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.

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