Monday, March 24, 2014

Swept Back-To-Back And The Damage Done

A week ago, several members of NC State’s traveling party rationalized the Wolfpack’s sweep at the hands of Florida State in Tallahassee, essentially saying, “Hey, it was Florida State. They may be the best team in the country. We [hardly ever] win down there, anyway.” All of that is true, of course, but none of it changes the fact that the Wolfpack played like 10 pounds of crap in a five-pound bag at FSU.

Fast forward one week and no rationalizations are necessary. Or even conceivable. With this past weekend’s sweep at Maryland now etched into the record books, we can only hope that any leftover rationalizations from FSU have been buried at the bottom of a dark closet and forgotten for the duration.

No disrespect to Maryland. Terps coach John Szefc and his predecessor, current Michigan coach Erik Bakich, have built up the talent base in College Park to the point where the Terrapins are a competitive team, far removed from the perennial pushovers they once were. They’ve won 15 of their last 19 games and have a five-game winning streak thanks to the sweep this weekend.

Still, let’s not confuse the Terps with Florida State just yet. Maryland has had winning records in four of the last six seasons, but just seven times in the last 32. They’ve won 30 games in a season just four times in their history, with a school-record 34 wins in 2002. More indicative of the overall strength of the program, the Terps haven’t posted even a .400 winning percentage in Atlantic Coast Conference action since 1989. ’Nuff said. They’re better, much better in fact, but that’s not setting the bar especially high. This sweep can’t be rationalized away quite so easily.

We’ve spent enough time and space discussing all that ails NC State. The only thing that’s changed from last week to this is that another week has come off the schedule. Time is no longer the Wolfpack’s ally. We’re now 40 percent of the way through the regular season. NC State has 33 games left and a lot of ground to make up in a short time.

The Wolfpack players made no secret of their lofty preseason goals, which is a return to the College World Series. Well, if NC State is going back to Omaha, it is going to have to start winning games, lots of them, in a hurry. If history has taught us anything it’s that the easiest way to Omaha is by hosting — hosting regionals and hosting Super Regionals — and right now NC State isn’t even in that conversation.

The good news is that Elliott Avent’s teams have, by and large, played their best baseball later in the season, especially in April, and especially when their backs are against the wall. A half-dozen Avent-coached NC State teams have tip-toed out of the starting gate the way this one has, only to recover in April and play their way back into the postseason picture.

• 1997. Avent’s first team at NC State got off to a 4-5 start in conference play, 20-11 overall, then won 19 of its next 20 games heading into the exam break. That team went to Tuscaloosa, Ala., as the No. 2 seed, finishing 43-20 overall.

• 2005. Featuring what may have been Avent’s best everyday lineup, the 2005 Wolfpack was 3-6 in the conference and 15-8 overall after getting swept at Georgia Tech the third weekend of the ACC season. That team responded by winning 14 of its next 17 games and 24 of 31 overall to wrap up the regular season. The No. 2 seed at Lincoln, Neb., the 2005 Wolfpack finished 41-19.

• 2008. The 2008 Wolfpack was 4-5 in the conference and 13-7 overall after three ACC series with April looming just around the corner. That club lost two of its next three games and was 14-9 overall before winning 23 of its final 32 regular-season contests. At 37-18 at the conclusion of the ACC Tournament, the Wolfpack earned a No. 1 seed and hosted an NCAA Regional on campus for the first time. The Pack swept the regional, which included two pulsating victories over South Carolina, but was sent to Athens, Ga., for the Super Regional and lost in three games to eventual national runner-up Georgia, finishing the season 42-22.

• 2010. Two years after hosting its first regional on campus, the Wolfpack found itself in familiar territory, running in place after a 3-6 start in ACC play, 15-9 overall. That team never exactly caught fire, but it did stabilize itself, winning 21 of its final 32 regular-season games, which was enough to earn the No. 2 seed at Myrtle Beach. After season-ending losses to College of Charleston and Stony Brook, the Pack went home from the beach with a lousy t-shirt and a 38-24.

• 2011. In a virtual replay of 2010, the 2011 Wolfpack lost six of its first nine ACC games and was 14-11 overall before winning 19 of its final 31 regular-season games — including 15 of 22 at one point — to earn the No. 2 seed at Columbia, S.C. A 1-2 finish in Columbia left NC State with a final tally of 35-27 for 2011.

• 2013. Lest we forget, the Wolfpack got off to a flying standstill a year ago, 3-6 in the ACC after a sweep at Virginia, and 16-9 overall. The Wolfpack caught fire at that point, winning 26 of its final 30 regular-season games — including a school-record three consecutive ACC series sweeps — to earn a No. 1 seed and host a regional. NC State narrowly missed a national seed in the NCAA Tournament, but when Rice upset No. 8 national seed Oregon in the Eugene Regional, the Wolfpack hosted the Owls in the first-ever Super Regional played on the NC State campus. A combined 5-0 record in the regional and Super Regional resulted in the Pack’s first College World Series appearance in 45 years, including a 50-16 final record.

Those six teams certainly offer this NC State squad some hope, but also one critical imperative — the urgent need to start winning games, right away. Spin your wheels two more weeks and there’ll be just 24 regular-season games left. At that point you can kiss hosting a regional goodbye and start looking forward to a long weekend in early June as a No. 2 seed in, say, Columbia or Nashville, or maybe a return engagement with Rice, only this time in Houston. Not only could that happen, but at this point it’s more likely than not.

• Another Miserable Weekend: There is literally no way to spin the Maryland series as anything but a completely lost weekend. As a team, NC State batted .200 (21-for-105). The Pack did manage six extra-base hits, but the team went 7-for-43 with runners on base, and all six extra-base hits came with the bases empty. The team managed just six walks in three games and did not attempt a stolen base. Brett Austin continued to lead the team offensively, going 4-for-13 with two doubles, but the rest of the team batted a collective .185.

The pitching was an issue as well, racking up a staff ERA of 5.25 and allowing 26 hits and 16 walks in 24 innings. Lefty starter Carlos Rodon and relievers Andrew Woeck and Patrick Peterson combined to allow three earned runs in 13 innings. The remainder of the staff was 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA in 11 innings.

• ACC Series Sweeps And Losing Streaks: NC State’s current six-game ACC losing streak is the Wolfpack’s longest since a seven-game conference losing streak in April and May of 2009. In that streak, the Pack lost the final two games of a series at Duke, dropped all three games at home vs. Florida State, then lost the first two games the following weekend at Virginia.

The past two weekends mark just the fourth time since the ACC went to its current format of three-game weekend series in 1991 that NC State has been swept in back-to-back conference series.

The first was in 1994 in series at Florida State and at Clemson. In 2002, NC State was swept in three consecutive ACC series, at North Carolina, at Florida State and at Maryland, meaning that team was swept in back-to-back series twice in three weeks. That team also lost the last game of a series vs. Clemson right before the series at UNC, making for a 10-game ACC losing streak, the longest ever by an NC State team.

• If Not For Bad Luck, He’d Have No Luck At All: All-America lefthander Carlos Rodon is 2-4 with a 2.18 ERA this season. If that sounds like he’s pitched in bad luck, it’s because he has. In those four losses, Rodon has allowed just four earned runs while striking out 34 in 24 ⅓ innings. He has a 1.48 ERA in the four losses, but his teammates scored him a grand total of one run.

Rodon was 0-2 with a 1.59 ERA and 20 strikeouts combined in his last two starts, at Florida State and at Maryland, although he didn’t help matters by walking eight, hitting three batters and unloading two wild pitches in 11 ⅓ innings. His defense imploded on him in College Park, committing four errors and a passed ball that led to eight unearned runs in 4 ⅔ innings.

While lack of run support hasn’t always been an issue for Rodon, this is not the first time he’s had to pitch with no margin for error. In Rodon’s two-plus seasons at NC State, the Wolfpack has been shut out six times. Rodon started five of those games. In addition to the three this year, he started against North Carolina in the third round of last year’s College World Series, a 7-0 loss; and against the Tar Heels at the 2012 ACC Tournament in Greensboro, a 4-0 setback. The only other shutout in that time was a 4-0 loss at Maryland in 2012. Ethan Ogburn started that one.

In his first two seasons, Rodon absorbed just three losses. He’s been tagged with L’s in four of his first six starts of 2014.

Despite the bad luck and all the mitigating circumstances, Rodon is still well ahead of where he was 12 months ago, when he was 2-2 with a 4.75 ERA after six starts. The concern, however, is that he’s nowhere near where he was 10 months ago, when he turned his season around and went 5-1 with a 1.65 ERA in May and June.

• Austin Riding An 11-Game Hitting Streak: After a 4-for-13 weekend at Maryland, junior catcher Brett Austin now has an 11-game hitting streak, dating back to March 2 vs. Youngstown State. Austin is hitting .422 (19-for-45) with three doubles, a triple and 10 runs scored during the streak, lifting his batting average from .324 to .378.

• WHIPped: Statheads can make your head spin with all the esoteric statistics they have and acronyms they use to identify them. One of the more simple and useful of those Sabermetric stats is WHIP, which is walks plus hits allowed per inning. A WHIP of a little more than 1.00 is considered excellent. When the WHIP climbs past 1.50 or so, there is usually a problem. A WHIP approaching 2.00 is a five-alarm fire.

In its current six-game losing streak, NC State pitchers have a combined WHIP of 1.90 (63 hits and 37 walks in 52 ⅔ innings). State pitchers walked five or more in four of the six games, including games of eight and seven walks in the first two games at Florida State, and seven walks in the finale at Maryland.

• Top Of The Lineup: Despite NC State’s struggle to score runs, juniors Brett Austin and Trea Turner have continued to get on base from their spots at the top of the Wolfpack lineup.

Austin has emerged as the team’s leadoff hitter and is hitting .400 with a .471 on-base percentage and a .480 slugging percentage in 19 games batting atop the lineup. Turner, who led off most of the last two seasons and batted third earlier this year, appears to be settling into the two spot, where he is hitting .385 with a .556 on-base percentage and an .846 slugging percentage in four games.

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