Monday, March 10, 2014

Logan Jernigan Becomes The Wolfpack’s Second Ace

Carlos Rodon, a two-time first-team All-American and the guy generally regarded as the best pitcher in college baseball, gets the lion’s share of the attention, but NC State has a second ace starting pitcher on its staff. At 3-0 with a 0.73 ERA through four starts, it’s safe to say that junior righthander Logan Jernigan has been NC State’s best pitcher the first month of 2014.


In his four starts, Jernigan worked 23 ⅔ innings and allowed just 13 hits. He struck out 21 and walked 11. Opponents batted .160 against him with just two extra-base hits, and no home runs. Those numbers, however, include a rocky first start during which Jernigan allowed two runs in four innings against Canisius. He gave up three hits and walked five, and it took him 93 pitches to register 12 outs.


In three starts since that first appearance of the season, Jernigan has allowed just 10 hits in 20 ⅔ shutout innings. Heading into a weekend series at Florida State this weekend, he’s tossed 21 ⅔ consecutive scoreless innings, dating back to his last inning against Canisius. He’s reached the point that he can control a game with less than his best stuff, which is what he did March 8 against Notre Dame. Jernigan held the Irish to four hits in 7 ⅓ innings and came away a 1-0 winner despite no command of his fastball.


“Logan didn’t have his usual stuff, but he dominated the game with his breaking ball and his changeup,” Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent said. “I was so proud of him for the way he pitched. That’s the first time Logan Jernigan’s ever pitched without a great fastball for five innings and still dominated.”


Thanks to control issues, Jernigan rarely dominated anyone his first two seasons at NC State. He struck out 57 in 52 innings as a freshman, but also walked 35 and hit eight batters. His control problems got worse his first five appearances a year ago, when he walked 14 and struck out 14 in 14 innings.


Things came to a boil immediately following a March 19 start against UNC Greensboro. Unable to find the strike zone with a compass and a road map that night, Jernigan walked four in just two-thirds of an inning, after which Avent yanked him from the game. Frustrated, Jernigan went into the Wolfpack clubhouse and challenged a wall to a fistfight. The wall won, Jernigan broke a bone in his pitching hand, and Avent lost one of his most talented starting pitchers for about five weeks.


A broken pitching hand is never a good thing, but the injury proved to be the turning point in Jernigan career. In six games after returning from the injury, he worked 20 ⅔ innings, and while he still managed to walk 14 with 16 strikeouts in that time, he minimized the damage and posted a 1.74 ERA. He pitched so well, in fact, that Avent gave him the ball to start against UCLA in the Wolfpack’s second-round game at the College World Series, a 2-1 loss to the eventual national champions.


“[The injury] gave me time to get away from the game a little bit and get my thoughts together and focus on what I wanted to do when I got back,” Jernigan said. “I’ve been focusing more on pitching than just throwing. I’m taking the fastball and running it and cutting it a little bit. I took a little bit of velocity off, but it will be there later in the season if I need it.”


The biggest key to Jernigan’s success has been his ability to throw strikes. A year ago, he threw 55.6 percent of his pitches for strikes, and 54.8 percent of first pitches for strikes. This season he’s throwing 61.3 percent of his pitches for strikes, including 59.6 percent first-pitch strikes.


Living in the strike zone has allowed Jernigan to keep his pitch counts under control. He used just 77 pitches to throw 7 ⅓ shutout innings in a 3-0 win Feb. 28 over Michigan, then threw 97 pitches in another 7 ⅓ innings a week later vs. Notre Dame, a 1-0 victory for the Wolfpack.


He averaged nearly 18 pitches per inning in 2013. In four starts in 2014, he’s averaged less than 15 pitches per inning, a figure skewed by that 93-pitch, four-inning aberration against Canisius. In three starts since then, he’s averaged less than 13 pitches per inning.


“Logan has never been that efficient with his pitches before,” Avent said. “It’s a hurdle that he’s finally learned to clear.”


And with Jernigan clearing that hurdle, NC State now has a lethal 1-2 pitching punch to start a weekend ACC series.


Wolfpack Stays Hot, Sweeps Notre Dame To Open ACC Play
Thanks to dominant pitching, NC State began Atlantic Coast Conference play with a three-game sweep for the first time since 2006, sweeping Notre Dame the weekend of March 7-8. The Wolfpack began the series by taking both ends of a doubleheader on Saturday, beating the Irish 5-3 and 1-0, then broke out the brooms with a 7-0 shutout Sunday.


The sweep, which lifted the Wolfpack to No. 5 in the March 10 Baseball America poll, marked just the third time since Elliott Avent became head coach that NC State began the conference season 3-0. Avent’s 1998 and 2006 teams also opened ACC play with a three-game sweep.


NC State didn’t exactly hit the cover off the ball against Notre Dame, scoring just 13 runs and batting .261 as a team, but the pitching staff allowed just three runs in 27 innings. The Irish batted .198 for the series as State pitchers allowed just 18 hits and struck out 26.


Offensively, Brett Austin led the Wolfpack, batting .455 (5-for-11) for the series. Austin had two of State’s three extra-base hits during the series, a double and a triple. Jake Armstrong was 4-for-10 vs. the Irish and led the team with four RBIs. Jake Fincher was 4-for-11 and drove in two runs, and Trea Turner was 3-for-10, walked twice and scored a team-high four runs.


Overall, however, the pitching carried the Pack, led by dominant starts from Logan Jernigan and Brad Stone, who combined to allow six hits in 13 ⅓ shutout innings, and a bullpen that worked 4 ⅔ innings and allowed no runs and just two hits.


“We’re happy to start 3-0,” State head coach Elliott Avent said. “I thought Sean Fitzgerald was outstanding for them in the opening game, and it’s hard to win a doubleheader and we did that, so we did some good things. We played better defense this weekend, and we pitched very well overall. But our approach at the plate’s got to be better. That’s the bottom line.”


The lack of offense against the Irish was not a new phenomenon. The Wolfpack’s offense has struggled much of the season. Despite erupting for 10 or more runs in five of the first 15 games, NC State hitters were struggling to score runs against the better opponents on the schedule. In the 10 games that the Wolfpack did not win by blowout, the hitters batted just .240 with a .327 on-base percentage and a .299 slugging percentage. The team averaged just 3.9 runs per game, but won eight of the 10 thanks to a staff ERA of 1.31 in those games.


“We’ve got to start having better at-bats,” head coach Elliott Avent said. “We’re not swinging the bats, and I’m not sure anyone in the country is, but we can only control us. Pitching is usually ahead of hitting early, so as the weather warms up and we see more pitches, we should hit better, but these games still count too. It’s not like they don’t count as much now because it’s not warm. Every game counts the same.”


Part of the problem for the Wolfpack, as it is for many teams, is the ongoing adjustment to the BBCOR bats that the NCAA adopted beginning with the 2011 season. The new bats are noticeably less active than the bats used previously, reducing offense across the board, including runs per game, batting average, slugging and on-base percentage.


NC State batted .326, scored 571 runs and hit 98 home runs in 2010, the last year the old bats were used. In the first three seasons using the BBCOR bats, NC State batted .285 (1896-for-6664) with a three-year total of 110 home runs. The 2010 team averaged 9.2 runs per game. The 2011-12-13 teams averaged 6.3.


Through 15 games, the 2014 team is batting .287 and averaging 7.3 runs per game, but against mostly weaker competition. The 2013 team hit 29 home runs, fewest by a State team in the aluminum-bat era, and nine of those came in one doubleheader against an overmatched Wagner team. This year’s club is on a pace to hit 28 home runs, but the most daunting portion of the schedule by far, including 27 ACC games, still remains.


“You’ve got to take a different approach at the plate with these bats,” Avent said. “Whether you go up there looking to bunt or hit behind a runner or hit-and-run, or just shorten up with the bases loaded and try to hit a hard line drive instead of trying to hit one into the gap, you’ve got to be different with your approach at the plate because these bats are different. And they know that. [These bats] have been here for a few years. So it’s time to have some better approaches at the plate and cut down on strikeouts and put the ball in play with two strikes. Some of those things we’re doing, but we’ve got to get better.”


Avent cited one other issue that all of college baseball deals with every season. While the NCAA allows most sports somewhere in the neighborhood of a month or more of preseason practice, it allows baseball just two weeks, essentially the first two weeks of February, and best of luck with the weather, which was especially brutal in 2014.


“We basically haven’t practiced this year,” Avent said. “Even if you have 80-degree weather, the time we’re allowed to practice isn’t enough, and we’ve had snow and rain and cold, and haven’t been able to get on the field much at all except to play. It’s really hard to develop your team as the season goes along, and practices during the season aren’t the same as during the preseason.”


• Dominant Pitching Carries Wolfpack To 13-2 Start
Fifteen games into 2014, NC State is 13-2 and living proof that a team that pitches and plays defense has a chance to win every game. The Wolfpack’s offense has been less-than-robust, but the pitching has stifled the opposition, posting a staff ERA of 1.95 and limiting opposing batters to a .195 batting average.


Led by Logan Jernigan’s 3-0 record and 0.73 ERA, the Wolfpack’s starting rotation is 9-2 with a 2.22 ERA. State starters have allowed 63 hits, struck out 78 and walked 28 in 89 ⅓ innings. Opponents are batting .201 against Wolfpack starters. The weekend rotation of Carlos Rodon, Logan Jernigan and Brad Stone has combined to make 12 starts, working at least five innings in all but one of them. They worked at least six innings nine times.


The real story here is the bullpen, which was considered an unknown heading into the season after most of last year’s stellar relief corps graduated. Through 15 games, the Wolfpack bullpen was 4-0 with a 1.41 ERA and five saves in as many chances.


“We weren’t sure we had a bullpen when the season started,” head coach Elliott Avent said. “We thought our starters were in good shape, but we lost several outstanding pitchers from our pen last year. But our bullpen has been excellent, and if anything, we’re not getting them enough work right now. That’s tough for them. It’s disappointing for them. We’ve got to get guys out there more.”


Despite the lack of work, six different relievers had ERAs of less than 3.00. Four had saved at least one game. Three had been credited with wins. Avent made 29 calls to the pen through 15 games, and his relievers rewarded him by allowing just seven runs on 28 hits in 44 ⅔ innings. They struck out 57 and walked just 17. Opponents batted an anemic .182 against NC State relief pitchers.


• About That Hot Start: NC State’s 13-2 start through 15 games is the fastest by the Wolfpack since 2006 and is tied for the second-best start by the Wolfpack in Elliott Avent’s 16-plus seasons as head coach. The 1999 team opened 14-1, the best start by an Avent-coached NC State team. The Pack began 2006 at 13-2, and started 2002 and 2004 at 12-3.


• Shutouts: The NC State single-season record for shutouts by the pitching staff is seven, set in 1978 and tied in 2005 and 2013. The Wolfpack’s back-to-back shutouts of Notre Dame on March 8-9 were the fourth and fifth shutouts by NC State in 2014, just 15 games into the season.


As NC State headed to Florida for a March 11 game at Stetson and a three-game ACC series Feb. 14-16 at Florida State, the pitching staff carried an active streak of 21 consecutive scoreless innings. The last time NC State pitchers hung 21 or more zeros in a row on the scoreboard was March 10-15, 2013, when the Wolfpack tossed 27 consecutive scoreless innings. That streak began with six shutout innings in a 4-1 victory over Clemson on March 10 and continued through back-to-back shutouts March 12-13 against Quinnipiac and Old Dominion, before concluding with three shutout innings March 15 at Wake Forest.


The Notre Dame shutouts were the first by NC State in consecutive games against the same opponent since 6-0 and 1-0 shutouts over Virginia in Charlottesville the last two games of a weekend ACC series April 9-10, 2005.


• Pitching From The Stretch: There are numerous reasons for the success of NC State’s pitching this season, perhaps none more important than the staff’s collective success with runners on base.


Opponents are hitting just .173 (33-for-191) against the staff as a whole with runners on base. Opposing hitters are just 1-for-26 with runners on base against Logan Jernigan, including 0-for-18 in his last three starts. Brad Stone has allowed a .069 average (2-for-29) with runners on base. Staff ace Carlos Rodon is allowing just a .217 average (10-for-46) with runners aboard.


Among relievers, righthander Eric Peterson and lefty D.J. Thomas each have allowed one hit in 12 at-bats (.083) with runners on base. Freshman righthander Joe O’Donnell has allowed one hit in seven at-bats (.143).


Then there is the matter of closing out innings. People are often surprised to learn that most runs in baseball score with two outs, but it only makes sense. Barring a home run early in the inning, one or two outs usually occur in the time it takes to string together the two or three hits needed to put runs on the board. One reason NC State’s ERA is a stingy 1.95 is the Pack’s dominance with two outs. Opponents are batting just .141 against State with two away. They’re 5-for-29 against Logan Jernigan, 4-for-24 against Brad Stone, and 3-for-26 against Carlos Rodon.

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