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.

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