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.