Thursday, March 27, 2014

Is Turner Turning It Around?

After going 2-for-5 with a homer, a double and five RBIs on Wednesday at UNC Wilmington, Trea Turner is 5-for-12 (.417) with a double, three home runs, five runs scored and seven RBIs in his last three games. He’s homered in each of the three games.

This is a small sample size, no doubt, but the trend is clear. Turner is starting to make solid contact and drive the ball. If that continues, it can only mean good things for NC State baseball.

There is a misconception out there that Turner is a tippy-tappy hitter who draws a lot of walks, bunts, beats out infield singles with his speed, rolls 15-hop singles through the infield, and occasionally bloops a ball into no-man’s land behind the second baseman or shortstop. He does all those things, sure, but he’s not just a Punch-and-Judy hitter. When he’s right he also bashes the ball. When he’s right, in fact, Trea Turner is one of college baseball’s most dynamic offensive players.

For exhibit A, we take a look at the first 13 games of 2013, when it seemed that every time Turner swung the bat he hit the ball right on the screws and drove it somewhere the defense wasn’t positioned. In those 13 games, he batted .490 (25-for-51) with five doubles, two triples, four home runs, 25 runs scored, 17 RBIs and eight steals in as many attempts. Thanks to eight walks, his on-base percentage was .547. His slugging percentage was an other-worldly .902. At that point, he was generally considered the early front-runner for the Golden Spikes Award. The last ACC shortstop to hit like that was Georgia Tech’s Nomar Garciaparra in 1994.

With Turner on fire, Clemson came to town for the first ACC series of season, and it didn’t go so well. Turner went 1-for-5 and fractured his left fibula on the final play of the opening game of the series. The injury sidelined him for most of the next two weeks and made him a one-legged hitter much of the rest of the season. He still batted .337 with eight doubles, two triples, two homers, 40 runs, 24 RBIs and 22 steals in 42 games the rest of the way. He deservedly earned All-America honors but he was not the same player, not even close.

Through the first six weeks of 2014, Turner still was not the same player. He didn’t get his first extra-base hit, a double, until Feb. 25 vs. Davidson, the eighth game of the year. And that was his only extra-base hit until he doubled again in the middle game of the Florida State series two weeks ago. At that point, through 18 games, Turner was hitting .333 with two doubles, 17 runs scored and nine RBIs. His on-base percentage was a respectable but still modest (by his standards) .407 and his slugging percentage was puny .362. He had a 10-game hitting streak at one point and had just 11 hits during the streak. What he’s done the last five games marks a sudden and, for the Wolfpack, very timely reversal of form.

Before we get carried away here, let’s inject a cautionary note: This is still a tiny sample size we’re talking about here, 14 plate appearances to be exact. Also, Turner hasn’t even attempted a stolen base since the Davidson game, a span of 15 games (his previous longest stretch with an SBA was five games late in 2013). But cautionary note or not, for a team that’s heard far too many discouraging words the last two weeks, Trea Turner finding his stroke is like home, home on the range.

Austin And Turner 1-2 Atop The Lineup
In another admittedly tiny sample size — five games — Brett Austin and Trea Turner appear to be forming a potent 1-2 punch at the top of the NC State batting order. In the five games that Austin and Turner batted 1-2, they combined to reach base 17 times in 46 plate appearances, a .370 on-base percentage, and scored 13 runs with 13 RBIs between them. That total includes the loss to UCLA, when they combined to reach base twice in eight plate appearances; and the middle game of the Maryland series, when they reached three times in nine appearances. They reached 12 times in 29 plate appearances (.414 OBP) the other three games, which is a better OBP and an even tinier sample size. But it’s something.

Turner’s recent power surge coincides with his move from the three spot in the lineup to the No. 2 spot. He batted .250 average (15-for-60) with a .319 on-base percentage and a .317 slugging percentage in 15 games batting third. After his 2-for-5 performance in the UNCW game, he is hitting .389 (7-for-18) with a .944 slugging percentage and a .522 on-base percentage and nine RBIs in five games batting second.

Austin, meanwhile, continues to flourish as the team’s leadoff hitter, batting .397 (31-for-78) with a .478 on-base percentage and a .474 slugging percentage from the top spot. He went 1-for-3 against UNCW to extend his current hitting streak to a career-best 12 games. He is batting .417 (20-for-48) with three doubles, a triple and 12 runs scored during the streak. Austin had an 11-game hitting streak as a freshman two years ago, and a 10-game streak in 2013.

Austin has reached base 20 times in 45 plate appearances leading off an inning. No other Wolfpack hitter has led off an inning more than 26 times (Logan Ratledge has reached base 7 times in 26 opportunities), and only Turner (11 times in 23 opportunities) has a better percentage of reaching base in those situations than Austin.

• The Rest Of The Lineup: For the season, Wolfpack leadoff hitters are batting .398 (39-for-98) with a .468 on-base percentage, a .480 slugging percentage, six doubles, a triple, and 26 runs scored. State’s No. 2 hitters are batting .337 (28-for-83) with a .462 on-base percentage, a .494 slugging percentage, four doubles, three home runs, 21 runs scored and 18 RBIs. The one and two spots in the lineup have been far and away the most productive. No other spot in the batting order has an on-base percentage higher than .385, and the third-best slugging percentage is .415 from the eight spot.

• A Six-Game Skid, By The Numbers: During NC State’s six-game losing streak, Wolfpack hitters batted .247 (24-for-97) with runners on base, .152 (10-for-66) with two out, and .194 (12-for-62) in RBI opportunities. NC State had 20 leadoff hitters reach base in 58 innings, including eight in 27 innings during the Maryland series. Florida State and Maryland hitters, meanwhile, combined to bat .289 (37-for-128) with runners on base and .279 (19-for-68) with two out.

• Jernigan Hits A Speed Bump: After posting a 3-0 record with a 0.73 ERA in his first four starts, junior righthander Logan Jernigan is 1-2 with a 9.35 ERA in his last three starts, two of which didn’t last three innings and none of which didn’t last five, although Wednesday’s start at UNC Wilmington was designed as a short appearance. Jernigan worked 8 ⅔ innings in those three starts, allowing 11 hits, walking seven and striking out eight.

Jernigan has allowed more than one hit in an inning just six times all season, but three times in his last four innings pitched. He faced 137 batters this season before allowing back-to-back hits, but UNCW’s Corey Dick and Luke Dunlap hit back-to-back doubles off Jernigan in the second inning Wednesday night to end that streak. Jernigan has averaged more than a strikeout per inning pitched four times in seven starts.

• Crooked Numbers: NC State scored multiple runs in four different innings Wednesday night at UNC Wilmington, matching a season high set March 2 in a 16-1 bombing of Youngstown State. The last time the Wolfpack had more than than four multiple-run innings in a game was Feb. 24, 2013, when it put five crooked numbers on the board in a 25-4 rout of Wagner at Doak Field at Dail Park. The last time NC State had four multiple-run innings in a game away from home was March 15, 2013, in a 12-6 victory at Wake Forest.

• College Park, A Not-So-Fond Farewell: Historically, there is ample reason to lament Maryland’s departure from the ACC as the Terps head for the Big Ten in 2014-15. This is especially true in basketball, where Maryland has several storied rivalries with other teams in the conference. The ACC will not miss Maryland in baseball, however, despite the Terps’ long history as one of the league’s softer touches.

Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium, formerly Shipley Field, is, to be perfectly candid, one of the dumpiest and homely ballparks in college baseball. Boston College’s Eddie Pellagrini Diamond at Commander Shea Field (now there’s a hifalutin name for you) may be a worse ballpark, but at least Chestnut Hill is a short train ride from downtown Boston and Cambridge.

NC State split its last 24 games at Smith Stadium, but lost six of its last seven, and the Wolfpack’s farewell appearance has to rank on the short list of NC State’s most frustrating games. The Wolfpack belted out five extra-base hits that afternoon — three doubles and two home runs — and had 18 total bases. The five extra-base hits matched the team’s season high for 2014, and the 18 total bases ranks third.

Despite that, the Pack scored just two runs, both on solo homers, in a 5-2 defeat. NC State left 12 runners on base, eight of them in scoring position, and five of those eight reached scoring position with less than two out and still got stranded.

Here’s the kicker: The last time NC State had as many as five extra-base hits or 18 total bases without scoring more than two runs was at least 16 years ago, before NC State and the ACC went to its current computerized scoring system in 1999. The Wolfpack has played 942 games and counting in that time and bettered 18 total bases and/or five extra-base hits plenty of times, the point being that the Pack did last Sunday in College Park is hard to do and shouldn’t ever happen. But it did.

• Rodon Getting ABs And Hits At Designated Hitter: While lefty All-America Carlos Rodon battles bad luck and spotty command on the mound, a lack of consistent at-bats in his two-plus seasons at NC State has not hindered him at the plate. In four games as the Wolfpack’s starting designated hitter, Rodon is 6-for-14 with four walks, five runs scored and two RBIs. In addition, he’s 1-for-2 with an RBI and was hit by a pitch in four appearances as a pinch-hitter. For the season, he’s hitting .417 (7-for-17).

• Bullpen Looking For Bounceback Weekend: The Florida State and Maryland series put a world of hurt on the NC State bullpen — 0-1 with a 5.40 ERA, a .305 opponents’ batting average in six games — but the pen rallied to hurl 6 ⅔ shutout innings Wednesday night at UNC Wilmington. For the season, Wolfpack relievers are 5-1 with a 2.71 ERA and five saves.

Head coach Elliott Avent has called on his bullpen 55 times, and relievers have pitched 89 ⅔ innings. Opponents are batting .227 against NC State relief pitchers. Three different State relievers have recorded wins and four have saved games. Four have pitched at least eight innings with an ERA of less than 3.00. Wolfpack relievers have inherited 46 baserunners and stranded 28 of them. Eric Peterson has inherited eight runners and stranded them all. D.J. Thomas has stranded four of six.

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