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.

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