Sunday, February 21, 2016

NC State Baseball Is Back, Get Ready For A Wild Ride

Buckle your seat belts, boys and girls. The 2016 college baseball season is underway and judging by the first weekend, those of us following NC State could be in for a wild ride.

Forgetting both the entire weekend’s pitching performance and Friday’s season-opening coma vs. Old Dominion for a moment, what the Wolfpack did offensively Saturday and Sunday against quality opponents was an eye-opener.

In games at 23rd-ranked Coastal Carolina on Saturday and against a tough Kent State team on a neutral field on Sunday, NC State came from behind to take a lead four times, batting .321 (25-for-78) and belting five doubles and seven home runs in the process. The Wolfpack showed resilience combined with some scary offensive firepower in both games.

The Pack fell behind the Chanticleers 3-1, 4-2 and 5-3 right out of the chute Saturday, scored three runs in the fifth to take a 6-5 lead, fell behind 7-6 after six innings, then scored one in the seventh to tie it and four in the eighth to blow it open. When NC State scored two more in the top of the ninth to take a 13-7 lead, those runs looked to be entirely superfluous. They weren’t, but the Pack held on to win 13-10 after a harrowing bottom of the ninth.

On Sunday, NC State’s Joe O’Donnell and Kent State’s Andy Ravel traded zeroes into the fifth inning before the Golden Flashes got to O’Donnell for a pair of runs in the bottom of the fifth. The Wolfpack answered suddenly with four in the top of the sixth on home runs by Brock Deatherage and Andrew Knizner. The pitching staff promptly gave the lead back in the bottom of the sixth on a three-run homer by Zarley Zalewski — yes, THE Zarley Zalewski, aka Z Squared — only to have the offense take the lead for good with three in the top of the seventh.

In the two games vs. Coastal and Kent State, NC State batted .321 overall (25-for-78), .343 (12-for-35) with runners on base, .458 (11-for-24) with runners in scoring position, and .571 (4-for-7) with a runner on third and less than two out. Preston Palmeiro, who had a monster weekend, was 6-for-10 with two doubles, a homer and five RBIs in the two games. Joe Dunand was 4-for-10 with a double, a homer and three RBIs. Andrew Knizner was 3-for-9 with two homers and four RBIs. Josh McLain was 4-for-10 with his first collegiate homer, five runs scored and three batted in. Brock Deatherage was 3-for-6 with a homer and four runs scored.

This was not a case of fluffing up the stat sheet at the expense of weak sisters like Quinnipiac or La Salle. Coastal Carolina, a legitimate Top 25 team, is heavily favored to win the Big South Conference. Kent State is similarly favored to win the Mid-American. The rallies against the Chanticleers came against Alex Cunningham and Bobby Holmes, two of the best pitchers in the Big South. The Pack roughed them up to the tune of 11 runs on 11 hits in seven innings. That’s impressive. The uprising against Kent State came at the expense of Ravel (no, not the composer, Bolero) and Zach Willeman. NC State pounded those two for seven runs on 10 hits in 7 2/3 combined innings. Ravel was Kent’s Sunday starter a year ago, with a 6-2 record and a 3.13 ERA. Willeman was their closer, saving seven games with a 2.81 ERA. Again, that’s some impressive bat work against good pitching.

All was not fun and games for the Wolfpack, however. First, there was the season-opening train wreck against Old Dominion on Friday. Forgetting for the moment that ODU is highly regarded in Conference USA and threw preseason All-CUSA starter Sam Sinnen on the mound, NC State’s performance was ghastly. The everyday lineup managed three hits and committed four errors. Seven Wolfpack pitchers combined to walk seven, hit two batters and throw three wild pitches. It’s a miracle ODU only won 5-0.

Exactly what caused this shutdown of the team’s collective frontal lobes? It would seem that more than a few Wolfpack players felt they could beat ODU just by tossing their gloves on the field. Whatever the problem was, it was gone by Saturday, at least among the position players, and did not reappear. The rest of the weekend, NC State looked like NC State, at least offensively — fighting and scratching and clawing like banshees for every pitch, every out, every run.

The offense may have returned to normal following Friday’s disaster, but the pitching was no better, at least not on Saturday. Five NC State pitchers combined to allow Coastal Carolina 10 runs on 14 hits, six walks and a hit batter. In those first two games of the weekend, the Wolfpack allowed 15 runs, 13 of them earned, on 21 hits, 13 walks, three hit batters and four wild pitches. Ouch! Only Will Gilbert looked as advertised, pitching 2 1/3 scoreless innings.

The pitching was better on Sunday — not great but better, although that’s a low bar to clear — with O’Donnell and Evan Brabrand combining to allow three runs on four hits in 8 1/3 innings.

For the weekend, the Wolfpack pitching staff was 2-1 but with a 5.67 ERA on 26 hits, 16 walks, four hit batters and five wild pitches in 27 innings. State pitchers surrendered five doubles and five home runs in the three games. ODU, Coastal Carolina and Kent State combined for a .371 on-base percentage and a .447 slugging percentage against the Pack.

These are the growing pains you go through when you invest so heavily in raw power arms — walks, hit batters, wild pitches, blown leads. The pitching will no doubt get better, but just how much better remains to be seen. Developing pitchers when the games count against the head coach’s won-lost record and the head coach works for a demanding AD who expects to win, well, that’s a tough sell.

Pitching coach Scott Foxhall is really good and managed to fashion a 2.93 ERA a year ago out of a staff afflicted with many of the same command issues. If he can work similar magic this year and give this offense a chance to do its thing without feeling the imperative to score in double figures every game, then this could be a wild, fun ride, with some tight hair-pin turns on two wheels, an occasional spinout on the far turn, and some wide-open, high-speed dashes down the straightaways.

But you’d better buckle that seat belt.