year ago despite playing on a fractured fibula, did not attempt a steal for 16 consecutive games before stealing second in the middle game of the Miami series. Turner never went more than five games without a stolen base his first two seasons in Raleigh.

Turner was not alone, however. Jake Fincher, arguably the second fastest player on the team, has two steals in three attempts in the last 17 games, and did not attempt a steal in eight of the first nine ACC games. Brett Austin, who stole 13 bases a year ago, has just one steal in the last 17 games. Logan Ratledge stole 11 bases in 2013, but has just two in as many attempts the entire 2014 campaign, none since March 5 vs. North Carolina A&T.

The lost emphasis on the running game may well be indicative of a larger problem beguiling the Wolfpack — trying too hard, especially trying too hard to make too many things happen at once.

“You can’t go big picture at all,” head coach Elliott Avent said. “You have to go one day at a time. We have to go back to doing what we can do. We run pretty well. We need to execute stuff like that. It’s not about the big picture. It’s about the small picture and not trying to do too much.”

“We don’t need to be thinking about anything other than winning the game we’re playing right now,” Fincher said. “I think that’s all we can do at this point, just keep going out and playing hard, keep practicing hard. It’ll come together eventually.”

• Austin’s 14-Game Hitting Streak Snapped: Brett Austin’s 14-game hitting streak went by the boards with an 0-for-5 game in the final game of the Miami series. Austin batted .429 (24-for-56) with three doubles, a triple, a home run and 13 runs scored during the streak, the longest by an NC State hitter since Bryan Adametz had a 15-game streak a year ago.

• Start Me Up: Some have questioned why head coach Elliott Avent has used catcher Brett Austin as his primary leadoff hitter this season, but Avent knows his hitters. Through 22 games batting in the top spot of the lineup, Austin is hitting .407 (35-for-86) with four doubles, a triple, a home run and 22 runs scored. In his other three games, Austin is 1-for-12 with six strikeouts.

• Crowded At The Top: While Brett Austin has been excellent batting leadoff, shortstop Trea Turner, the Wolfpack’s leadoff hitter most of the last two seasons, has struggled hitting third, but has flourished from the top two spots in the order. Turner has batted third in 16 games with a .250 average (16-for-64) and two extra-base hits. Hitting first or second in the order, Turner is 17-for-41 (.415) with three doubles and three home runs.

• More of The Same For Rodon: Weather stopped play in the sixth inning of the first game of the Miami series, limiting Carlos Rodon’s workload for the weekend to six innings. The game was suspended. As has been the case all season, Rodon pitched well but got next to no offensive support. He allowed one run on four hits, walking four and striking out six. He did not figure in the decision, a 2-1 loss that the bullpen gave up in the eighth inning the following afternoon.

For the season, Rodon is 2-4 with a 2.09 ERA, but that won-lost record belies how well he’s pitched. State has lost five of Rodon’s seven starts, but in those five games, his ERA is 1.48 and he has 39 strikeouts in 30 ⅓ innings. He’s allowed five earned runs in the five games while his teammates scored him a grand total of two runs in support.

Rodon has allowed three earned runs and struck out 25 in his last three starts, covering 17 ⅓ innings.

For the record, after seven starts in 2013, Rodon was 3-2 with a 4.12 ERA. He turned his season around in mid-April, going 2-0 with a 2.30 ERA his last two starts that month. He was 5-1 with a 1.65 ERA in May and June.

• Milestones: With five strikeouts in his March 28 start vs. Miami, Carlos Rodon raised his season total to 55 and his career total to 374. He will enter play this weekend at Clemson needing 12 more K’s to tie Terry Harvey for the school record of 386, set from 1992-95. Rodon is averaging 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings for his career.

Rodon has 47 ⅓ innings pitched this season, giving his 294 ⅓ for his career, moving him past Matt Donahue, who tossed 294 innings in 1991 and ’92, and into fourth place in school history. The start against Miami was the 42nd of Rodon’s career, tying him with Craig Rapp (1989-91) and Jeff Hartsock (1986-88) for seventh in the NC State record book.

Harvey holds the NC State career records for innings pitched (426) and starts (60).

Trea Turner’s stolen base March 29 against Miami was his eighth of the season, giving him 95 for his career. Turner passed Tom Sergio as the NC State career stolen-base leader a year ago. Sergio stole 73 bases from 1994-97. With five more steals, Turner will become just the seventh player in ACC history with 100 or more stolen bases in a career. The ACC’s career leader in steals is Ty Griffin of Georgia Tech, who stole 127 from 1986-88.

• Holes In Lineup: During the Miami series, the two, three, five, six, seven and nine spots in the NC State lineup batted a collective .100 (6-for-60). The leadoff hitters batted .462 (6-for-13), but the second and third hitters in the order were a combined 2-for-25 and failed to drive in a run. The five, six and seven hitters went 3-for-26, but two of the three hits were a double and a homer, accounting for two runs. The nine-hole hitters checked in at 1-for-9.

This continues a year-long trend for the Pack, which has gotten excellent performances from the top two spots in the lineup and little production elsewhere. The leadoff hitters are hitting .405 with a .468 on-base percentage and a .514 slugging percentage. The number two hitters are at .305/.427/.442.

The rest of the lineup is batting .236 (159-for-673) with a .335 on-base percentage and a .318 slugging percentage.

• Consecutive Sweeps, A Brief And Unhappy History: NC State’s current streak of three consecutive ACC series sweeps ties the school record, set in 2002. The ’02 team also lost the last game of the series prior to the back-to-back-to-back sweeps, giving it a school record of 10 consecutive ACC defeats. The 2002 squad also set a school record by getting swept in four different conference series over the course of the season.

Since the ACC went to its current scheduling format of three-game weekend series in 1990, NC State has been swept 31 times, counting the three sweeps this season. That’s an average of less than one sweep per season. Prior to 2014, only the 1995, 2002 and 2009 teams had been swept as many as three series, and no NC State team ever has been swept four consecutive times.

With a trip to Clemson on the docket this weekend, however, the Wolfpack is in danger of setting some serious negative history. Of the 31 ACC sweeps NC State has absorbed, seven each came at the hands of Georgia Tech, Florida State and — you guessed it — Clemson. Those three have swept the Pack twice in Raleigh and five times each in their home ballparks.

Clemson has been a death march for NC State. The Tigers swept the Wolfpack three of the last five series played between the two at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. The Tigers are 18-5 against NC State in Death Valley since Elliott Avent became NC State’s head coach in 1997. The Wolfpack took two of three at Clemson two years ago, winning the final two games of the series. Prior to those two wins, however, Clemson won 13 of 14 from NC State in Death Valley.

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