Sunday, March 29, 2015

New Year’s Eve With The Boss

About three months ago, this blog posted an entry about Bruce Springsteen’s new live download website,, and its second and then-most recent release, the Aug. 9, 1978, show from the Agora Theater in Cleveland.

The live Springsteen site went online last November to make available to the public many of the historic Springsteen concerts circulating as bootlegs, to engineer them professionally, and to sell them at competitive prices. The Agora show was one of the most famous and revered shows from 1978’s legendary Darkness On The Edge Of Town tour. Taken from two-track pre-FM soundboard tape reels, the Agora show was remastered but not remixed. The sound quality was still a clear upgrade from the available bootlegs.

About six weeks after the Agora show hit the market, released a 1975 New Year’s Eve show from the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., just outside Philadelphia. The Born To Run tour is not as famous as the Darkness tour, which is and always will be the gold standard for Springsteen tours, but Bruce’s reputation as an electrifying live performer was long established by 1975. The BTR tour is legendary in its own rite, and the New Year’s Eve show from the Tower was recorded professionally by The Record Plant’s remote recording trucks for a possible live album. A superb-sounding nine-track bootleg of the show has been in circulation for decades, but the live Springsteen site’s official release is the entire show, 18 songs, completely remixed from the original 24-track tapes by Toby Scott at Thrill Hill and mastered by Adam Ayan at Gateway Mastering. As great as the Agora show turned out, this was the first true gem from, a tremendous performance from a legendary Springsteen tour, superbly recorded, mixed and mastered.

On March 25, went the New Year’s Eve route again and this time hit the holy grail. Springsteen’s show from the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., on Dec. 31, 1980, has to rank near the top of anyone’s list of Springsteen’s most legendary concerts, nearly four hours of powerful, jaw-dropping, high-energy music. The message boards on the website recently did an informal poll to name the 20 greatest Springsteen live bootlegs, and this show, from the first leg of the River tour, finished seventh. It easily could have been second or third, although in fairness every show on the list was truly great. There were no booby prizes.

The 1980-81 tour was in support of The River, the double album Columbia released earlier that fall. “Hungry Heart,” the first single from The River, jumped straight into the charts upon release and became Springsteen’s first top 10 hit, creating tremendous demand for concert tickets. Consequently, the River tour was the first time Springsteen played exclusively in arenas and stadiums. That had to be a major adjustment for the band, especially after the incredible success of the Darkness tour, played almost entirely in clubs and theaters, yet Bruce and the E-Street Band made the transition to bigger venues seamlessly. The River tour was just astonishing, and you need look no further than the New Year’s Eve 1980 show for overwhelming proof.

The Dec. 31 show at the Nassau Coliseum was the band’s third there in a four-night span — they didn’t play on Dec. 30 — and all three shows were recorded professionally by The Record Plant, again for a possible live album that was still years in the future. Soundboard recordings of all three shows have been in circulation for years, yet the sound quality of all three bootlegs leaves much to be desired. The mix was muddy in places with the vocals occasionally buried, the sound levels were inconsistent, the tapes needed occasional pitch correction from wow and flutter, and there are cuts, breaks and dropouts in all three recordings. The New Year’s Eve bootleg was clearly the best of the three, but this official release is such an enormous sonic improvement from the bootleg that it almost defies description.

Springsteen has often been quoted saying that the best versions of the songs from Darkness On The Edge Of Town were done live in concert because the band still didn’t know its way around a recording studio and didn’t learn to capture its stage sound on tape until The River. Well, you can make the same argument about the songs from The River. As great as that double album is, the 12 songs from that album played during this concert come alive in performance in ways that the studio versions don’t even approach.

The sound quality of this download is not quite as good as the 1975 show from The Tower Theater — the guess here is that sound quality was easier to capture at the cozy 3,000-seat Tower Theater than in the massive 17,000-seat Nassau Coliseum — but this is a superior performance than the Tower show. The sound quality of both compares favorably to the Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75 album, and is more than good enough for commercial release. Both are clearly superior to the show from The Agora, which was really good.

It seems that with each release, the folks from outdo themselves, although they’ve set the bar extremely high with this one. No matter what they release next, the live Springsteen site is an indispensable resource for serious Bruce fans. Even if you already have the bootlegs — and many of you do — these releases all are huge upgrades, and at $9.99 for mp3’s and $12.99 for lossless (other formats also are available), you just can’t go wrong.

A word to the wise, here. CDR copies of these shows now turn up regularly on eBay for $40 and $50 a show. Clearly there is an immeasurable lack of shame in this world, and as P.T. Barnum so wisely noted, there is no shortage of suckers in the world, either. Save yourself some grief and some cash and don’t be a sucker. Go to, download the real thing for a fraction of the cost, and then rock your everlovin’ ass off.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Another Weekend, More Lousy Weather

We’ll let the headline do all the complaining this week and talk baseball instead. NC State, riding a modest three-game winning streak, hosts Pittsburgh in a surprisingly important Atlantic Coast Conference series this weekend at Doak Field.

Both the Wolfpack (14-9 overall, 3-5 in the ACC) and Panthers (11-12 and 4-5) are fighting to stay relevant in their respective division races. In fact, with Louisville off to an 8-1 start and Florida State a game back at 7-2, NC State is already 4 1/2 games off the pace in the Atlantic Division with a steep climb and a difficult schedule ahead. The Panthers, meanwhile, are tied with Duke for fifth in the Coastal Division, one game out of the cellar, which is shockingly inhabited by Virginia, the preseason favorite to win the conference championship and possibly the College World Series. Sound familiar, Wolfpack fans?

For numerous reasons, NC State and Pitt should be an interesting series. After scoring 30 runs combined in a pair of midweek games, the Wolfpack may be getting its offensive mojo back after being stifled in Miami two weeks ago. NC State went into the series with the Hurricanes batting a robust .299 and ran into buzzsaw, managing just 19 hits and scoring all of four runs in three games for a .186 batting average. That started a seven-game slide that saw the Wolfpack bat a puny .223 (55-for-247) and score 25 runs, 3.6 per game. In midweek games this week against Elon and North Carolina A&T (admittedly, neither an RPI booster), NC State did show signs of life offensively, going 30-for-77 (.390) with 11 doubles, two triples, three home runs, 12 walks and 30 runs scored.

Anyone can get shut down at Miami, of course. The Hurricanes have a deep and talented staff and rank fifth in the conference in ERA at 3.22, right behind Pittsburgh at 3.16. That’s right, boys and girls, the unheralded Panthers may not be a major college baseball name, but they come into this weekend with a pitching staff that’s been dealing. Thanks to an offense that ranks 11th in the 14-team conference, the Pitt hurlers don’t get much run support, but they are stingy, with weekend starters T.J. Zeuch (2-2, 1.93), Aaron Sandefur (1-2, 2.56) and Marc Berube (0-2, 2.79) all ranking in the top 15 in the conference in ERA.

While NC State’s resurgent offense vs. Pitt’s excellent pitching presents an intriguing match-up, it’s the other side of the coin that most bears watching. Pitt is, to be kind, not an offensive juggernaut, ranking 11th in the conference in hitting at .261 and ninth in on-base percentage at .351. The Panthers do hit for some power, slugging away at a .414 clip, fifth best in the conference. Pitt does not draw too many walks, 82 and tied for 11th in the league, which is what makes this side of the matchup so fascinating. The walk-averse Panthers will be facing an NC State pitching staff that seems hell-bent on walking everyone in sight, ranking second in the league for most walks allowed with 109 in 207 innings. In other words, we have a resistible force meeting a movable object.

Winning this series won’t boost either team to the top of the league’s standings, but whichever team loses will find itself in a serious hole as it tries to qualify for the conference tournament in May.

It’s A Walk-A-Thon: Inconsistent pitching in the form of walks has haunted NC State this season, especially the starters. As a whole, the staff has issued 109 walks in 207 innings, an average of 4.7 per nine innings. The starting pitchers have walked 51 in 89 2/3 innings, which averages out to 5.1 per nine innings. The bullpen has been only marginally better than the rotation, walking 58 in 117 1/3 innings, an average of 4.4 walks per nine innings. The starters are 6-7 with a 4.22 ERA. The bullpen is 8-1 with a 2.68 ERA.

Walks are a big enough concern, but even more troubling is the fact that the problem seems to be getting worse, not better, as the season goes along. In the last 10 games, dating back to March 11 at Florida Atlantic, NC State pitchers have walked 59 in 92 innings, an average of 5.8 per nine innings. The starting pitchers the last 10 games have walked 25 in 32 innings, an average of 7.0 walks per nine innings. The bullpen has been better but not good, issuing 34 walks in 60 innings, a still unacceptable 5.1 walks per nine innings. The starters are 0-3 with a 6.47 ERA the last 10 games. The bullpen is 5-1 with a 1.80 ERA.

It should not, by the way, be of any comfort to NC State fans that the bullpen has pitched so many more innings than the starters. Even if you reversed those inning totals and had the starters working 117 1/3 innings and the bullpen 89 2/3, that would still be too many innings for the bullpen to this point in the season. Unwritten Baseball Rule No. 26a/443j says the best way to build a strong bullpen is to have a strong starting rotation. The Wolfpack is ignoring this rule, at its own peril.

While the staff continues to flirt with deep counts and unsustainable walk totals, at least the pitchers are keeping the ball in the park. NC State opponents have not homered in the last five-plus games covering 56 innings, through games of March 25. Pitt is tied for fourth in the conference with 18 home runs.

R-E-L-I-E-F: Despite allowing too many walks, NC State’s bullpen has been strong overall, with an 8-1 record, a 2.68 ERA and two saves in 117 1/3 innings. The fearless foursome of Tommy DeJuneas, Jon Olczak, Joe O’Donnell and Will Gilbert has anchored the pen, combining for a 4-1 record and a 1.78 ERA in 70 2/3 innings.

In addition, the staff has done a superb job of stranding inherited baserunners, leaving 42 of 62 inherited runners on the bags at the end of the inning. In particular, the quintet of Curt Britt (10 of 11), DeJuneas (9 of 10), Gilbert (4 of 4), O’Donnell (7 of 8) and Travis Orwig (5 of 7) have combined to strand 35 of 40 inherited baserunners this season.

The lone fly in the ointment has been the otherwise exemplary Olczak, who has inherited 14 runners and allowed 10 of them to score. In fact, of the 20 inherited runners who have scored against NC State relievers this season, half of them crossed the plate with Olczak on the mound.

Tommy DJ To The Rescue: One of the brightest spots for NC State this season has been freshman Tommy DeJuneas, a two-way performer from Charlotte who has made a major impact on the bullpen. DeJuneas began the season working 10 shutout innings before allowing a hit, and through games of March 25 he’s allowed just one run on five hits in 16 2/3 innings. Like the entire staff, he has walked way too many, seven, but has balanced that with 21 strikeouts. He is 1-1 with a save and a 0.54 ERA. Opponents are batting a mere .098 when Tommy DJ is on the mound.

Upside-Down Lineup: The stat sheet for NC State’s 14-0 victory March 24 over Elon looked as if the Wolfpack’s lineup was turned upside down, with the bottom two spots in the order accounting for five RBIs apiece.

Joe Dunand batting eighth and Joel McKeithan batting ninth drove in five runs apiece against the Phoenix, both accounting for career highs. Dunand drove in his first run of the night when he was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the second inning, then belted a two-run double in the fourth and finished his night with a two-run homer in the sixth. McKeithan put the finishing touches on a five-run second inning for the Wolfpack by hitting his first collegiate homer, a grand slam, and later drove in a run with a groundout in the third.

Through games of March 25, the eighth and ninth spots in the NC State lineup had driven in 14 runs apiece, so Dunand and McKeithan accounted for 36 percent of that in one game. Prior to this season, dating back to 2003, the most RBIs the eight and nine spots in the NC State order combined to drive in was nine, on Feb. 19, 2010, in a record-shattering 32-3 rout of La Salle.

Taking The Extra Base: NC State followed its 14-0 laugher over Elon with a 16-5 romp March 25 over North Carolina A&T, a win that featured 10 extra-base hits by the Wolfpack, including eight doubles and two triples. That was the second time this season that the Pack connected for two triples in a game, the other being in a 14-5 rout of Villanova on opening day, Feb. 13.

The last time NC State had eight or more doubles in a game was the aforementioned rout of La Salle on Feb. 19, 2010. NC State belted nine doubles, two triples and four home runs that afternoon in setting a school record for runs in a game.

The last time NC State had 10 or more extra-base hits in a game was Feb. 24, 2013, in both games of a doubleheader sweep of Wagner. The Wolfpack pounded out six doubles and five homers in the opener, an 18-0 whitewashing, then belted six doubles and four homers in the nightcap, a 25-4 rout.

Tripling His Pleasure: Senior center fielder Jake Fincher’s seventh-inning triple March 25 vs. North Carolina A&T was his second of 2015 and the 11th of his career, which ties him with Brian Bark (1987-90) and Dallas Poulk (2007-10) for seventh place in Wolfpack history for career triples. Fincher tripled six times as a freshman in 2012, once as a sophomore in 2013, and twice a year ago. Bill Peed hit 10 triples in 1955 to set the school’s single-season record. Jake Weber (1995-98) holds the career record with 21.

Cutting Down The Running Game: One of the big story lines of the 2015 season for NC State is Andrew Knizner’s conversion to catcher, which has gone remarkably well considering Knizner’s first real game behind the plate in his life was opening day against Villanova.

Quantifying a catcher’s overall effect on the game is a chore for the seamheads of the world, but there is little doubt that Knizner has had an effect on opponents’ running game. Through 23 games, opponents have attempted only 20 steals against the Wolfpack, succeeding just 11 times. Knizner has been in the middle of that, throwing out seven of 14 runners attempting to steal.

Ratledge On A Six-Game Streak: Senior second baseman Logan Ratledge enters this weekend’s series vs. Pittsburgh riding a six-game hitting streak, the longest active hitting streak on the team. During the streak, Ratledge is 11-for-22 with five doubles, nine runs scored, three RBIs and two steals.

Setting The Lineup: NC State head coach Elliott Avent seems to be settling in on a set lineup, especially the top six, and for good reason. With Brock Deatherage, Logan Ratledge, Preston Palmeiro, Jake Armstrong, Andrew Knizner and Jake Fincher seemingly set 1 through 6 in the order, the Wolfpack has begun to hit again.

Deatherage is the only one in that group who has struggled lately, hitting just .225 (9-for-40) his last 10 games, but Deatherage’s speed is a constant weapon and he is 6-for-20 with five walks, four runs and four RBIs in his last five games.

Ratledge is the team’s hottest hitter with the aforementioned six-game hitting streak. Aside from the Miami series (1-for-13), Ratledge has hit all season long. In fact, take away the three Miami games and Ratledge is batting .411 (30-for-73) for the year.

Palmeiro has not only hit all season, but he’s hit in the clutch, as his team-best (by a wide margin) 27 RBIs attest. Palmeiro has 10 hits in his last 19 at-bats and is batting an even .400 (18-for-45) with two doubles, a home run and seven RBIs in his last 10 games.

Armstrong has moved back and forth between the fourth and fifth spot in the lineup. He’s hit well in the cleanup spot and not at all in the five hole, so he’s hitting fourth. He has six hits, four for extra bases, and four RBIs in his last 20 at-bats, and 13 of his 23 hits this season have been extra-base hits.

Knizner has been the mirror opposite of Armstrong, hitting up a storm when hitting fifth and struggling as the cleanup batter. He has six hits with two doubles and three driven in in his last 14 at-bats. Knizner’s offense is down from a year ago, when he was a Freshman All-American at third base, but the conversion to catcher figured to affect his offense adversely. He’s hitting a solid .284 with 16 RBIs, and his defense has been stellar, a huge asset.

Fincher began the year with a groin injury and was slow out of the blocks, but he’s gotten hotter and hotter. He was the only hitter in the lineup to hit safely in each game of the Miami series, and has eight hits — including two doubles and a triple — with nine runs scored and six RBIs in his last 21 at-bats.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

NC State And BC To Meet In The Snow Bowl

The first legitimate weather-related travesty of the 2015 Atlantic Coast Conference baseball season is looming this weekend when NC State heads to Boston to play Boston College at the New England Baseball Complex in nearby Northborough, Mass.

This is a travesty because metro-Boston is still buried under what remains of the 100-plus inches of snow that fell in February, with still more snow forecast for this weekend. Unlike Boston College's Commander Shea Field — the school's on-campus ugly duckling of a ballpark — the complex at Northborough has a field-turf surface, which no doubt has been cleared by snow plows to make it playable this weekend.

So, play ball, right? Well … Friday's forecast for the Boston area calls for a high of 34 degrees and a 50 percent chance of snow. Things improve slightly on Saturday, with a forecast high of 43 and only a 30 percent chance of snow. Sunday's high will be back down to 35 under partly cloudy skies, but with no chance of further precipitation. No matter how you interpret it, then, the weather is going to be brutal all weekend, snow or no snow.

We won't rehash a prior post on this blog about moving back the start of the college baseball season. Given what's taking place this weekend in Boston, that seems like low-hanging fruit right about now. More to the point, is it right for Boston College to have a home conference series this early in the year? And should a series such as this one be moved out of the region because of the weather? The answer to both questions is no, but then what?

If you've ever attended a home baseball series at Chestnut Hill in March (or April or even May, for that matter), you know what a miserable experience it can be. No one should have to play baseball in conditions like that, assuming the weather actually allows you to play at all. At the same time, if the league were to mandate that BC not play a home ACC series before, say, April 1, the Eagles would have to play their first 12-15 conference games on the road, which is not an equitable solution. Assuming they ever field a truly competitive team, playing the first half of their conference series on the road would give the Eagles no chance of ever succeeding. So you either punish the conference by making teams play games in Chestnut Hill in March, or you punish Boston College by not allowing them to play a home game until midway through the season.

The problem of moving a series out of the region, specifically moving this weekend's NC State series, is equally problematic. It wouldn't be an issue at all if the conference hadn't allowed North Carolina to move its 2013 series at BC to Chapel Hill. This was largely a perception problem, the perception being that the ACC office will bend over backwards to help UNC but won't do the same for the rest of the conference. The fact that the ACC commissioner and baseball administrator are both former UNC student-athletes, and the chairman of the ACC Baseball Committee is UNC's senior associate director of athletics strongly reinforces this perception. The league denies this, of course, but perception is reality and actions speak louder than words. The ACC's action in this case was to allow North Carolina to fly Boston College to Chapel Hill to play what was supposed to be a home series for BC at UNC’s Boshamer Stadium, further reinforcing the perception.

One would like to think that the suits at the conference office would have anticipated the response to this from the rest of the conference — the other 10 coaches were all understandably upset — but one would be mistaken. UNC, on its way to a 39-2 start and a trip to the College World Series, was ranked No. 1 in the country and appeared to be possibly the best team in conference history. The last thing the rest of the league wanted to see was North Carolina getting an extra home series. Anyone could see that coming, right? Well, apparently not, because it happened anyway.

Thanks to the fallout from that regrettable decision, the conference instituted policies following the 2013 season regarding the possible movement of games, and to its credit the league made it much more difficult — nearly impossible, in fact — to move a series to the other team's home area. A lengthy checklist of options must be exhausted first, including finding suitable sites in the home team's region, and then possibly moving the series to a completely neutral site. This happened two weeks ago when Virginia was unable to host Pittsburgh in Charlottesville. That series was moved to USA Baseball's National Training Complex in Cary, N.C.

The folks at NC State very much wanted this weekend's series moved to Doak Field, and many took umbrage when Boston College coach Mike Gambino said no, which, make no mistake about it, was his right. This is his home series. Because the conference no longer allows the visiting team to pay the home team to move a series, Gambino would have to pay for the trip to Raleigh with funds that are not in his budget. A conservative estimate says that such a trip, booked on short notice, would cost about $30,000, maybe more. (When the UNC-BC series was moved from Chestnut Hill to Chapel Hill in 2013, North Carolina reportedly paid for BC's entire trip, from airfare and hotel rooms to team meals and ground transportation.) Even if NC State was allowed to pay BC's way to Raleigh, Gambino still would be perfectly within his rights to refuse to move the series. There’s no doubt the fact it was North Carolina that got to move its series from Chestnut Hill two years ago plays a huge part in NC State's frustration, but the folks from West Raleigh need to get over it, stop obsessing about UNC and get ready to play baseball this weekend.

This Wolfpack team has not exactly been a world-beater. Yes, it defeated Clemson two of three to start the conference season, but in hindsight that doesn’t appear to be much of an accomplishment. At 2-4 in the conference and 9-10 overall — their earlier series win over South Carolina notwithstanding — these Tigers look like the latest in what is becoming a lengthy succession of disappointing Clemson squads. NC State got swept last weekend at Miami. Okay, that can happen to anyone. The Hurricanes got their recruiting mojo back the last few years, they hit home runs, and, in particular, they can run a seemingly endless parade of quality arms to the mound. So the Wolfpack's 2-4 start to ACC play isn't exactly awful but it's a long way from great. Add on ugly non-conference losses to Albany (4-7 as of March 18) and UNC Greensboro (7-11) and you get an NC State team with a less-than-impressive case for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

All of which makes this weekend's series with BC utterly critical. The Wolfpack is not the kind of team that can flip its gloves on the field and win. Far from it. And despite BC's poor start, people around Chestnut Hill believe this year's Eagles could be the most talented Boston College team since 2012. For NC State, which desperately needs this series and cannot afford to lose it, to view BC as anything less than dangerous would be suicidal. This is, after all, largely the same Eagles team that won two of three games from the Wolfpack in Raleigh a year ago.

Maybe the weather will be so bad this weekend that the games won't be played and NC State will get a weekend vacation in Boston. Assuming the games are played, however, the Pack needs to be 100 percent focused on Boston College and not on what an unnecessary and unhappy inconvenience the trip is. Otherwise, the meaningful portion of NC State's season could be over by the end of the day on Sunday.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What Just Happened?

In the immortal words of Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Jack Buck, “I don’t believe what I just saw.” Buck made that historic call when Kirk Gibson came off the bench to belt a game-winning home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

After watching NC State throttle Clemson last weekend at Doak Field, we can all identify with Buck’s epic call. No matter your expectations of the Wolfpack-Tigers series, what actually transpired on the field almost certainly wasn’t it. And don’t think that the series was somehow close because Clemson won the first game of the weekend. Yes, it was two games to one, but that only disguises the magnitude of the Wolfpack’s beatdown of its former nemesis.

NC State outscored Clemson 26-15 for the series, but all six of the Tigers’ runs in their 6-4 series opener were giftwrapped, and their last four runs in the Wolfpack’s 14-6 blowout in the finale came with a lost freshman on the mound struggling to find himself in a mop-up role. The Tigers scored five runs in the top of the seventh inning of the opener on four walks, four wild pitches, a balk and just two hits. The last of those wild pitches was so wild that two runs scored. From that point until that four-run ninth inning on Sunday, the Pack outscored Clemson 26-5.

State outhit the Tigers .311 to .260 and did so with the kind of power not seen in these parts in many a year. The Pack hit four homers in the second game of the series, the first time in the BBCOR bat era (since 2010, in other words) that the Wolfpack hit four or more long balls in one game. If that seems like a long time, try this one on for size. NC State outhomered Clemson for the series 8-2. The last time the Wolfpack hit eight or more home runs in an Atlantic Coast Conference series was 12 years ago — April 12-13, 2003, when the Pack hit nine bombs in a three-game series at Wake Forest. Seniors Logan Ratledge and Jake Armstrong led the long-ball parade with two homers each, and Preston Palmeiro, Andrew Knizner, Ryne Willard and Jake Fincher hit one apiece.

Wolfpack pitchers played a role in the beatdown as well. The staff posted a 4.33 ERA for the series to 9.36 for Clemson. More to the point, NC State’s three starting pitchers — Cory Wilder, Brian Brown and Johnny Piedmonte — combined for a 2.51 ERA in 14 1/3 innings, holding Clemson batters to a .235 batting average and just five runs. Wilder and Piedmonte, in particular, were excellent, both pitching into the sixth inning and allowing just two earned runs and striking out 12 between them in 11 1/3 innings.

NC State now has won the regular-season series from Clemson four times in the last five years, the first time that’s ever happened. Prior to 2011, the Wolfpack had won back-to-back regular-season series from the Tigers just once, 1996-97. From 2000-10, Clemson won the regular-season series from NC State eight times in 11 years, including three years in a row from 2000-02 and 2008-10. Clemson holds the longest series winning streak between the two since the ACC went to three-game weekend series in 1987. The Tigers beat the Wolfpack four straight years from 1989-92, and six times in seven years from 1989-95.

CWS Seniors Providing Leadership: NC State has gotten contributions from numerous players in its 9-4 start, but the senior trio of Logan Ratledge, Jake Armstrong and Jake Fincher, all veterans of the 2013 College World Series team, have been especially productive, combining to bat .371 (43-for-116) with seven doubles, two triples, six home runs and 29 RBIs.

Ratledge is hitting .391 (18-for-46) with two doubles, a team-best three home runs, and 13 RBIs. Armstrong is hitting .333 (12-for-36) but seven of his 12 hits are for extra bases (4 doubles, 1 triple and 2 home runs), allowing him to drive in 12 runs. He enters play this week against Florida Atlantic and Miami on a five-game hitting streak and is hitting .500 (7-for-14) with three doubles, two homers and six RBIs during the streak. Fincher, who began the year hobbled with a groin pull, is hitting .382 (13-for-34). He begins play this week on a six-game hitting streak, tied for the team’s longest this season, and is hitting .500 (10-for-20) with six runs scored during the six-game streak.

Armstrong (.667) and Ratledge (.630) lead the team in slugging percentage, and Ratledge (.508) is second only to freshman leadoff hitter Brock Deatherage (.516) in on-base percentage, but has nearly twice as many plate appearances as Deatherage, 62-32.

Palmeiro For Most Improved Wolfpacker: There’s an old adage that college players often make their biggest improvement as sophomores, and that makes sense for a number of reasons. Wolfpack first baseman Preston Palmeiro was impressive as a freshman a year ago, but seems like a different player in 2015. Palmeiro grew up in big league clubhouses, so he knows the game and came to Raleigh as maybe the least-likely guy to let the game speed up on him. He played 39 games and made 24 starts a year ago, batting .284, driving in 14 runs, and playing flawless defense.

Fast forward a year and Palmeiro has gone from solid freshman to star-caliber sophomore. Palmeiro has added some oomph to that sweet lefthanded swing, boosting his batting average and moving him among the ACC’s RBI leaders. In addition to hitting .396 (19-for-48), he has three doubles and two homers, and ranks fifth in the conference with 20 RBIs. He drove in 14 all of last season.

Palmeiro enters play against Florida Atlantic and Miami riding a five-game hitting streak and is batting .389 (7-for-18) with two doubles, a triple and 10 RBIs during the streak.

Power Surge: As mentioned previously, NC State is hitting with more power than any Wolfpack team in recent memory. Through 13 games, the Pack has blasted 11 home runs, more than three of the last four NC State teams hit through 13 games, and more than six of the last 12. Since the NCAA adopted the BBCOR bats beginning with the 2011 season, the last four NC State teams hit six, six, 13 and seven home runs, respectively, in their first 13 games. The 2013 team hit 13 homers in its first 13 games, but then more or less forgot how to go deep, finishing the year with 29. Not that it mattered since that team wound up at the College World Series.

Comparisons using such a limited sample size are, of course, meaningless. The Wolfpack has 11 homers through 13 games, and that’s the only conclusion we can draw form the available data. The 2004 team and the 2008 team both hit nine homers through 13 games. The ’08 team finished with 66 homers. The ’04 team finished with 28. Go figure.

Deatherage Kick Starts The Offense: Freshman outfielder Brock Deatherage moved into the leadoff spot in the NC State batting order on Feb. 28 against UNC Greensboro in Savannah’s cavernous Grayson Stadium. In six games as the Wolfpack’s leadoff hitter since then he is hitting .458 (11-for-24) and has scored eight runs. In those same six games, NC State has batted .311 (61-for-196), winning five of the six in that span. More significantly, the top five spots in the lineup all have been ablaze with Deatherage igniting the offense, batting a collective .368 (43-for-117) with seven doubles, six home runs, 25 runs scored and 32 RBIs.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

NC State Opens ACC Play

Ever since he arrived at NC State in the fall of 1996, head coach Elliott Avent’s teams have generally played their best baseball at the end of the season, when it matters most. His best teams have almost all played their best late in the season. His best team, the 2013 College World Series team, started slowly but was almost unbeatable by season’s end.

This also means that Avent’s teams tend to start the conference season at less than their best, which brings us to the subject at hand. NC State hosts Clemson this weekend to start the conference season for both teams, and the fact is that opening weekends in particular have not been good to Avent and the Wolfpack.

Under Avent, NC State has won just seven of 18 season-opening conference series, the last of which was a year ago, when State swept Notre Dame at Doak Field before embarking on a 10-game ACC losing streak. Avent’s teams won their opening league series in 2000, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2008, 2012 and 2014.

Even more disturbing, regardless of who wins the opening series, history says NC State is likely to come out on the short end in the first game of that series. The Pack won its first conference game a year ago, the first time since 2011, and has won just six of 18 ACC opening games under Avent — 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2011 and 2014. The 1998 opening series at Florida State was reduced by rain to just one game, which the Wolfpack lost.

None of this is meant to bury Avent. As stated above, his teams tend to play their best when the games count the most, an underrated trait that should be commended. Digging an early-season hole is not always fatal, but losing the first series does put added pressure on ensuing weekends.

The Wolfpack has had to overcome early-season conference hiccups on numerous occasions. The 2005 team opened the year 3-6 in the league and rallied to a 17-13 conference finish. Three years later, the ’08 squad opened 4-5 after three series and finished 18-11. Avent’s first team, in 1997, opened the conference season at 4-5 before winning 13 ACC games in a row and finishing with a 15-7 ACC mark. The Wolfpack’s biggest turnaround came in 2013, when it opened conference play 3-6 before rallying to finish 19-10 en route to the College World Series.

On the other hand, a few of Avent’s teams did get off to hot starts in conference play, but with mixed results. The 1998 team was 5-2 after three weekends, with a pair of rainouts at Florida State, but went 7-7 the rest of the way to finish 12-9. The 2003 team, one of Avent’s greatest squads, jumped to a 7-2 ACC record after three series and finished 15-9, meaning they went 8-7 over their last five series.

The 2012 team, with freshmen Carlos Rodon, Trea Turner, Brett Austin, Logan Ratledge, Logan Jernigan, Jake Fincher et al surrounded by a tough, talented and seasoned group of upperclassmen, opened the conference season 6-3 and never looked back, finishing 19-11 and setting a school record for ACC wins.

So an early-season hole is not a death sentence and a hot start does not guarantee a great finish. Every conference series matters. Still, based on how well Avent’s teams tend to play in April and May, it makes you wonder what it might be like to get off to a hot start a little more often.

Head To Head Vs. The Tigers: If NC State baseball could answer the question, Who’s your daddy? the answer almost certainly would be Clemson. The Tigers hold a healthy 113-77-1 advantage in the series vs. the Wolfpack, with Death Valley being a most fitting and descriptive name for State’s semiannual and frequently nightmarish trips to Doug Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson.

The two teams are dead even the last five years, however, splitting 18 games dating back to 2010. More good news for the Pack, this year’s series is at Doak Field at Dail Park and not in Death Valley, although home-field advantage has been something of a rumor the last three years. NC State won two of three in Death Valley in 2012 and 2014, and Clemson won two of three at Doak Field at Dail Park two years ago.

The last time the home team won in this series was when State took two of three from the Tigers in 2011 at the Doak, meaning the Wolfpack has won three of the last four series. For the record, however, prior to 2011-12, the last time NC State won back-to-back regular-season series from Clemson was 1996 and ’97. The Pack won two of three at Clemson in ’96, then swept the Tigers in ’97 at Doak Field.

Palmeiro’s Hot Start: Sophomore first baseman Preston Palmeiro got his 2015 season started in style, collecting eight hits — including his first collegiate home run — and driving in nine runs in the season’s first three games. He had two hits and four RBIs in the season opener against Villanova, five hits and an RBI later that day against Davidson, and four RBIs on Feb. 21 vs. Albany at Myrtle Beach, S.C.

More Palmeiro — A Season In 10 Games: A year ago, Preston Palmeiro batted .274 (29-for-102) with four doubles, a triple and 14 RBIs in 39 games. Through the first 10 games of 2015, Palmeiro is hitting a loud .395 (15-for-38) and already has matched his RBI total for the entire 2014 season with 10. With two doubles, a triple and a home run, he now has just one fewer extra-base hit than he had in all of 2014, as many triples as 2014, and one more home run.

The Last Time: Speaking of Palmeiro’s nine-RBI/three-game start, the last time a Wolfpack hitter drove in that many runs in so short a span was Feb. 24, 2013, when Brett Williams drove in five runs in both games of a doubleheader bloodletting vs. Wagner, which NC State swept by scores of 18-0 and 25-4.

In the first game, Williams, batting in the second spot in the lineup, went 4-for-5 with two doubles and two home runs. Grant Clyde subbed for Williams in the eighth inning and belted a grand-slam home run, meaning the second spot in the Wolfpack batting order went 5-for-6 with three home runs and nine RBIs.

In the second game of the twin-bill, Trea Turner led off for State and went 3-for-5 with a home run and six RBIs. Williams batted second and was 3-for-4 with a homer and five RBIs. John Mangum pinch-hit for Williams in the eighth inning and hit a sacrifice fly, meaning the top two spots in the lineup were 6-for-9 with 12 RBIs.

Racking Up The K’s: NC State may have limped home with just one win in three games in the Baseball At The Beach Tournament the weekend of Feb. 21-22 at Myrtle Beach, S.C., but the Wolfpack pitching staff made an impression, recording 40 strikeouts in 25 innings over the three games. The highlight of the weekend was a combined 15-strikeout performance by freshmen Brian Brown and Tommy DeJuneas in a 3-1 victory over a very solid Florida International team. Brown and DeJuneas combined to allow a run on two hits in nine innings of work.

Prior to this year’s trip to Myrtle Beach, NC State pitchers had not totaled 40 or more strikeouts in a span of three games since April 2-5, 2013, when they fanned 41 in 32 innings against East Carolina, Elon and Virginia Tech, the last of those an 8-7 victory in 14 innings. The last time State pitchers struck out at least 40 in three consecutive regulation-length games was Feb. 24-26, 2012, also during Baseball At The Beach. That weekend, the Pack notched 10 strikeouts in an 8-5 win over George Mason, 16 in a 16-0 rout of West Virginia, and 17 in a 3-2 loss to Coastal Carolina, a total of 43 K’s in 26 innings. In that win over West Virginia, freshman Logan Jernigan struck out nine in five innings to get the W. The next day, fellow freshman Carlos Rodon struck out 10 in four typically dominant innings in the loss to Coastal, but did not figure in the decision.

Wolfpack pitchers have averaged at least one strikeout per inning pitched in every game so far in 2015 except for eight K’s in nine innings of a 1-0 loss to Charlotte on Feb. 27. NC State enters the Clemson series with 108 strikeouts in 88 innings, an average of 11.05 strikeouts per nine innings.

The Unfriendly Confines: The last time NC State played at Savannah’s Grayson Stadium, in 1996, the Wolfpack scored 37 runs in three games, wins over Mercer (18-0), Howard (12-4) and Armstrong State (7-4).

Whether it was different bats, better competition, stadium renovations or what-have-you, the old ballyard wasn’t nearly as hitter-friendly this time around. In splitting two games at Grayson the weekend of Feb. 27-28, the Wolfpack batted .177 (11-for-62) and scored four runs on 11 hits with a .250 on-base percentage and a .258 slugging percentage.

Tommy DeJuneas, Logan Ratledge, Chance Shepard and Jake Fincher managed two hits apiece during the two games. The rest of the team batted a piddling .079 (3-for-38) with one extra-base hit and one RBI.

In six games before the journey to Savannah, the Pack batted .305 (62-for-203) and averaged 7.2 runs per game. And yes, these are all tiny sample sizes, so deriving any kind of meaning from them is a fool’s errand.

At the same time, though, the Wolfpack wasn’t the only team that struggled offensively in Savannah. The three teams combined to score 10 runs in four games played, so maybe the pitching played a role in the offensive shortcomings. NC State’s pitching definitely sparkled in its two games, allowing just two earned runs on eight hits in 18 innings for a 1.00 ERA. Wolfpack hurlers walked five and struck out 18. Opposing hitters batted a meager .140 with a .234 on-base percentage and a .158 slugging percentage.

Freshman lefthander Brian Brown turned in his second impressive performance in as many appearances, allowing two runs, one earned, on three hits in six innings. He got the win in a 4-2 victory over UNC Greensboro. Cory Wilder was impressive in five innings of a 2-0 loss to Charlotte, allowing a run on five hits in five innings. Relievers Curt Britt and Jon Olczak combined to allow one hit and one walk while striking out 10 in seven innings of shutout ball.

Slaying The Pirates: NC State’s 7-0 victory over East Carolina on March 3 extended the Wolfpack’s recent dominance in the series with the Pirates. The shutout was the Pack’s fifth win in the last six meetings with ECU. Dating back to 2003, NC State is 18-8 vs. East Carolina.

Overcoming A Slow Start: Relief pitcher Curt Britt had a rocky first two games for the Wolfpack, allowing seven runs in four innings, although in fairness to Britt, four of the seven runs were unearned. He recovered nicely, tossing 5 1/3 shutout innings in his next two appearances, Feb. 27 vs. Charlotte and March 3 vs. East Carolina. Britt has allowed just one earned run in his last 7 1/3 innings.

Driving Them In: Freshman third baseman Joe Dunand has battled a period of adjustment to college pitching, but he has delivered on the scoreboard, driving in eight runs in 10 games, including three multiple-RBI games of two RBIs apiece. Dunand, tied with Preston Palmeiro for the team lead in multiple-RBI games, also owns the team’s longest hitting streak, which lasted six games.

Hitting In Bunches: Logan Ratledge had 14 hits through the Wolfpack’s first 10 games, and hit safely in seven of the 10, with six of the seven games in which he hit safely being multiple-hit games, two more than any of his Wolfpack teammates. Ratledge had two hits against Villanova and three hits against Davidson in a season-opening doubleheader Feb. 13, and then had two hits each against Coastal Carolina on Feb. 22, North Carolina A&T on Feb. 25, UNC Greensboro on Feb. 28 and East Carolina on March 3.

Shutting ’Em Down: After getting routed 12-3 on Feb. 22 at Coastal Carolina, NC State was 3-2 with a staff ERA of 5.02. In five games since then, through March 4 vs. Appalachian State, Wolfpack pitchers allowed eight runs, five of them earned, for a 1.00 ERA in 45 innings. Wolfpack hurlers allowed just 28 hits and walked 13 in that span while striking out 50, dropping the staff ERA for the season to 2.97 in 88 innings. When Appalachian State scored an unearned run in the third inning March 4, it snapped the Wolfpack staff’s scoreless-innings streak at 17.

Lineup Construction: Any well-designed lineup should be a little top-heavy, and through nine games the top four spots in NC State’s lineup were belting the cover off the ball. Batters hitting 1-2-3-4 for the Wolfpack combined were hitting .364 (56-for-154) with eight doubles, two triples, two home runs, 34 RBIs and seven steals in eight attempts. At the bottom of the lineup, meanwhile, the No. 9 hitters were batting .300 (10-for-33), so when the lineup rolled over from the bottom back to the top, the 9-1-2-3-4 hitters were batting a combined .353 (66-for-187).

Brown-Out: Freshman lefthander Brian Brown had a quiet fall and an equally quiet preseason, but once the games began, the rookie from Glenmore, Pa., wasted no time establishing himself as one of the team’s early pitching leaders. Brown went six innings in each of his first two starts, allowing a run on two hits Feb. 21 against a strong Florida International squad, and a run on three hits Feb. 28 vs. UNC Greensboro. He struck out nine FIU batters and four UNCG hitters. He walked one in each game. At 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA, Brown led the staff with two wins, 12 2/3 innings pitched and a .135 opponents’ batting average. He was second in ERA and was tied for second with 13 strikeouts.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Baseball In February: Who Thinks This Is A Good Idea?

Sitting here at the computer on March 1 and looking out the window at the snow and ice still covering the front yard, it’s no surprise the first two weeks of the 2015 college baseball season have been marred by an epidemic of changed venues and cancelled games.

Even moving games hundreds of miles to the south has not kept the weather from wreaking havoc. With the Notre Dame Invitational in Cary, N.C., cancelled the weekend of Feb. 27-March 1, NC State jumped on a bus and traveled to Savannah, Ga., 322 miles away, to play two games each against Charlotte and UNC Greensboro. It wasn’t far enough. The Wolfpack’s Sunday doubleheader was washed out by heavy rain along the Georgia coast, sending the three teams home early after playing just two games apiece.

Much noise has been made in recent years about moving the start of the college baseball season back to coincide with warmer weather. The carnage Mother Nature has caused the last two weeks has only intensified that talk. Several years ago, West Virginia coach Randy Mazey proposed moving the start of the season to late March or even early April. Under Mazey’s plan, the regular season would end in July, with the NCAA tournament and College World Series stretching into late July or early August. No doubt, many coaches agree with Mazey’s proposal, and the intent of that proposal is good. The proposal itself, however, is wrong. At least by a few weeks.

On each and every campus in this country, the baseball program is part of the department of athletics, which is part of the greater university. And the greater university is there for the student body, first and foremost. No one working on any college campus — especially those working in athletics — should ever lose sight of that. Moving the start of the baseball season back to late March or early April could mean playing up to two-thirds of the regular season after the school year has ended and the students have gone home for the summer. That is not acceptable.

Students lack the financial sway (and the accompanying sense of entitlement) of wealthy boosters, and they don’t attend baseball games in significant numbers the way they attend football and basketball games. Doesn’t matter. They’re still the single most important constituency group in any college team’s fan base, including the baseball team’s. Denying students, no matter how few of them actually show up, the opportunity to see a significant portion of a team’s home schedule is wrong.

So what to do instead? Well, just because we shouldn’t move the start of the season all the way back to April doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move it back at all. And there are several other changes to the calendar we can and should make while dealing with the start of the season.

Instead of late March or April, let’s move opening day to the second full weekend of March, meaning no sooner than March 8 and no later than March 14. This would enable most schools to play the bulk of the regular season before exams and the end of the spring semester. Yes, there still would be a number of games played after students have gone home, but not nearly as many as if the season started in April and only a handful more than we’re currently playing.

Coaches from cold-weather schools will complain that a mid-March start to the season does nothing to help them, and that’s true. Unfortunately, there’s no reasonable solution to that problem. Anyone who’s ever been to a series at Boston College —  even a series in mid-May — knows that the only way schools in that part of the world can play in warm weather is to move the start of the season to mid-June. That definitely will never happen. You can’t change geography. Northern schools have a big advantage in ice hockey. Southern schools have a big advantage in baseball. Nothing can change that. So deal with it.

Moving the start of the season back to mid-March gives us the opportunity to expand preseason practice to a full month, starting the second weekend in February. Fall and winter sports get at least four weeks of full-squad practices before their seasons begin. College football players report to campus the first week of August and practice for a month before the season kicks off. College basketball begins practice on Oct. 15, with the regular season cranking up about a week before Thanksgiving.

College baseball teams report to campus after Christmas break and go through about a week of conditioning, followed by two weeks of “skill work,” which is drills in groups of four or fewer players for up to eight hours per week and not more than two hours per day. That’s not practice. Full-squad practices begin about two weeks prior to the first game of the season, which is not enough time to prepare a team for anything, especially when the weather conditions those two weeks are often miserable. So move the college baseball season back a month and let teams have a full month to get ready for opening day. Just like every other sport on campus.

With the regular season moved back a month and four full weeks of preseason practices allowed, the next move should be to cut the length of the regular season to 50 games and 11 weeks. Most coaches will scream bloody murder at this one. Get over it, already. We’re talking about six games, not six weeks of games. Thanks to the weather, most of you will play closer to 50 than 56 games this season anyway, and many of you will be damned lucky to play 50. The postseason is what really matters, and shortening the regular season dovetails with a corresponding idea to improve the NCAA Tournament.

The regular-season schedule centers around three-game weekend series, both for non-conference and conference games. Coaches build their pitching staffs accordingly, centered around a three-man starting rotation. Then they get into the NCAA regionals and everything changes. The regionals are four-team, double-elimination tournaments. Go through a regional unbeaten and you’ll only need three starting pitchers. Fall into the losers bracket and you may need five starters in a span of four days. Clearly, the moral of the story is not to fall into the losers bracket at all, but the punishment for losing, especially early in the tournament, does not fit the crime.

The rest of the NCAA Tournament is pretty much like the regular season and fits a three-man rotation. The super regional, in fact, is a best-of-3 weekend series. The College World Series is two brackets of four teams each, double elimination, just like the regionals, but with one huge difference. Because of TV scheduling, teams in the CWS get a day off between games, sometimes two days off between games. Three starting pitchers is more than enough through bracket play, even if you lose early. The two bracket winners then advance to the CWS championship series, which is another best-of-3 series.

So the entire college baseball season is built around a three-man pitching rotation, except for the NCAA regionals, a rather glaring and important exception to the rule. This makes no sense at all. Let’s change the “Road To Omaha” and make it three consecutive weekends of three-game series. The first weekend will be 64 teams and 32 series. The winners of those 32 series will advance the following weekend to the second round, which will be 16 series. Those 16 winners will move on to the next round of eight best-of-3 series, with the final eight series winners advancing to the College World Series. This format was proposed several years ago and went nowhere. It only lasts one week longer than the current postseason format, hence the logic behind cutting the regular season by six games. It makes perfect sense, so of course the NCAA never seriously considered it.

The best thing about making these changes is that in future seasons these early-season blog posts will be about baseball games and not about bad weather. The fact that college baseball will stand to benefit from the changes, well, that’s just icing on the cake.