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.

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