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.

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