Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Doubleheader Walk-Off Back Into Contention

In the three weeks leading up to its doubleheader sweep of 19th-ranked Virginia this past Sunday, NC State lost nine of 12 games, with seven of the nine losses by one or two runs. Five were one-run losses.

The Wolfpack played well enough to win most of those games, only to lose, often in agonizing fashion. Hit batters led directly to a pair of losses. A dropped fly ball in the outfield led to another. A pickoff killed a rally in a one-run loss. Botched bunt attempts thwarted potential rallies. So close, but so far away.

Virginia began the season ranked in the top 10 in all the major national polls, then won its first 10 games and 12 of its first 13 to rise to No. 1 before reality set in. After reaching the finals of the College World Series a year ago, the Cavaliers lost the heart of their offense and most of their bullpen to the draft and graduation. A rash of injuries further depleted the roster.

After the 12-1 start, UVa lost seven of nine, including a three-game sweep at Virginia Tech. The Cavs have lost series to perennial powers Florida State, Georgia Tech and Louisville, but also swept Notre Dame in South Bend the last weekend of March and rallied to defeat Coastal Division leader Miami two out of three the weekend before traveling to Raleigh.

So how good are the Cavaliers? Maybe not as good as anticipated early in the year, but much better recently and improving every week. Virginia’s inconsistency is mostly due to youth and inexperience, not a lack of talent. The Cavaliers have as many high-level recruits on the roster as anyone, and came to Raleigh having won five of their last six games and seven of their last 11. Before Sunday’s doubleheader they looked like a team finally making its move. The doubleheader sweep likely as not is a only temporary setback.

All of which makes NC State’s doubleheader sweep that much more satisfying and that much more significant. It took 12 games for the Wolfpack to fall out of bubble conversation for the NCAA Tournament. Friday’s loss in the series opener knocked the Pack down to No. 73 in the NCAA’s Ratings Performance Index, the far-too-important RPI. It took just two games — 19 innings, seven hours, and walk-off home runs by Bubby Riley and Joe Dunand — to put the Wolfpack right back in the discussion.

Sunday’s sweep, in fact, lifted the Pack 22 spots in the RPI, all the way to No. 51. That jump put NC State right back on the bubble, with three series — Longwood, at Wake Forest, and Louisville — and an RPI-boosting  conference tournament remaining. Yes, the Wolfpack needs to win more games to get where it wants to go, but big opportunities still await. Sunday’s doubleheader sweep should serve as a reminder to all who doubted — a big mea culpa here — that no team led by the likes of Logan Ratledge and Jake Fincher will ever just roll over and play dead.

The sweep did not come without its imperfections. The Wolfpack struggled with situational hitting, but let’s be fair. Good pitching has a lot to do with that. Virginia has a load of talent on its pitching staff. More to the point, the Wolfpack pitched well and played stellar defense both games, and pitching and defense always give a team a chance to win.

NC State pitching held the Cavaliers to four earned runs (a 1.89 ERA) and a .214 batting average in 19 innings Sunday. UVa was 5-for-41 with runners on base in the doubleheader, 5-for-26 with runners in scoring position and 2-for-19 with two outs.

Starting pitchers Cory Wilder and Johnny Piedmonte combined to limit Virginia to two runs on five hits in eight innings. The bullpen allowed just two earnies in 11 innings. Will Gilbert and Tommy DeJuneas both were terrific, combining to allow four hits and strike out 11 in seven tense, shutout innings, each recording a win in the twin-bill.

Defensively, NC State was superb. The Pack committed just two errors, one on a pickoff throw, the other on a low throw on a potential force play at second base. The NC State infield cut down four Virginia runners at home plate or in rundowns between third base and home, each a crucial, potentially game-saving out. Ratledge played shortstop in both games and dazzled, even covering second base twice when his keystone partners, both converted shortstops unaccustomed to the position, were late covering.

NC State still has some issues moving runners and manufacturing runs. Several of its pitchers still have problems finding the strike zone. In the doubleheader sweep of Virginia, however, the Wolfpack showed the mental toughness it takes to win in spite of those problems, and in the process won a pair of tight, low-scoring games it had to have, the kind of games that teams need to win to advance to, and survive in, the postseason.

Senior Leadership Deluxe: As his 19th season at NC State winds down, one thing can be said about Elliott Avent’s teams in Raleigh — they never lack for toughness. They seldom do things the easy way, but 13 NCAA Tournament appearances, four NCAA Super Regional appearances and a College World Series berth don’t just happen by accident. Avent’s teams are well-coached and play hard, and if they go down they go down swinging.

In an ideal world, Avent’s clubs would have great senior leadership every year, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, the guys you envision as next year’s senior leaders get drafted as juniors and sign, often when they shouldn’t. Still, Avent has had his share of great seniors, including about eight of them two years ago when the Pack went to Omaha. It’s hard to imagine a team having two better senior leaders than Logan Ratledge and Jake Fincher, though.

Many don’t even remember that Ratledge and Fincher were part of that great recruiting class that also produced first-round draft picks and future All-Americans Carlos Rodon, Trea Turner and Brett Austin. Those three were elite physical talents and got the lion’s share of headlines and attention for that class, which is understandable. Nonetheless, there are veteran baseball observers who will tell you that as great as those three were, that class would not have been the same without Ratledge and Fincher, who both came to Raleigh as high school All-Americans and two-time first-team all-state selections.

“Those two are like the glue that holds a class like that together,” an unnamed area scout for a National League team said before Sunday’s doubleheader with Virginia. “They don’t have the physical tools those other three guys have, but they’re good players and they bring leadership and a toughness that every good team has. They’ve both played hurt and still produced. They’re just winning players, gamers, and good teams always have guys like that.”

A year ago, Rodon, Turner and Austin served as NC State’s team captains, complete with the letter “C” on the upper left breast of their uniform jerseys. There was no need to name captains this year. From day one, everyone knew who the leaders of this team would be. Fincher and Ratledge lead with their words and their deeds. When they move, center stage moves with them. That’s why Avent calls them the heart and soul of the team. As much as anyone, they’re the reason this team has hung around the playoff picture despite a mountain of adversity in recent weeks.

Walk-Off Madness: Believe it or not, Sunday’s sweep of Virginia marked the first time in nearly two years that NC State won a game in walk-off fashion, since the first game of the 2013 NCAA Super Regional vs. Rice. That’s especially surprising since the Wolfpack used to walk opponents off the field regularly. The 2005 and 2010 teams each won six walk-off games. The 2003 squad won five walk-offs, and the 2006 and 2013 teams each won four.

If you’re going to break a lengthy walk-off drought, no better way to do so than in both ends of a doubleheader. The last time NC State won back-to-back games with walk-offs was in 2010 — Feb. 23 vs. Campbell and Feb. 26 vs. Cal-Irvine, but the UCI game was not at Doak Field at Dail Park. The Wolfpack played the Anteaters in a neutral-site game in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Fans might remember that one since Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson won it with a tape-measure three-run homer in the 10th inning, capping a five-run rally and lifting NC State to a 7-4 victory.

The only other time since the start of the 2003 season that NC State had back-to-back walk-off wins was in 2005, when it won three games via walk-off in a span of four games. The first was a 9-8 win over Clemson in the finale of a weekend series. The following Friday, North Carolina came to town for a three-game set and walked unhappily off the field following a 6-5 NC State victory, its second walk-off win in a row. UNC actually scored twice in the top of the ninth inning to tie that game at 5-5, but NC State won with a run in the bottom of the inning. The Pack then won the series finale 8-7 in 10 innings.

The Virginia doubleheader sweep gave NC State its 36th and 37th walk-off victories since 2003.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Regarding Logan Ratledge, One-Run Losses And More

Logan Ratledge enters this weekend’s key Atlantic Coast Conference series vs. Virginia riding a 21-game hitting streak, which is tied for the third longest hitting streak in NC State history, behind only Greg Briley’s 26-game streak in 1986 and Tom Sergio’s 25-gamer in 1995. Ryan Matthews in 2012 and Brian Wright in 1999 also had 21-game hitting streaks for NC State. That’s the rather exclusive neighborhood Ratledge is living in right now.

Ratledge has been blazing hot during his hitting streak, batting .437 (38-for-87) with 12 doubles, a triple, two home runs, 21 runs scored, 10 RBIs and four steals in five attempts. He had two or more hits in 12 of the 21 games, including three three-hit games and Tuesday night’s 4-for-5 performance at East Carolina. During the hitting streak, he has increased his batting average from .312 to its current .384.

The streak began with a 2-for-4 outing March 18 at UNC Greensboro, and aside from a 1-for-6 game in 14 innings last weekend at Notre Dame — the one hit came in the 12th inning — Ratledge has avoided any suspenseful late-inning at-bats with the hitting streak on the line. In 10 of the 21 games, he hit safely in the first inning. In 15 of the 21 he hit safely by the third. The 14-inning affair at Notre Dame was the only game during the streak in which Ratledge did not have a hit by the sixth inning. He has taken care of business early, which has allowed him to pile up the hits. Barring an unexpected extension of the season, however, Ratledge will only be able to pile the hits so high.

With just 13 games left on the 2015 schedule, time is running out for Ratledge and the Wolfpack. NC State has lost five games to bad weather, and while the coaches are no doubt looking everywhere to add games, it’s difficult this time of year. Teams looking to add games late in the season seldom look to add games they might lose. And the teams they do want to play (in other words, bad teams) have no incentive whatsoever to extend what for them is an already miserable season.

The only other chance for the Wolfpack to extend its season is to finish strong, make the field of 10 for the ACC Championship in late May and make some noise there, and then hope for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in June. Based on recent play, the former looks possible but not without a lot of work between now and then. The latter, while still attainable, looks like a distant long shot at best.

And that’s too bad because Ratledge is having a phenomenal season that deserves to live on past mid-May, even if NC State’s season does not. Assuming the Wolfpack only plays the 13 games currently remaining on the schedule, Ratledge is on pace to finish with 78 hits, 50 runs, 20 doubles, seven home runs, 30 walks and 11 stolen bases. That’s an excellent season, but those numbers will hardly make a ripple in the school record book, and nothing could be more misleading. Extend those numbers another 10 games or so and future NC State fans might be able to look back and realize just what a great 2015 season Logan Ratledge actually had.

One-Run Futility: The statheads of the world will tell you that a team’s record in one-run games is more or less meaningless, determined as much by luck and other random factors as by anything quantifiable. It is without question the height of ego and vanity that stat geeks write off anything and everything they can’t explain as a matter of random happenstance — “If we can’t explain it, then it doesn’t exist” is the common mantra — but in this case they seem to be on to something.

The fact of the matter is that a team’s record in one-run games often explains very little and is nearly impossible to explain. Sometimes a great team has a mediocre or even poor record in one-run games. There are bad teams, on the other hand, that seem to win way more than their share of one-run contests. In other words, a team’s record in one-run games doesn’t always reflect the team’s overall record. So what does it reflect?

In 18 seasons heading into 2015, Elliott Avent’s NC State teams sported a 139-98 record in one-run games, a .586 winning percentage and an average annual record of roughly 8-5. Only five of Avent’s previous 18 teams had losing records in one-run games, the worst being a 4-7 mark in 1999.

With two exceptions, Avent’s best teams all had terrific records in one-run games. The 2013 College World Series team, for instance, was an exemplary 14-4 in games decided by one run. The 2003 team, the school’s first NCAA Super Regional team, was 12-3. The 2005 team was 8-3 and the 2006 team was 11-6. The two outliers were 1997, Avent’s first NC State team, which finished 6-8 in one-run games, and the 2012 team, which went to the NCAA Super Regional in Gainesville but was 7-10 in one-run games.

Thirteen of Avent’s previous 18 squads played in the NCAA Tournament, so he’s only had five teams that qualified as mediocre, one of them outright bad. Those teams’ record in one games was a combined 33-30. The 2000 team finished 30-28 overall but had an 11-6 record in one-run games. The 2009 team, Avent’s only losing team, was 5-4 in one-run games. Go figure.

Clearly, it’s tough to make sense of it, and that goes double for this year’s squad, which, after Tuesday’s 6-5 loss at East Carolina, was a miserable 0-7 in one-run games. Five of the Pack’s last eight losses were by one run. The Wolfpack is 0-5 in ACC games decided by one run.

NC State is batting .275 with two outs for the season, but far too many of those two-out hits have come with the bases empty. The Wolfpack is hitting .255 with runners on base and two outs, .235 with runners in scoring position and two outs. NC State has had 124 leadoff hitters reach base in 338 innings. Only 69 of them scored, 55.6 percent.

The problem has only gotten worse in recent weeks. Following a season-best seven-game winning streak in late March, NC State has lost eight of its last 11 games, with five one-run losses. The Pack is hitting .243 in the 11 games, with only Logan Ratledge (.404) and Ryne Willard (.366) hitting better than .250.  State batters are hitting .217 with runners on base in the 11 games, .146 with runners in scoring position, .205 with two outs, and .000 (0-for-9) with the bases loaded. The pitching staff has a solid if slightly deceptive 3.18 ERA in the 11 games, with 56 walks and 15 hit batters in 99 innings. Opponents are batting .203 against the Pack in that span, with a WHIP of 1.28. So despite all the traffic on the basepaths, the pitching has been good enough to win most nights.

Explaining all this in terms of one-run games is a fool’s errand, but one thing cannot be overlooked: NC State’s season has been defined by one-run losses. Had the Wolfpack won four of those seven one-run defeats, its record would be 25-13 instead of 21-17, an enormous difference. Winning just two of those five one-run ACC losses would turn State’s conference record from 9-11 to 11-9. Take a gander at the conference standings and you’ll understand how important that could be.

In the BBCOR bat era, college baseball teams need to be able to manufacture runs and throw strikes. NC State does neither, but the recent inability to execute the little game has overtaken the pitching staff’s wildness as the team’s greatest shortcoming, turning a talented offensive team into a bad offensive team. As one knowledgeable observer in the press box noted Tuesday night in Greenville, East Carolina put on a clinic in all the little things NC State can’t do.

And that, as much as anything, probably explains NC State’s 0-7 record in one-run games.

Homers Are Up: Evidence nationwide indicates clearly that the new balls used in college baseball this season have had the desired effect of increasing offense, especially home runs. Scoring and home runs are up about 10 percent nationwide. At NC State, home runs clearly are on the rise.

After long balls by Preston Palmeiro and Shane Shepard on Tuesday at East Carolina, the Wolfpack had 30 homers in 38 games. A year ago, NC State hit 30 homers in 55 games. In 2013, the Pack hit just 29 homers despite playing 66 games and advancing to the College World Series.

From 2011-14, the first four seasons using the BBCOR bats, NC State hit 140 home runs in 246 games, an average of 0.57 per game. With 30 homers in 38 games this season, the Pack is averaging 0.79 homers per game, an increase of nearly 40 percent.

Traffic Control: The fact that NC State pitchers lead the universe in walks is hardly news. To their credit, though, Wolfpack pitchers have shown a remarkable penchant for pitching around all the runners on the basepaths, even as their walk rates have increased late in the season. In the last eight games, six of them losses, three of them one-run losses, Wolfpack pitchers have walked 51 in 71 innings, 6.5 walks per nine innings, but allowed just 31 runs and only 26 earned runs for a respectable ERA of 3.30.

For the year, State pitchers have walked five or more in a game 20 times in 38 games, including seven times in the last eight games; but have allowed six or fewer hits 18 times, including 11 times in the last 17 games.

Some Recent Pitching Trends: Despite a walk rate trending in the wrong direction, righthander and Friday night starter Cory Wilder has been downright unhittable most of the season, never more so that in the last month. In his last four starts, Wilder has allowed just five runs on seven hits while striking out 26 in 21 innings for a 1-1 record and a 2.14 ERA. Unfortunately, Wilder’s walk total — 17 in 21 innings the last four games — has forced him out of games much too early. Wilder has pitched into the seventh inning just once all season, an April 2 gem vs. Florida State, even though his raw stuff has allowed him to stay in games longer than one might expect, given all the full counts and walks.

Saturday starter Brian Brown, a freshman lefthander, has dealt with his share of deep counts, but he’s largely avoided the walk bugaboo that has plagued much of the staff. Brown has allowed just four runs, three earned, on 15 hits in 23 innings his last four starts, striking out 21 and walking just six. Brown has walked more than two in a game just once in nine appearances, and has 40 strikeouts and 15 walks in 45 1/3 innings.

Sophomore righthander Ryan Williamson stumbled in his last start, allowing four runs on three hits and four walks in 1 2/3 innings April 18 at Notre Dame, but his three previous outings, two of them in relief, were good. In those three appearances, he allowed just two earned runs on nine hits and four walks while striking out 17 in 12 1/3 innings for a 1.46 ERA.

Junior lefthander Travis Orwig, a bullpen staple much of the season for the 2013 CWS team, is back after missing 2014 because of Tommy John surgery. Orwig allowed three runs on two hits and two walks in one inning in his first appearance of the season, Feb. 22 at Coastal Carolina. In six appearances since then, he is 1-0 with a 0.71 ERA in 12 2/3 innings, striking out 10 and walking three.

Another bullpen mainstay, junior lefty Will Gilbert, had a two-run hiccup April 18 at Notre Dame, but otherwise has been excellent in relief. Minus the one game in South Bend, Gilbert has allowed two runs on eight hits in 19 innings (0.95 ERA) over his last 14 appearances. For the season he has allowed 14 hits and walked 10 in 26 1/3 innings, and has an 0-1 record, two saves and a 2.73 ERA.

Starters/Bullpen Breakdown: NC State’s bullpen continues to carry more than its share of the workload. Through 38 games, Wolfpack starting pitchers are 9-11 with a 3.66 ERA in 155 innings. The bullpen is 12-6 with a 2.79 ERA and seven saves in 187 innings, meaning the pen has pitched 54.7 percent of the Wolfpack’s innings this season. The excess workload shows. In the last 11 games, the relievers pitched 49 2/3 out of 99 innings, a much better ratio, but with a 3-5 record and a slightly inflated 3.26 ERA and two saves. We’re talking about a tiny sample size here, to be sure, but even the naked eye can see that the bullpen is showing signs of wear and tear as the innings pile up.

Dial Up A Six Pack: Six is the magic scoreboard number for NC State in 2015. The Wolfpack is 18-1 when it scores six or more runs this season, but 3-16 when it scores five or fewer.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Time To Make A Statement

As egregiously unfortunate as some of NC State’s recent marketing slogans have been — This Is Our State really stepped in it, don’t you think? — borrowing from the Wolfpack’s current play on words for the headline of this blog post couldn’t be more appropriate.

NC State is 19-12 overall, 7-7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. A .500 record in the ACC usually puts a team in the conversation for postseason play. Unfortunately, the Pack enters play this weekend 80th in the NCAA’s rating performance index (the all-important RPI) following Tuesday’s loss at Elon. Its strength of schedule was ranked 104th. Series losses to Miami (No. 2 in the RPI) and Florida State (No. 5) didn’t hurt the Wolfpack, but didn’t really help, either. The Pack has a quality victory over Florida Atlantic (No. 11), but what looked like an impressive early-season win over Florida International (now mired at No. 198) has proven to be of no value. Likewise for an early series win over Clemson (No. 90). Losses to the likes of Elon (No. 153), UNC Greensboro (No. 164), Charlotte (No. 172) and Albany (No. 232) have been outright RPI-killers. Just having N.C. A&T (No. 299) on the schedule hurts a team’s RPI, no matter how badly you beat them.

And so NC State finds itself with a lot of ground to make up and not a lot of time. With just 22 regular-season games and 15 ACC games left on the schedule and so much work still undone, it’s time for Wolfpack baseball to make a statement, to show a real sense of urgency before time runs out on its postseason chances. According to the Boyd’s World website, NC State needs to win 16 of its remaining 22 games in order to finish in the top 32 of the RPI. A 14-8 mark probably puts the Wolfpack somewhere between 40 and 45, which would be more on the bubble than comfortably in the field of 64. That’s a lot of business to take care of, starting this weekend in Chapel Hill when the Wolfpack takes on North Carolina (No. 20 RPI). Motivation is never a problem for either team in this rivalry, but for NC State this series takes on so much more importance because of the postseason implications on the line.

There is ample reason to believe NC State is good enough to play in the NCAA postseason and even be a dangerous postseason team, especially after winning eight of its last 11 games and playing good baseball in the process. The Wolfpack’s everyday lineup is strong, deep and balanced. While senior second baseman Logan Ratledge leads the team in just about every offensive category and is having an All-America-type season, it would be false to say he’s carried the offense. The Pack ranks fifth in the conference in runs per game (6.7), third in batting average (.299), fifth in on-base percentage (.380), second in slugging (.451), second in doubles (70), and tied for third in home runs (26).

Ratledge ranks third in the league in hitting at .380, one spot ahead of Palmeiro at .378. Jake Fincher is tied for sixth in the league in hitting at .375 and a surging Andrew Knizner is 14th at .348. Among those in the everyday lineup, only third baseman Joe Dunand and shortstop Joel McKeithan are hitting less than .270, yet Dunand has proven to be a clutch hitter, driving in runs in clusters. Hitting just .227 overall — .279 with a .581 slugging percentage and 16 RBIs in 11 games since March 21 at Boston College — Dunand ranks second on the club with 27 RBIs.

For the first 20 games of the season, NC State starting pitchers seemed to be in a private competition with one another to see who could walk the most hitters in the fewest innings. Since a 9-5 victory in 15 innings at Boston College on March 21, Wolfpack pitchers are 8-3 with a 2.60 ERA in 104 innings, striking out 111 and walking 47. That’s still too many walks, but the trend is clearly in the right direction.

Weekend starters Cory Wilder and Brian Brown have been especially effective the last few weeks. Wilder is 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA in two starts since March 21, walking six in 12 innings. That also is way too many walks, but he demonstrated vastly improved command in dominating both Pitt and Florida State, allowing three runs on four hits and striking out 18 in 12 innings. He allowed one run on three hits in seven innings against the Seminoles, walking three and fanning a career-high 10. Brown, meanwhile, has been pretty consistent all year, and in three starts since March 21, he is 1-1 with a 2.81 ERA. He also dominated the Panthers and Seminoles, allowing one run to each on nine combined hits in 12 innings. Against FSU he allowed five hits, walked one and struck out six in seven excellent innings, retiring 15 in a row at one point and 16 of the last 18 men he faced.

None of that will matter if the Wolfpack doesn’t start winning games, lots of games, and against quality opponents. There are plenty of RPI opportunities left on the schedule. In addition to the Tar Heels this weekend, NC State has ACC series left at Notre Dame (No. 33 in the RPI) and at home against Virginia (a disappointing No. 46) and Louisville (No. 12). Assuming the Wolfpack can play its way into the ACC Championship the week of May 19-24 in Durham — NC State is one of just five ACC teams with a conference winning percentage of .500 or better — it will get three guaranteed games in the tournament, almost certainly against teams that can boost the Pack’s case for playing on into June.

That’s then, however, and NC State needs to start winning now, and keep winning. Otherwise, the Wolfpack will have to win the conference tournament. Just playing in it won’t really matter.

• Leading Off And Playing Center Field: When freshman left fielder Brock Deatherage finally cooled off at the plate in late March and hit the wall in early April, NC State coach Elliott Avent decided that it might be in Deatherage’s best interest to sit a game or two, recharge mentally and reboot his offensive game. The problem, then, was who would hit leadoff in Deatherage’s absence.

Avent moved senior center fielder Jake Fincher to the top of the lineup for the Wolfpack’s April 4 series finale against Florida State while Deatherage sat, and Fincher had a huge game, jumpstarting the offense with a 4-for-5 performance, leading the Pack to an 11-7 win and tying his career highs for both hits and runs (3) in a game. Three nights later, Deatherage returned to the lineup for a non-conference game at Elon, but hitting ninth instead of first. Fincher returned to the leadoff spot and went 3-for-5 with a home run. The Wolfpack lost 7-5 but may have found a leadoff hitter.

Fincher has hit well the entire season. After beginning the year bothered by the lingering effects of a groin pull, he began to percolate at the dish with a 2-for-3 night March 3 against East Carolina and hasn’t stopped, batting .407 (33-for-81) with five doubles, three triples, three home runs, 26 runs scored and 13 RBIs in 23 games since then. In five career games batting leadoff, Fincher is a .400 hitter (10-for-25), although that is a tiny sample size. He has batted in all nine spots in the lineup in his career, but has played the most games batting second (55), ninth (44) and sixth (34). He has been most productive batting seventh, hitting .343 (23-for-67) in 17 games. For now, though, it appears he has found a permanent home at the top of the lineup.

• Sloppy Glove Work: NC State committed seven errors in its last two games, its worst two-game fielding performance of the season and the worst since a similar seven-error outbreak April 21 and 25 against Boston College and Charlotte. The last time NC State committed more than seven errors in a two-game span was April 21-23, 2010, in games against East Carolina and Boston College. The Pack made six errors in the game at ECU and then returned home to commit four more that Friday against BC. The seven errors this past week resulted in five unearned runs, but NC State managed to split the two games.

• Doubling Up: NC State has hit at least one double in each of its last 23 games, belting 59 two-baggers in that time, an average of 2.56 per game. The Wolfpack has doubled in every game but three this season. The last time NC State had a streak of at least 23 consecutive games with one or more doubles was prior to 2003 (records prior to 2003 are not readily available). As a team, the Wolfpack had 70 doubles through 31 games this season (2.26 per game), but was still well short of the record-setting pace of the 1991 team, which bashed 161 two-baggers in 61 games (2.64).

• Throwing Them Out: Andrew Knizner’s conversion to catcher remains ongoing. One aspect of catching that Knizner took to immediately, however, was shutting down the running game. Through games of April 7, opponents had attempted 25 steals against the Wolfpack, 19 with Knizner behind the plate. He had thrown out nine of the 19. During one stretch earlier in the season, Knizner threw out seven of eight basestealers. He cut down two of three in the Florida State series, more or less stopping the Seminoles in their tracks, and has thrown out four of nine in ACC play.

• 14 Games And Counting: Logan Ratledge extended his current hitting streak to 14 games with a fifth-inning double Tuesday night at Elon. Ratledge’s streak is a career longest for him and the longest by a Wolfpack hitter this season. During the 14-game streak he is batting .456 (26-for-57) with nine doubles, a triple, two home runs, 17 runs scored and eight RBIs. He had two or more hits in nine of the 14 games, including three games of three hits each. Ratledge’s current streak is the longest by an NC State batter since Brett Austin’s 14-game hitting streak a year ago.

• Wolfpack Bullpen Spells R-E-L-I-E-F: Despite a couple of recent hiccups, NC State’s bullpen remains one of the team’s enduring strengths. Through games of April 7, Wolfpack relievers were 10-3 with six saves and a 2.74 ERA. In 151 1/3 innings for the season, the pen had allowed 113 hits, walked 72 and struck out 170 while holding opposing hitters to a .207 average. Relievers had inherited 87 baserunners and stranded 61 of them, 70.1 percent. Six NC State relievers had recorded wins and four had saves. Seven State relievers boasted an ERA of less than 2.80.

• A Quality Mound Visit: First-year NC State pitching coach Scott Foxhall had one of the most productive mound visits ever April 3 during the second game of the Florida State series. With the Wolfpack trailing 1-0, Florida State appeared to have freshman lefthander Brian Brown on the ropes with the bases loaded and one out. The visit from Foxhall did the trick, however. Brown struck out Danny De La Calle and Taylor Walls to end the threat, and went on to retire 15 Seminole hitters in a row, and 16 of the last 18 men he faced before handing the ball to righthander Curt Britt in the top of the seventh inning to finish up. Alas, Foxhall’s visit didn’t help the hitters. Florida State held on to win 1-0.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Wolfpack Finding Its Hitting Mojo

There’s nothing like facing a truly vexing pitching staff to send a team into a slump that goes up and down the entire lineup. That’s exactly what Miami did to NC State the weekend of March 13-15, sweeping the Wolfpack by a combined three-game score of 18-4 and sending the Pack reeling offensively.

How badly did the Hurricanes dominate that series? NC State, a good offensive team, came into that series hitting .299 as a club and batted .186 (19-for-102) for the series, managing just five extra-base hits, all doubles, drawing just six walks, and compiling a .252 on-base percentage and a .235 slugging percentage. Preston Palmeiro went 4-for-11 and Jake Fincher went 3-for-10, but got no help. No one else in the everyday lineup batted better than .200. RBI leaders? Joe Dunand, Chance Shepard and Andrew Knizner, with one apiece.

Those are all losing numbers, of course, and that paltry offensive output continued for another full week after the Wolfpack left South Florida. In its next three games following the Miami series — home-and-home games with UNC Greensboro and the first of what became a two-game series at Boston College — NC State scored 12 runs and batted a puny .239 (22-for-92) with four doubles, a triple and a home run. The Pack finally began to awaken offensively in extra innings during the second game against BC, winning 9-4 in 15 innings and amassing 14 hits.

That 15-inning game against the Eagles was the first of seven consecutive wins for NC State, a streak that is still ongoing as Florida State comes to town for a big three-game ACC series this weekend. The opposition during the seven-game winning streak — Elon, North Carolina A&T, Pitt and Charlotte — doesn’t figure to challenge for berth in Omaha come June, but victories are victories and NC State has used the seven-game winning streak to get its offense back on the beam.

During the winning streak, the Wolfpack is batting a robust .355 (102-for-287) with 79 runs scored (11.3 runs per game), 31 doubles, three triples, seven home runs — 5.9 extra-base hits per game — a .428 on-base percentage, and an eye-opening .557 slugging percentage.

The offensive heroes during the streak have been numerous. Freshman third baseman Joe Dunand has swung the most lethal bat, hitting .310 (9-for-29) with three doubles, three home runs and 15 RBIs. His on-base percentage during the winning streak is .400. His slugging percentage is .724. Dunand has been sneezing RBIs lately, with games of two, three, four and five RBIs in his last six games.

Logan Ratledge is hitting .452 with a .533 OBP and an .806 slugging percentage with eight doubles, 10 runs and six RBIs during the streak. Knizner is hitting .531/.583/.719 with three doubles, a homer, 10 runs and nine RBIs. Preston Palmeiro is at .515/.541/.606 with three doubles, nine runs and seven RBIs. Jake Fincher is hitting .367/.429/.600 with three doubles, two triples, 13 runs and six RBIs. Ryne Willard is hitting .313/.353/.438.

With contributions such as that up and down the lineup, NC State has seen its team batting average rise from .273 to .298 during the streak, one point below where it was when the Miami slump began.

Key To The FSU Series — Can The Wolfpack Throw Strikes? A quick perusal of the stats reveals the obvious problem facing NC State’s pitching staff this weekend against Florida State. Wolfpack pitchers have walked 125 in 243 innings, an average of 4.6 per nine innings. In ACC play, State pitchers have walked 61 in 102 innings, which computes to 5.4 walks per nine innings. Not good.

Florida State hitters, on the other hand, have drawn a nation-leading 221 walks in 250 2/3 opponents innings, an average of 7.9 walks per nine innings. The Seminoles drew 34 walks in 27 innings during a three-game series at Virginia — that’s 11.3 walks per nine innings, boys and girls! — and the Cavaliers have one of the nation’s most talented pitching staffs. Remove those three games and Virginia pitchers have walked 78 in 222 1/3 innings, 3.2 walks per nine.

FSU hitters are notorious for taking and fouling off pitches, running deep counts, and putting spectators, game officials, ushers and ticket takers to sleep waiting for some action. But the Seminoles’ strategy works, and works big. They not only draw tons of walks, but they constantly find themselves in great hitters counts, and frequently send the opposing starting pitcher to an early shower. This last part is not necessarily a bad thing for NC State since the bullpen has been such a team strength, but at some point the Wolfpack’s starting pitchers are going to have to challenge hitters, throw strikes, and eat up some innings. That could be critical this weekend.

About That Pitching Staff: While the offense has been on a rampage the last seven games, the Wolfpack pitching staff has contributed as well. NC State pitchers have a 2.22 ERA during the streak, led by the bullpen, of course, which is 4-0 with a 1.27 ERA in that time. Relievers Joe O’Donnell, Will Gilbert and Tommy DeJuneas have allowed one run between them in 27 innings during the winning streak, striking out 26 and walking 12. The staff ERA has fallen from 3.57 to 3.19.

Unfortunately, walks still have been a problem. NC State pitchers have walked 34 in 69 innings, 4.4 per nine innings, during the seven games. The biggest difference during the winning streak is that the offense has scored in double figures most nights, allowing the pitchers to work around all the traffic on the basepaths.

Break It Down: For the season, NC State starters are 9-8 with a 3.19 ERA in 243 innings, holding opposing hitters to a .218 average. The bullpen is 9-1 with a 2.62 ERA and five saves in 137 1/3 innings, holding opponents to a .204 average.

Freshman righthander Tommy DeJuneas appears to have emerged as the team’s closer. He is 1-1 with a 0.84 ERA and three saves in 21 1/3 innings. DeJuneas, Joe O’Donnell, Will Gilbert, Jon Olczak and Curt Britt have been the core of the pen, between them compiling a 7-1 record, four saves and a 2.19 ERA. DeJuneas, O’Donnell, Gilbert and Britt have combined to inherit 40 baserunners, stranding 37 of them.

Some Offensive Numbers: How hot are NC State’s hitters? For most of the everyday lineup, very hot. Consider some of the following numbers:

Brock Deatherage
 Last 5 games — hitting .318 (7-for-22) with seven runs and two RBIs

Logan Ratledge
• Last 5 games — .455 (10-for-22) with four doubles, one homer, six runs, three walks and four RBIs
 Last 10 games — .475 (19-for-40) with eight doubles, one triple, one homer, 13 runs, six RBIs, nine walks and three steals
 Ratledge is on a 10-game hitting streak, tied for the longest by a Wolfpack hitter this season, with seven multiple-hit games in the streak

Preston Palmeiro
 Last 5 games — .478 (11-for-23) with three doubles, seven runs, six RBIs
 Last 7 games — .515 (17-for-33) with three doubles, nine runs and seven RBIs
 Palmeiro is on a seven-game hitting streak with six multiple-hit games

Jake Armstrong
 Last 5 games — .304 (7-for-23) with three doubles, seven runs and six RBIs
 Last 10 games — .256 (11-for-43) with four doubles, a homer, 10 runs and eight RBIs

Andrew Knizner
 Last 5 games — hitting .652 (15-for-23) with three doubles, a homer, two walks, eight runs and seven RBIs
 Last 7 games — .531 (17-for-32) with three doubles, one homer, four walks, 10 runs and nine RBIs
 Last 15 games — .393 (24-for-61) with five doubles, two homers, 14 runs and 15 RBIs
 Knizner is on a seven-game hitting streak with multiple hits in each of the last five games and two RBIs in three of the last four games

Jake Fincher
 Last 6 games — .435 (10-for-23) with two doubles, two triples, 11 runs and six RBIs
 Last 10 games — .350 (14-for-40) with three doubles, two triples, five walks, 15 runs, eight RBIs

Ryne Willard
 Last 6 games — .316 (6-for-19) with two doubles, five runs and seven RBIs

Joe Dunand
 Last 4 games — .357 (5-for-14) with two doubles, two home runs, three walks, four runs and nine RBIs
 Last 7 games — .310 (9-for-29) with three doubles, three home runs, four walks, eight runs and 15 RBIs
 Last 12 games — .277 (13-for-47) with four doubles, four home runs, six walks, 10 runs and 18 RBIs
 Dunand has driven in multiple runs in four of his last six games, with games of two, three, four and five RBIs

Joel McKeithan
 Last 6 games — .300 (6-for-20) with one double, one triple, one home run, four runs scored and seven RBIs
 Last 10 games — .219 (7-for-32) with one double, one triple, one home run, seven walks, five runs and 10 RBIs

Tripling His Pleasure: Jake Fincher’s fifth-inning triple Tuesday night vs. Charlotte was his third of 2015, tops on the team, and the 12th of his career. That ties him with Craig Lee (1997-2000) for sixth in school history for career three-baggers. 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.

Double-Figure Hits: With 15 hits on Tuesday at Charlotte, NC State extended its streak of games with 10 or more hits to seven, longest such streak by the Pack since the 2010 team twice strung together eight games with at least 10 hits.