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.

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