Tuesday, April 22, 2014

No Blogging This Week

Someone is actually paying me to write feature stories this week, three of them, in fact. The combination of writing three features, scoring seven baseball games in nine days, and going to see Bruce Springsteen on Thursday night will almost certainly keep this blog inactive until after this weekend's Georgia Tech series.

I'll be back next week to resume our discussion of NC State's ongoing head-scratcher of a baseball season. Hopefully, that discussion won't be an autopsy by then, but the Wolfpack's season definitely went on life support with the series loss to Boston College.

— bw

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Tall Task Lies Ahead For NC State

Tuesday’s rainout at the DBAP should go down as a relief. Originally scheduled as a showcase non-conference showdown between two of college baseball’s powers, “The Duel At The DBAP” instead had all the earmarks of an elimination game between two of the game’s biggest disappointments.

At 20-15, NC State is No. 42 in the latest unofficial RPI rankings done by Boyd’s World. North Carolina, 21-15, is a stunning No. 85. These two teams came into the season fresh off of College World Series appearances in 2013 and both had high expectations for 2014. Now, with five weekends left in the regular season, the Wolfpack — somehow still on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament — is suddenly struggling just to make the 10-team field for the ACC Championship. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, should be safe for the conference tournament, but at the moment appear to be on the outside looking in for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. UNC's remaining schedule does provide ample opportunity to take care of their RPI.

On April 15, however, beating either one of these fading giants wasn’t going to do anything for anyone’s RPI. Last night’s game, had it been played, was unlikely to help the winner much and could have been another damaging blow to the loser’s postseason chances. Which brings us to NC State’s current predicament. At 6-12 in conference play, the Pack is 12th in the overall ACC standings, a game out of 11th place, two games out of 10th and a berth in the conference tourney.

The more you think about it, Sunday’s crushing loss at Duke looms large for NC State. Had the Wolfpack held on and beaten the Blue Devils, it would be 7-11 in the ACC, still not great, but tied for 11th and just one game behind 10th-place Pitt. More to the point, the Pack would probably be feeling pretty good about itself after winning consecutive ACC series on the road and clearly outplaying the other team in both series.

After dropping the first game at Clemson two weeks ago, NC State rolled through the remaining two games of that series, beating the Tigers soundly in every phase of the game. After dropping the opener at Duke this past Friday, the Wolfpack won the middle game of the Duke series handily, then was administering an old-fashioned ass-whipping on the Blue Devils in the finale when the wheels came off the wagon in the eighth inning.

Now, instead of feeling upbeat about trending in the right direction, NC State enters play this weekend still leaking oil and threatening to throw a rod. More important, instead of an RPI maybe in the 35-38 range, the Wolfpack finds itself at 42. Teams outside the top 40 of the RPI are clearly on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. Teams in the 35-40 range shouldn’t feel too secure either, but much safer than 42.

For NC State to lift its RPI safely into mid-30s, it needs to win some games against good teams, and there are precious few such games left on the schedule. The Wolfpack has four ACC series remaining. Of the four, only this weekend’s series vs. Georgia Tech, No. 31 in the RPI, figures to help the Pack in any significant way, and that’s only if State wins the series. Even that may not lift the Wolfpack off the bubble.

The rest of NC State’s schedule is a succession of potential land mines, just waiting to blow what’s left of the Wolfpack’s postseason prospects apart. After the Georgia Tech series, State has three other conference series remaining: vs. Boston College (No. 196 in the RPI) and Wake Forest (No. 64) at Doak Field, and at Virginia Tech (No. 84).

Outside the ACC, the Wolfpack has a three-game series at home vs. Coastal Carolina (No. 202), and single games vs. Campbell (No. 104), UNC Wilmington (No. 95), Radford (No. 149) and Richmond (No. 187).

That’s 16 games, each and every one of them a potential RPI killer. Beating bad teams does little to help anyone’s RPI. Losing to bad teams is lethal. Just playing teams like BC, Coastal Carolina and Richmond — teams in the 180-200 range — is a high-risk, low-reward proposition. Winning those games and/or series does nothing to move the needle on your RPI, but you’d better win them. Lose either series to BC or Coastal, or lose the game to Richmond, and the postseason becomes something you watch on TV.

According to Boyd’s World, NC State needs to win 18 of its remaining 19 regular-season games in order to attain a top 32 RPI. Nothing we’ve seen in 2014 should give anyone hope of that happening. It would appear that the Wolfpack’s best chance to boost its RPI into the 30-35 range will be to get into the conference tournament, hope for games against Florida State, Virginia, Miami or Clemson and win a couple of them.

NC State could probably get to Greensboro by going 7-5 or maybe even 6-6 in its last 12 ACC games, but five or six losses against the teams left on the schedule might put the Pack completely out of the postseason picture. NC State needs to get to Greensboro with a chance to help itself, and to do that, it will probably need to win at least nine of its last 12 conference games and at least six of the seven non-conference games left on the schedule, maybe all seven.

It’s a long way from here to there, no doubt about it, and even if the Wolfpack can pull all that off, May 26, the day the NCAA Tournament brackets are announced, could be a long, nervous day in the offices and locker room at Doak Field.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Rodon’s Frustration Boils Over

After weeks of listening to people question his velocity, his command and pitch selection, and generally doubt his competence as a pitcher, Carlos Rodon turned a corner Friday night against Duke, then let his frustration get the better of him afterwards.

Rodon’s stuff against Duke was his best of the year. Told by head coach Elliott Avent to shelve his cut-fastball and use his slider and changeup more, Rodon’s only problem against the Blue Devils was fastball command, a problem all season and the one legitimate difference between the Rodon of 2014 and a year ago.

His velocity against Duke was his best of the season. His fastball sat at 94-96 mph, with several 97s and 98s. His slider was filthy, sitting at 86-88, even ticking 90 mph once, with a sharp, late break. That pitch, thrown like that, is just about unhittable. Rodon could have told the Duke hitters the slider was coming and it’s doubtful they’d have had any more success with it than they did.

Instead, the Blue Devils took advantage of mistakes Rodon made with his fastball. David Perkins took a 96 mph heater up in the strike zone and pounded it about 410 feet for a home run to straightaway center field in the bottom of the second. An inning later Mike Rosenfeld singled sharply to right on a 92-mph fastball that also was up in the zone. He came around to score Duke’s only other run of the game.

Rodon allowed two runs on six hits through four innings, and then — after a dugout discussion with assistant coach Brian Ward — made a midgame adjustment, lowing the target level of his eyes during his delivery, forcing himself to get the fastball down in the strike zone.

The adjustment worked like magic. Rodon retired 11 of the next 12 men he faced, five of them on swinging strikes, before hitting Chris Marconcini with a pitch, his last pitch of the night. He walked one, did not allow a hit, and allowed just three balls hit out of the infield during that four-inning stretch.

Rodon’s final numbers were two runs, only one earned run, on six hits in 7 ⅔ innings. He struck out 12 and walked three. And dropped to a still hard-to-believe 2-6 with the loss. After being shut out just three times the previous two seasons combined, NC State has been shut out a school-record five times in 2014. Rodon was on the mound for four of this year’s five shutouts and two of the three in 2012 and ’13.

In the postgame media gathering outside the NC State dugout, Rodon was grilled about Baseball America’s decision to drop him from No. 1 overall to No. 3 in its June draft projections, about his frustration at the lack of run support he’s received, about his supposed loss of velocity this season, and about his pitch selection and pitch location. Eventually, his frustration gave way to petulance, and this bulletin-board jewel rolled off his tongue:

“When I leave the ball up, I beat myself,” Rodon said of the ball Perkins crushed in the second inning. “I don’t know who it was that hit the home run. The ball’s up. You throw a slider there, he’s out. You throw a fastball down, he’s out. That’s probably the only ball he’ll ever hit off me, so that happens.”

Laura Keeley, Duke beat writer for The News & Observer and a 2011 Duke graduate, went out of her way in her game story to make Rodon look bad with that quote — not that he needed help from her or anyone else — and her characterization of Rodon as smirking before he delivered the pitch. That was unnecessary and bordered on unprofessional, but to be fair, at least she quoted him accurately.

Rodon didn’t exactly handle the question about Baseball America and his draft status with aplomb either, derisively saying it was just the opinion of a bunch of writers — this to a gaggle of writers, including a Baseball America staffer — not that Rodon should give a shit about his draft status at this point anyway, especially after his team just suffered a difficult, demoralizing and very damaging defeat.

In Rodon’s defense, however, it’s almost impossible for the rest of us to comprehend the level of frustration he must be feeling these days. Amazingly, he’s tied for eighth in the nation with six losses. Think about that one, a two-time first-team All-American tied with 19 pitchers who have absolutely nothing in common with him other than being charged with six losses as of April 13, 2014. It’s Bizarro-World for Rodon these days.

In his six losses, Rodon has allowed nine earned runs in 40 innings, a 2.03 ERA. He’s struck out 51, allowed 36 hits and walked 15, holding opposing hitters to a .232 average. Unfortunately, his teammates have performed miserably when he’s been on the mound, scoring twice with just two extra-base hits in the six losses, good for a .155 team batting average, a .200 on-base percentage and a .165 slugging percentage. Defensively, the Wolfpack has fielded .931 in Rodon’s losses, committing 15 errors in the six games, leading to 14 unearned runs.

Who wouldn’t be frustrated?

Friday night against Duke it was more of the same. The Wolfpack managed just three hits against the combined shutout pitching of Drew Van Orden and Robert Huber, striking out 11 times and advancing just four runners to scoring position. One of those runners was thrown out at home plate in the third inning, recklessly trying to score on a fly ball to shallow left field. He was out by plenty, and the fly-ball double play killed a first-and-third, no-out threat for the Pack. And that was State’s last real scoring threat of the game. The Wolfpack also committed a pair of errors, one of which led directly to Duke’s second run.

Still, Rodon was electric much of the night, flashing the dominant, almost unhittable stuff that wowed college baseball down the stretch in 2014. Maybe it was the Durham Bulls Athletic Park effect, a ballpark Rodon clearly loves. In his last four appearances there, counting a victory over Cuba with Team USA last summer, Rodon allowed five earned runs — all of them to Duke — on 15 hits in 33 ⅓ innings for a 1.35 ERA, with 52 strikeouts and eight walks. That’s more than 14 strikeouts and just 2.2 walks per nine innings.

In the final four innings in each of his appearances at the DBAP vs. Duke, in 2013 and ’14,  Rodon retired 24 of 26 batters faced, striking out 14, all swinging, and did not allow a hit or a run. His performance against the Blue Devils last year jump-started his incredible stretch run. A similar result would be most welcome this time around, although it won’t matter a bit if his teammates don’t start scoring some runs for him. Soon.

Sunday’s Meltdown At The DBAP
In the past two weeks, we discussed at length why quality relief pitchers don’t get anywhere near the credit they deserve, and why showing Sunday baseball games on Monday night on ESPNU is a preposterous idea. NC State’s epic collapse at Duke on Sunday proved both points conclusively.

Regardless of the outcome, regardless of your team allegiance, that was a horrible game. The evidence is just irrefutable. The pitchers issued 15 walks, hit two batters and threw two wild pitches. The defenses committed three errors (seemed like more) leading to three unearned runs. There was a passed ball, a steal of third base when the third baseman was caught napping and didn’t cover the base, and a steal of second when the runner was picked off but beat the play anyway.

Twelve pitchers combined to allow 21 runs on 27 hits in 17 ⅓ innings. Each team ran its third starter out there and while Patrick Peterson pitched well for NC State, the Wolfpack roughed up Duke starter Michael Matuella for four runs on five hits and three walks in five innings. The bullpens were predictably worn out from the first two games of the series, and 10 relief pitchers combined to allow 15 runs, 13 of them earned, on 17 hits and 10 walks in nine innings.

It was Sunday baseball at its worst, three hours and 45 minutes of your life that you won’t get back. NC State took a 10-4 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning and lost, thanks to some frightful relief pitching. As former Wolfpack coach Sam Esposito often said after games like that, “We set the game back about 50 years today,” yet this is the product the ACC wants ESPNU to broadcast on Monday nights.

And speaking of bad relief pitching, six days ago in this space, we argued that relief pitchers are like offensive linemen — they’re vital but no one appreciates them until they’re gone. That’s certainly the case for NC State this season.

Duke scored in every inning after Peterson left the game, including five runs in the bottom of the eighth and two more in the ninth. State relievers, helpless to stem the Duke tide, allowed nine runs on nine hits, seven walks, a hit batter and a three-base throwing error that was caused by a pitcher trying to field a sacrifice bunt as if the ball were a live hand grenade. The first five Duke batters in the eighth inning all reached base and scored on a pair of home runs. Wolfpack relievers made 97 pitches in 3 ⅓ innings.

Allow for a rare use of the first person here: In the last eight months, I’ve told several people that if you made a list of the three most important pitchers (most important, not necessarily the best) on the 2013 NC State baseball team, Carlos Rodon would not be on the list. That statement was usually met with disbelief, but Sunday’s game was yet one more reminder of just how critical relief pitching is, especially in college baseball.

A good many of those same people were at the DBAP on Sunday and they still probably don’t get it, that because of Josh Easley, Grant Sasser and Chris Overman, that kind of meltdown wasn’t even remotely possible a year ago. Would. Not. Happen. Those three anchored what probably was the best bullpen in the country, leading the 2013 Wolfpack to the College World Series. If NC State took a 10-4 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning of a game a year ago, 10-4 would be the final score.

A baseball team with a bad bullpen is a bad baseball team. This Wolfpack team’s bullpen has several useful parts, especially Patrick and Eric Peterson, Andrew Woeck and D.J. Thomas. No one on this staff, however, can touch Easley, Sasser or Overman, and without those three or others like them, it’s just about impossible to envision this team digging out of the crater it’s dug for itself.

• Famous Meltdowns Of The Past: Thanks to aluminum bats, especially prior to the BBCOR era, big leads are rarely safe in college baseball. This year’s Wolfpack can take some solace in knowing that Sunday’s loss to Duke ranks down the list of the worst blown leads in school history.

The worst, by far, was to Clemson in 1995. With future first-round draft pick Corey Lee dealing in the opening game of a three-game series at Doak Field, NC State led 15-4 after eight innings. When the Clemson leadoff hitter struck out to start the top of the ninth, Clemson coach Jack Leggett sent five consecutive pinch-hitters to the plate. All five reached base safely. In fact, all five batted twice in the inning, an 11-run nightmare that tied the score at 15-15. The Tigers won 17-15 in 11 innings.

Three years later, the Wolfpack took an eight-run lead into the top of the eighth inning against Georgia Tech at the Doak, but couldn’t get out of the eighth inning before the Yellow Jackets had come back to take a two-run lead. Tech won 17-13.

Not that any of that should make Elliott Avent or anyone else associated with Sunday's loss feel any better.

• Back-To-Back Shutouts: Duke’s 2-0 shutout of NC State on April 11, combined with a 7-0 blanking at East Carolina two days earlier, marked the first time the Wolfpack was shutout in consecutive games in 42 years, since 1972, the next-to-last year of the wood-bat era in college baseball. NC State was shut out in back-to-back games by North Carolina and Clemson that season. The Pack played 2,244 games since then before being blanked in consecutive games last week.

• Five Shutouts In One Season: Thanks to some spotty record-keeping, this cannot be said with full assurance, but the evidence strongly suggests that Duke’s shutout of NC State on Friday night, the Wolfpack’s fifth blanking of the season, set a new school record, breaking the old record of four, first set (we believe) in 1948 and matched four times since then.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Home Away From Home For Rodon

Carlos Rodon’s 2014 season has been something of a head-scratcher at times. No matter his performance, no matter how well he pitches, more often than not he somehow manages to come up on the short end on the scoreboard. His last win was March 7 against Notre Dame. Since then, he’s 0-3 with a 2.49 ERA.

Obviously, lack of run support does much to explain Rodon’s 2-5 won-lost record. NC State has lost six of Rodon’s eight starts. His ERA in those games is 2.11 in 38 ⅓ innings, with 44 strikeouts. His teammates have starved him for runs, scoring just three times total in the six losses. They’ve also kicked the ball around, committing 14 errors in those six games, fielding a miserable .936 and leading to 12 unearned runs.

Whatever “ails” Carlos almost certainly will be forgotten when he steps on the mound at Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Friday to face Duke. Rodon pitched two games for the Wolfpack at the DBAP last season, a deceptively dominant start against the Blue Devils on May 17, and then an historic encounter May 25 vs. North Carolina at the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship.

The start against Duke may have been the most important of the 2013 season for Rodon. After beginning the year slowly — much more so than his supposed “slow” start to 2014 — Rodon was just beginning to resemble himself when he faced the Blue Devils. Through the first 5 ⅓ innings of that game, he scuffled along, allowing six runs, four of them earned, on six hits and three walks. At that point, though, the tumblers suddenly fell into place for Rodon. He retired 13 of the last 14 men he faced, nine of them on strikes, all nine of them swinging, in an utterly overpowering performance. The one man who did reach base — he was hit by a pitch — was quickly erased on a double play. Rodon finished with 15 strikeouts in nine innings pitched.

A week and a day later, Rodon squared off against the Tar Heels at the DBAP in front of an overflow crowd of 11,392, the largest crowd ever to see a college baseball game in the state of North Carolina. Rodon overwhelmed a truly great-hitting UNC team for 10 innings, allowing just one unearned run on one hit. He took a perfect game into the fifth inning and a no-hitter into the seventh. He allowed just five balls to be hit out of the infield. He struck out 14 and walked two.

In the final 4 ⅔ innings against Duke and the 10 innings against North Carolina, Rodon allowed just one run, unearned, on one hit in 14 ⅔ innings. He struck out 23, walked two and hit two batters. He faced 49 batters and retired 44 of them. He should have retired 46 of the 49 except for a pair of errors, one of which was his own and allowed a UNC run to score. The Tar Heels went on to win 2-1 in 18 innings, but Rodon was long gone by then and did not figure in the decision.

Rodon was more or less unhittable the rest of the season. From the one-out mark of the fifth inning of that Duke game through the College World Series, he pitched 46 innings and allowed seven runs, five of them earned, on 23 hits for a 0.98 ERA. He struck out 56 and walked seven. Take away his final appearance, a start on three days’ rest against UNC at the CWS and the numbers read 40 innings, five runs, four earned runs, 19 hits, 50 strikeouts and six walks.

Any way you cut it, Rodon was fearsome down the stretch, the best pitcher in the college game, and he kick-started the most dominant stretch of his career with nine swinging strikeouts in 4 ⅔ hitless innings against Duke at the DBAP.

Rodon put an exclamation point on his 2013 residency at the DBAP by shutting down Cuba on July 23 in the summer finale for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Rodon allowed just two hits and struck out 11 in 6 ⅔ shutout innings. Team USA went on to win 5-3.

In Rodon’s three appearances at the DBAP last year — vs. Duke, UNC and Cuba — he was 2-0 with a 1.40 ERA. He allowed nine hits, struck out 40 and walked five in 25 ⅔ innings. From the one-out mark in the fifth inning of that Duke game through the UNC and Cuba games, he allowed just one unearned run on three hits in 21 ⅓ innings, striking out 34 and walking two.

Now that’s home sweet home.

Eyes To The Front, Not The Rear
Wednesday’s sleepwalk through Greenville notwithstanding, the task facing NC State still remains ahead of the Wolfpack, not in the rearview mirror.

The 7-0 loss to East Carolina on Wednesday was a disappointment, to say the least. NC State got home from its triumphant trip to Clemson at 4:30 Tuesday morning, and against the Pirates, the Pack still looked like a team desperately sleep-deprived.

“This was as sluggish as I’ve seen our team ever play,” Wolfpack head coach Elliott Avent told the Technician, the NC State student newspaper. “Maybe we just needed some rest. Coming back at 4:30 last night from Clemson may have just turned our clocks around. When we play with energy, we’re good.”

Mystifying as it was, the somnambulant performance in Greenville will be forgotten if NC State can build on the success at Clemson and take care of business this weekend against Duke at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. That will be easier said than done, for many reasons.

First of all, Duke pitches. The Blue Devils are third in the ACC in overall ERA at 2.93 and third in ERA in conference games at 2.98. Starting pitchers Andrew Istler (3-4, 2.89) and Michael Matuella (0-1, 0.82) give the Devils a potent 1-2 punch at the front of the rotation. Closer Robert Huber (3-0, 1.17) ranks among the ACC leaders with five saves.

Against an NC State team limping along with a .266 team batting average and averaging only 5.6 runs per game, that makes Duke a most dangerous opponent. The Wolfpack certainly broke out of its doldrums a bit in the Clemson series, but since the start of conference play, the Pack is hitting .250 and scoring 4.2 runs per game. State is hitting .242 in conference games, with a .313 on-base percentage and a .327 slugging percentage while scoring just 3.6 runs per game.

A second reason for State fans to fear this series is a natural tendency for teams with some tradition to overlook teams that don’t have that tradition. We don’t know that about this NC State team, but many past Wolfpack teams walked headlong into what are commonly known as “trap” games or series against supposedly weaker teams. Duke has victimized NC State several times in the past, as recently as 2011. Given the Blue Devils’ pitching and its own offensive woes, the Wolfpack can hardly afford to look past this series.

• NC State Vs. Duke, The Series: NC State holds a 151-120-1 record in the series vs. Duke. The Wolfpack has played Duke more times than any other opponent except for North Carolina. The Pack has played the Blue Devils 272 times on the diamond, 14 fewer times than it has played the Tar Heels.

NC State swept the three-game series from Duke a year ago, in the last series of the regular season, at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The Wolfpack won by scores of 5-2, 7-6 and 9-1. Bryan Adametz was 7-for-13 with four RBIs to lead the NC State offense, which batted .322 (38-for-118) for the series. Grant Clyde was 6-for-12 with three walks and scored six times. Jake Fincher was 6-for-13 with a double and three runs scored. Jake Armstrong only played in the middle game of the series but went 2-for-3 and drove in three runs.

On the mound, the Wolfpack posted a 1.93 ERA in 28 innings against the Devils a year ago, with the bullpen allowing just two runs in 12 ⅓ innings. Carlos Rodon started the second game of the series and struck out 15 in nine innings. Logan Jernigan started the finale and whiffed six in 4 ⅓ shutout innings. Wolfpack pitchers fanned 35 Blue Devils in the series.

The Wolfpack is 30-17 against Duke under head coach Elliott Avent. The Pack is 13-11 in games at Duke, including 18 games at Jack Coombs Field and six at the DBAP. Avent’s teams are 4-2 vs. the Blue Devils at the DBAP.

NC State comes into play this weekend with a six-game winning streak against Duke. Prior to last year’s sweep, however, Duke won the previous two series vs. NC State in Durham. Duke has won five of eight series in Durham vs. Avent’s Wolfpack.

• Thou Shalt Steal: Despite being clearly more aggressive on the basepaths at Clemson last weekend, the fact remains that, heading into the Duke series, NC State has attempted just 17 stolen bases and been successful 11 times in the last 24 games. The Wolfpack is 11th out of 14 ACC teams in both stolen bases and stolen-base attempts. In conference games, the Pack is 13th out of 14 teams in steals and attempts.

For a team whose speed is clearly its best offensive attribute, this shows a stunning lack of aggression on the basepaths. NC State stole a then-school-record 102 bases in 2012, then broke that mark by swiping 110 bags a year ago. The Wolfpack has 32 in as many games thus far in 2014, on pace to steal just 56 in the regular season.

For some perspective, there have been years in recent NC State history when 56 steals would be considered a track meet. The 2011 team stole 31 bases in 46 attempts, and the 2010 team stole 42 in 59 attempts. At the same time, those teams hit 37 and 98 home runs, respectively. The current Wolfpack has 17 home runs and is on a pace to hit 30 homers for the regular season, but has homered just once in the last five games.

• Rodon Has Company At Shutout Central: East Carolina’s 7-0 shutout of NC State on Wednesday marked the fourth time the Wolfpack has been blanked in 2014, but the first time in a game not started by Carlos Rodon. Rodon was on the hill when the Pack was blanked 3-0 in the season opener vs. Canisius, on March 1 when defending national champion UCLA shut out NC State 2-0, and on March 21 when Maryland whitewashed the Wolfpack 10-0.

• Hitting Streaks: Freshman infielder Andrew Knizner went 2-for-4 against ECU on Wednesday, accounting for a quarter of NC State’s hits and extending his hitting streak to eight games. In the streak, Knizner is batting .364 (12-for-33) with three doubles, two home runs and five RBIs. Knizner now has hitting streaks of 10, eight and five games this season and has hit safely in 25 of 29 games.

Meanwhile, infielder Logan Ratledge went 1-for-4 vs. the Pirates to extend his season-best hitting streak to six games. Ratledge is 7-for-25 (.280) in his streak.

• Welcome To The Party: Freshman lefthander Cody Beckman made his first college appearance Wednesday night at East Carolina. Beckman pitched the bottom of the eighth inning and worked a scoreless inning, walking one and striking out one.

• Time Of Game: NC State, at least in home games, is doing its part this season to keep people from complaining about the length of games. In 32 games, NC State has played just seven regulation games that lasted three hours or longer, and it should be duly noted that just one of those games was played at Doak Field at Dail Park, which has played host to 17 Wolfpack games thus far. The lone marathon at the Doak was the finale of the Miami series, a 12-5 defeat that lasted three hours and 19 minutes.

So for anyone who complains that college baseball games are too long, either tell the umpire to call the strike zone as spelled out in the rulebook (which, by the way, says absolutely nothing about individual umpires’ interpretation of that strike zone) or come to the Doak.

• Outfield Assists: NC State has seven outfield assists this year, including four from center fielder Jake Fincher. The Pack had three outfield assists in Wednesday night’s 7-0 snoozer of a loss at East Carolina, one each from Fincher, Garrett Suggs and Brett Austin.

• Turning It Around In April? Thank The Rookies: NC State had a brutal month of March, but is off to a solid start in April, which traditionally has been the Wolfpack’s strongest month under head coach Elliott Avent. The Pack is 4-2 since the start of the month, led by freshman infielders Andrew Knizner and Preston Palmeiro.

Palmeiro is hitting .412 (7-for-17) with a triple, four runs scored and two RBIs in April. He has a .545 on-base percentage for the month, and a .529 slugging average. Knizner is hitting .346 (9-for-26) with two doubles, a home run, three runs scored and four driven in. His on-base percentage for the month is .333, with a .538 slugging percentage.

Two other freshmen, outfielders Garrett Suggs and Nathan Hood, also have been hot the first week-plus of April. Suggs is hitting .364 (4-for-11) with a double and three runs scored, while Hood is 2-for-3 with a double and two runs scored in limited playing time. One other freshman, infielder Kyle Cavanaugh, is 1-for-3 in April.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Pack Bites Back

NC State fought negative momentum, terrible weather, unbelievably incompetent umpiring, and almost a century’s worth of bad history and still won two of three games to take this past weekend’s series at Clemson.

The Wolfpack just avoided a couple of ugly record losing streaks with its 9-4 victory in the second game of the series on Sunday, scoring six runs in the top of the ninth inning to put the game away. In the series finale, the Pack survived a horrific fourth inning by plate umpire Scott Kennedy — who made not one, not two, but three awful calls in that one inning, each of which went against the visitors — and rolled to a 7-1 laugher in a game marred by awful playing conditions.

(We can all thank television — who else? — for Monday night’s mudbath. No, ESPNU didn’t cause the rain, yet despite knowing that three inches of precipitation would fall during the day Monday, the network steadfastly refused to allow the game to be played as part of a Sunday doubleheader, which absolutely is what should have been done. We can all be thankful that no one was hurt because of the sloppy conditions.)

Most significantly, though, NC State won a series at Doug Kingsmore for the second time in as many trips, but for just the third time in school history. The Wolfpack has now won four of its last five games at Clemson, which was heretofore unthinkable in this series.

Since the Atlantic Coast Conference went to its current scheduling format of three-game weekend series in 1990, Clemson had swept NC State in Death Valley in 1990, 1994, 1998 (two games only because of a rainout), 2004, 2006 and 2010. In other words, from 1990-2010, Clemson swept NC State six times in 11 series at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. The Wolfpack’s lone series win in that span came in 1996. And prior to winning the final two games of the 2012 series, NC State had lost seven of the previous eight games in Death Valley.

So NC State went into Clemson with history, momentum and karma all sitting in the home team’s dugout. The Wolfpack also began play Saturday having been swept its previous three conference series, tying an ignominious school record. A loss in the series opener stretched the Pack’s conference losing streak to 10 games, tying another egregious school record. And in the face of that, NC State fought back to take the final two games and win the series.

What ultimately turned things around was forcing the action and not waiting around for things to happen. Because when you sit back and wait for the action, only bad things happen. Like back-to-back-to-back sweeps and 10-game ACC losing streaks. Following an ugly error by Logan Ratledge in the first inning of Sunday’s game, NC State took the game to Clemson, outscoring the Tigers 15-3 over the final 17 innings of the series, easily outplaying them in every phase of the game.

In those final two games, the Wolfpack outhit Clemson .319 to .214, had seven extra-base hits to the Tigers’ three to outslug the home team .458 to .286, had a .390 on-base percentage to Clemson’s .286, and won the ERA battled by a 1.50 to 5.50 margin. The State bullpen came up clutch, posting a 1.23 ERA in 14 ⅔ innings in those two games.

Trea Turner set the tone in the first inning of Sunday’s game, getting a single, stealing second base and then scoring from second on a passed ball. That kind of aggressive play had been missing for weeks.

We’re only talking about two games here, so let’s put away the champagne for the time being. At 19-12 overall and 5-10 in conference play, it’s way too soon to start making reservations for Omaha. NC State is still tied for 11th in the ACC’s overall standings, a game and a half out of 10th place — two games in the loss column — and a berth in the conference tournament. A return trip to East Carolina on Wednesday and a very difficult series at Duke this weekend are up next for the Wolfpack.

So yes, it’s too early to celebrate, but after a lengthy and perplexing stretch during which NC State couldn’t find its ass with both hands, the turnaround at Clemson marks several welcome steps in the right direction.

Monday Night Baseball: Is This Really A Good Idea?
Three years into the ACC’s Monday night college baseball telecasts on ESPNU, maybe it’s time to rethink things.

The three-plus-hour comedy of errors that NC State and Clemson played April 7 may have been more a product of the weather than the fact that it was Monday night, but had it not been for television, the game would have been played in dry conditions as part of a doubleheader on Sunday, which is what should have happened. Instead, TV refused to give up the rights to the game and forced the two teams to play on a soaking wet field with steady rain falling throughout the night.

Players had trouble gripping both the ball and the bat. The footing was bad all over the field. And it could have been much worse, had Clemson not put in a new drainage system this past offseason at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. Considering the amount of rain that fell on Monday, the field was in remarkably good condition. And still, the game should have been played on Sunday.

The original idea for an ACC game of the week on Monday nights came about because of ESPNU’s Thursday night Southeastern Conference telecasts. By adding a Monday night ACC game, ESPNU figured it would bookend the weekend with showcase games from two of college baseball elite power conferences.

Unfortunately, the two bookends are entirely different products, and not because they come from different conferences.

The Thursday night SEC games are Friday games, the most desirable games of the weekend, moved up to Thursday night with the staff aces for both teams on the mound. The Monday night ACC games are Sunday games moved back a day, and make no mistake about it, the difference between Friday games and Sunday games is not subtle.

Anyone who follows college baseball has watched his or her share of excruciating, mind-numbing, four-hour Sunday fiascos. Sunday pitchers are Sunday pitchers for a reason. They’re the weakest link in a team’s rotation. Teams that have a quality Sunday starter are few and far between, and those that do are usually big winners because of it.

Most coaches hope and pray their Sunday starter can pitch into the fifth inning without letting the game get too far out of hand. That means turning the ball over to the bullpen early, and by Sunday most bullpens are stretched thin from the first two games of the series. In other words, Sunday games often feature really bad pitching.

Nothing will put a defense to sleep faster than really bad pitching, so fielding often suffers on Sundays as well. And if all that wasn’t bad enough — and there is no evidence other than anecdotal to back this up — the worst ball-strike umpire in every crew, the one guy who squeezes home plate into the size of a Trisket, invariably gets the plate the final game of the series, getaway day. This leads to a parade of walks and even drowsier defenders.

It’s the perfect storm: bad starting pitching, an endless parade of worn-out and ineffective relievers, infielders caught napping on ground balls, outfielders throwing the ball all over the lot, and a home-plate umpire who thinks he’s getting paid by the hour. Exaggerations in the preceding sentence are done for effect, but ask anyone who follows college baseball closely and they’ll happily corroborate this account of Sunday games.

And this is what ESPNU, with the ACC’s blessing, is putting on display to an exclusive national TV audience on Monday nights. To be as politically incorrect as possible here, this is a totally retarded idea and one has to wonder why the Atlantic Coast Conference sees any merit in it at all.

Look, everyone understands the appeal of the national TV exposure. It’s a recruiting bonanza for the entire conference, even the teams that don’t get to play a Monday night game. With that said, though, playing what amounts to Sunday games as an exclusive feature on national television is sort of like going to a five-star restaurant in bib overalls and scratching your back with the salad fork.

The ACC and ESPNU can do better than this.

• Hitting Streaks: Freshman infielder Andrew Knizner went 5-for-13 in the Clemson series, hitting safely in each game to extend his current hitting streak to seven games. Knizner is hitting .345 (10-for-29) with three doubles, two home runs and five RBIs during his current streak. He’s hit safely in 24 of 28 games and has hitting streaks of 10 games, seven games and five games. For the season, he’s second on the team with a .358 batting average (39-for-109), one point behind Brett Austin.

Fellow freshman infielder Preston Palmeiro also hit safely in each game of the Clemson series to extend his hitting streak to seven games. Palmeiro is 9-for-18 with four runs scored and four RBIs during his streak, which is unique in that he only started four of the seven games. He extended the streak by going 1-for-1 in a pinch-hitting appearance in the first game of the Clemson series, and began the streak with a 1-for-1 performance in a pinch-hitting role. In 15 games and only five starts, Palmeiro is hitting .379 (11-for-29).

• Oh, What A Relief: Entering the 2014 season, the biggest area of concern facing NC State was relief pitching. The exploits of the 2013 Wolfpack bullpen have been chronicled here many times, as recently as a week ago, and with five key seniors gone from that relief corps, head coach Elliott Avent went into the current season unsure what to expect from his pen.

The results were good enough in the early going, but then the Wolfpack got pistol-whipped at Florida State the second weekend of March, and the bullpen took much of the brunt of the Seminoles ambush. FSU batted .377 against NC State relievers, scoring 14 runs in 16 ⅔ innings. The Wolfpack bullpen surrendered 26 hits and hit five batters. State relievers inherited 16 Florida State runners and allowed 10 of them to score. It was a bloodstained nightmare.

The bullpen limped along the next three weeks, but things began to turn around during the past week. First, there was last Wednesday’s 3-2 victory over East Carolina at Doak Field at Dail Park. Three Wolfpack relievers — led by freshman Ryan Williamson’s masterful 4 ⅓ shutout innings of one-hit relief — combined to allow just two runs on five hits in 5 ⅓ innings. Over the weekend at Clemson, State relievers allowed just two runs on nine hits in 14 ⅔ innings. The bullpen walked two, struck out 14 and hit just one batter. The Tigers batted .170 against Wolfpack relievers.

On Sunday, senior lefty D.J. Thomas came out of the pen and tossed 5 ⅔ shutout innings, allowing three hits and striking out two without a walk to earn his second win in as many decisions. On Monday night, freshman righthander Joe O’Donnell pitched four scoreless innings, allowing two hits, striking out three and walking one to win his first-ever college decision. The Wolfpack bullpen picked up both wins in the series, and got saves in both victories.

In the last four games, dating back to the East Carolina game a week ago, the NC State bullpen is 3-0 with three saves and a 1.80 ERA, against very good competition. In 20 innings in that span, Wolfpack relievers allowed four runs on 14 hits, struck out 23 and walked just two. Opponents batted just .192 with just one extra-base hit. The bullpen inherited seven baserunners and stranded all seven.

• A Lineup Begins To Emerge: After tinkering with Brett Austin in the leadoff spot of the batting order much of the season, Wolfpack head coach Elliott Avent put Trea Turner back at the top of the lineup for the second game of the Clemson series, moved surging freshman Preston Palmeiro to the two spot, dropped Brett Austin, the team’s best hitter all season, to third, and put smoking hot freshman Andrew Knizner in the cleanup spot. And while it’s just two games, lo-and-behold, that lineup went 23-for-72 (.319) with seven extra-base hits and scored 16 runs in the two games. Those four hitters were a combined 12-for-32 with three doubles, a home run, seven runs scored and eight driven in.

Turner responded to his return to the top spot with the first four-hit game of his college career. In the final two games, he was 4-for-7, scored three runs and drove in two. He stole a base, the 97th of his career. He led off Sunday’s game with a base hit, stole second base, then scored all the way from second base on a passed ball, setting the tone for the two games. His weekend was cut short in the final game when plate umpire Scott Kennedy ejected him with a hair-trigger response to a dropped bat. ’Nuff said about that.

The lefty-hitting Palmeiro only went 2-for-8 for the two games, in large part because of the effective breaking pitches thrown his way by Clemson lefthander Zack Erwin. Palmeiro was 2-for-5 the rest of the series after Erwin made his exit in the seventh inning on Sunday.

Austin, who has struggled when not hitting leadoff although in a very small sample size, was also 2-for-8, but he hit the ball on the screws several times, including a huge two-run double in the six-run ninth inning of the second game of the series.

The star of the weekend was Knizner, who was 4-for-9 with two doubles, a home run and three RBIs in the final two games.

With the top of the lineup looking more like a finished product, the bottom of the order was more productive as well. Garrett Suggs (2-for-6), Jake Fincher (3-for-9) and Logan Ratledge (3-for-7) all swung the bat well in the final two games of the series, and the bottom five spots in the order were 11-for-30 (.367) in the final two games at Clemson.

• Double Digits Back-To-Back: NC State rapped out 13 and 10 hits, respectively, in the final two games of the Clemson series, only the fifth time all season that NC State has had 10 or more hits in consecutive games and the first time in 15 ACC games.

• Ninth-Inning Rallies: NC State scored eight ninth-inning runs in the final two games of the Clemson series, six in the middle game and two more in the finale. In the Wolfpack’s previous 29 games, it scored a grand total of four runs in the ninth inning. The Pack now has scored 12 runs in the ninth inning in 2014, eight of them in the last two games.

What to make of that. Generally speaking, a team that scores an inordinate amount of runs in the ninth inning either plays a lot of games on the road, or waits until the last minute to take care of business at home. Conversely, teams that don’t score much in the ninth inning generally play a lot of games at home and take care of business.

NC State played 17 of its first 32 games at home this season, including 13 of its first 15, and has a 13-4 home record. The Wolfpack batted in the bottom of the ninth inning in just one of its first 13 home games, the 3-0 season-opening defeat at the hands of Canisius, and scored no ninth-inning runs all season, home or away, until an 8-2 loss at Florida State on May 15, the 18th game of the year. All 20 of NC State’s ninth-inning and extra-inning runs have come on the road.

All of which brings us to the subject of walk-off victories, a pleasure that this NC State team has yet to experience. Teams that score a lot of runs in the ninth inning and also play a large percentage of home games figure to win their share in walk-off fashion.

Since most good college teams play the bulk of their games at home (the power conference teams play very few midweek road games), it figures that those teams probably get more than their fair share of “walk-off” wins. That certainly has been the case for NC State in recent years.

In the 11 years from 2003-13, the NC State teams that scored the most ninth-inning runs generally got the most walk-off wins:

2005 (34 runs, 6 walk-offs)
2010 (32 runs, 6 walk-offs)
2006 (28 runs, 5 walk-offs).

There are some outliers. The 2003 and 2013 teams both won five walk-off games, yet scored 21 and 20 ninth-inning runs, respectively, which ranks near the bottom third of the sample. Without further mind-numbing research, we’ll guess that several of those walk-offs came in extra innings and leave it at that. Also, the 2012 team scored 26 ninth-inning runs, yet won just three games in walk-off fashion. By contrast, the 2004 team scored just 15 ninth-inning runs, fewest in the sample, but also had three walk-off wins.

All of this means nothing, of course, especially for the 2014 Wolfpack, but once you waste this much time researching a topic, you might as well try and find a way to use it.

• Milestones: With five strikeouts in his April 6 start at Clemson, Carlos Rodon raised his season total to 60 and his career total to 379. He will enter play this weekend at Duke needing seven more K’s to tie Terry Harvey for the school record of 386, set from 1992-95. Rodon is averaging 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings for his career.

Rodon has 55 ⅓ innings pitched this season, giving his 302 ⅓ for his career, good for fourth place in school history. The start at Clemson was the 43rd of Rodon’s career, tying him with Eric Surkamp (2006-08) and Mike Caldwell (1968-71) for fourth 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 April 6 at Clemson was his 10th of the season, giving him 97 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 three 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.