Thursday, March 24, 2016

Shepard Assumes Leadership Role

Comparing NC State’s 2015 and 2016 rosters, the only significant difference is the absence of Logan Ratledge and Jake Fincher. Others are gone from a year ago as well, but none were nearly as important to the team’s success. Everyday starters since they were freshmen and members of the Wolfpack’s heralded freshman class of 2011-12, Ratledge and Fincher were the 2015 team’s unquestioned leaders.

With a strong core nucleus returning from a year ago, NC State entered 2016 under the microscope, ranked in the Top 10 in one national poll and in the Top 25 of every poll but one. Most of the key hitters and pitchers from 2015 returned. The leadership of Ratledge and Fincher was gone, however, and replacing their dugout and clubhouse presence was the biggest question facing Elliott Avent’s club entering the season.

Lo and behold, senior catcher/DH Chance Shepard has stepped into the leadership void thus far in 2016. Fellow catcher Andrew Knizner and first baseman Preston Palmeiro, both juniors, certainly qualify as leaders for this team based on past and present production, and the emergence of a strong sophomore class — outfielders Josh McLain and Brock Deatherage, and infielders Stephen Pitarra, Evan Mendoza and Joe Dunand — has been a huge plus. But no one leads like a senior, and Shepard’s presence in the middle of the NC State lineup has given him stature he’s never enjoyed in the past.

Everyone knows Shepard set a school record with home runs in six consecutive games in late February and early March. A .297 hitter, he leads the team with seven homers and 24 RBIs. Like many power hitters, much of Shepard’s prodigious power comes from punishing mistakes. Throw a fastball down the middle or hang a breaking ball and Shepard will launch it. Execute a good pitch on the corners or bury that slider in the dirt, however, and you can negate much of Shepard’s upper-deck threat. And as the season has gone on, the Wolfpack has faced better pitchers armed with a good scouting report telling them to avoid Shepard’s power.

To Shepard’s everlasting credit, he has adjusted. While still no doubt looking for balls to crush, he’s taken to hitting the ball where it’s pitched, driving the ball the other way, up the middle and to the power alleys. The homers may not be there, but he’s taking his singles and doubles instead, drawing walks, scoring and driving in runs. His last home run came on March 6 vs. Bucknell. Atlantic Coast Conference play started that weekend, and Shepard is hitting .333 with with a .407 slugging percentage and a .379 on-base percentage in two ACC series. His production is down from earlier in the year because he’s been pitched so carefully, but he’s been productive nonetheless, tied for second on the team with nine hits and five RBIs in six conference games.

More to the point, Shepard has, according to his coaches, begun to assert himself when necessary, taking ownership of the Wolfpack dugout and locker room. The most recent example came in the third inning of the series finale and rubber game against Notre Dame last weekend. With the Wolfpack trailing 5-0 and the season at a potential turning point, it was Shepard who rallied his teammates verbally in the dugout and then rolled a key two-out RBI single through the left side of the infield. That helped to ignite a five-run rally as NC State outscored the Irish 16-1 the final seven innings to win the game and series.

No one leads like a senior, and as the lone senior of note among NC State position players, Shepard’s leadership is a most welcome development.

• The Last Frontier: With NC State’s recent success at Clemson and at Georgia Tech, the only real death march remaining on the Wolfpack’s schedule is Tallahassee and Florida State. And don’t think for a second that FSU hasn’t rolled out the red carpet to welcome the Pack to town this weekend.

NC State is 19-46 vs. the Seminoles in Elliott Avent’s 19 years as head coach, and if you think that’s bad, ABCA Hall-of-Fame coach and two-time national champion Ray Tanner was 5-15 against Florida State in his eight years as Wolfpack head coach. Florida State just flat-out owns NC State in baseball, which puts the Pack in good company. FSU is one of college baseball’s headliner programs. With 21 trips to the College World Series under head coach Mike Martin, the Seminoles own a lot of good teams.

Avent’s clubs have struggled with the Seminoles across the board, going 11-19 in Raleigh, 6-19 in Tallahassee, and 2-8 in the ACC Tournament. FSU has swept the Pack under Avent four times, twice in Raleigh and twice in Tallahassee, including two years ago (as a note of reference, FSU swept Tanner’s last three Wolfpack teams). NC State has never won a three-game series in Tallahassee despite winning five series-opening games there, and has lost 11 of its last 14 games at Dick Howser Stadium.

The Wolfpack has beaten the Seminoles in an ACC series just three times, in 1997, 2003 and 2005. The 1997 and 2005 series were at Doak Field. The 2003 series was at Kinston’s Grainger Stadium while the Doak was being renovated.

• A Starting Rotation Begins To Emerge: The last time NC State had a set weekend rotation for an entire season was 2010, when Jake Buchanan, Cory Mazzoni and Alex Sogard accounted for 28 of the Wolfpack’s 30 conference starts, but even then, while Buchanan and Mazzoni routinely pitched into the seventh and eighth innings every weekend, Sogard averaged fewer than four innings per ACC start.

Finding two reliable starters has been a struggle for the Wolfpack many years. Carlos Rodon was the lone constant in an ever-changing weekend cast from 2012-14. A year ago, Brian Brown, Johnny Piedmonte and Cory Wilder started 26 of the Pack’s 30 ACC games, but all three averaged fewer than five innings per ACC start. That’s a bit unfair to Brown, a freshman in 2015 who got stronger as the year went on and was among the very best pitchers in the league by season’s end.

NC State began 2016 with Joe O’Donnell, Brown and Piedmonte pencilled in as the weekend starters, but Piedmonte continued to struggle in his recovery from back surgery of nearly two years ago. He pitched a dynamite game against a vastly improved Boston College the opening weekend of the conference season, then failed to get out of the third inning a week later against Notre Dame. Ryan Williamson, having a strong season, came to the rescue with five strong innings against the Irish and appears set to move from midweek starter into the ACC rotation this weekend at Florida State.

O’Donnell and Brown pitched well in their first two ACC starts, and in the last two-plus weeks — an admittedly small sample size — O’Donnell, Brown and Williamson have combined to post a 5-1 record with a 2.11 ERA. They’ve allowed 36 hits, walked 18 and struck out 52 in 42 2/3 innings. Assuming Williamson (3-0, 1.76 in that time) is in the rotation for the Florida State series, it will be his first career ACC start.

• Brown’s Eye-Opening Strikeout Numbers: In 12 innings of three early-season non-conference starts, Brian Brown struck out 11 with four walks. In his two ACC starts, vs. Boston College and Notre Dame at home, Brown pitched 12 1/3 innings and struck out a whopping 22 with just three walks. In 5 2/3 innings against the Irish, Brown fanned 13, the most by an NC State pitcher since Carlos Rodon struck out 15 Georgia Tech batters on April 25, 2014, and Rodon pitched a complete game that afternoon.

• McLain Rolls Into Tallahassee On A Roll: Not only is Josh McLain riding a team-best 11-game hitting streak as NC State enters play at Florida State this weekend, he is on fire during the streak, hitting .486 (17-for-35) with two doubles, a triple, a home run, nine runs scored and seven runs batted in. He has a pair of two-hit games and a pair of three-hit games during the streak, which nearly coincides with head coach Elliott Avent dropping McLain from the leadoff spot in the order to the nine hole. That actually took place for the start of the Boston College series, two games into the current hitting streak. McLain is 14-for-27 since dropping from the top of the order to the bottom.

• In Need Of Some Offense: While NC State has a veteran everyday lineup, the Wolfpack is far from an offensive juggernaut thus far in 2016, averaging 5.9 runs per game and having been shut out three times in just 23 games. Last year’s team was shut out just four times all season, and from 2010 through 2013, NC State was shut out just six times in 253 games.

• Power Outage: NC State has hit 23 home runs in 2016, an average of exactly one homer per game, but the Wolfpack hit seven of those at Myrtle Beach the first weekend of the season. The Pack has hit 16 homers in 20 games since then, and just six in the last 10 games.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Slow Starts And Fast Finishes

To those of you thinking of crawling out on the ledge following NC State’s series loss to Boston College this past weekend, hold that thought.

With all due respect to BC’s pitching, which was outstanding, there is little doubt that at 14-5 overall but 2-3 the past week, the Wolfpack is underperforming right now. Be honest with yourself, though. The lofty preseason ranking and expectations notwithstanding, did you really think this season would be free of slumps and hiccups? Really? Didn't we warn you after the opening weekend to buckle your seat belts? Besides, this is NC State we’re talking about, that school between Western Boulevard and Hillsborough Street, the one where nothing is ever easy, and where the path taken is almost always the most difficult one available.

The Wolfpack is definitely in a slump — a .251 team batting average the last five games, .226 with runners on base, .185 with runners in scoring position, one home run, and 18 runs scored (3.6 per game). The team went 1-for-27 with runners in scoring position in the Boston College series. Only two regulars are hitting better than .300 during the five-game skid. Three are hitting .200 or worse. Poor, uncompetitive at-bats are all too frequently resulting in weak grounders, lazy fly balls and strikeouts. And uncompetitive ABs have been the order of the day ever since that 2-1 victory over Alabama back on March 5.

The pitching numbers the last five games look a little better but don’t really hold up to scrutiny either. A 3.80 staff ERA is decent enough, but that includes 21 walks, nine hit batters and six wild pitches in 45 innings. That, combined with 46 hits allowed, computes to 1.7 baserunners allowed per inning, way too many. Relievers, in particular, despite a 2.89 ERA during the five games, have allowed 36 baserunners (22 hits, 10 walks, 4 HBP) in 18 2/3 innings. Chris Williams, Will Gilbert, Tommy DeJuneas, Sean Adler and Travis Orwig combined to inherit 12 baserunners and strand them all. The rest of the pen allowed six of 11 inherited runners to score. That can’t continue.

Not to give a complete pass to the starters, although they appear to be well ahead of where they were a year ago at this time. NC State’s starting pitchers are 2-3 with a 4.44 ERA the past five games, with 24 hits allowed, 11 walks and five HBPs in 26 1/3 innings. That comes to 1.52 baserunners per inning, still too many. Hitters counts — 2-0, 2-1, 3-1 — are far too commonplace. So at the risk of embellishing a reputation as something of a scold on the subject of pitchers throwing strikes, let’s just say that it wouldn’t hurt the Wolfpack to throw a few more strikes, to pitch ahead in the count a little more often, and to consider the notion that maybe strike one at 88 mph is a better pitch than ball four at 98. ‘Nuff said.

Despite the recent slump, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that this team won’t turn things around. Now in his 20th season as head coach, Elliott Avent has an established track record of following slow starts, both overall and in conference play, with strong finishes. And that’s the way it should be.

In 1997, Avent’s first team lost its first three games and was 18-11 overall, 2-5 in the ACC, before catching fire in April and May with a 14-game winning streak and a 13-game ACC winning streak. That club finished 43-20, 15-7 in the conference, before finishing third in the six-team NCAA Tuscaloosa Regional.

Avent’s 1999 team lost five of its first six ACC games but rallied to finish 11-13 in the conference, 37-25 overall, earning a spot in the NCAA Auburn Regional.

In 2003, with Doak Field under renovation and the team playing 53 of 63 games away from its home field, the Wolfpack opened 5-4 but went into overdrive soon after a trip to UCLA, winning 16 in a row in late February and March, and 28 of 32 heading into May. That club finished 45-18 and advanced all the way to the NCAA Coral Gables Super Regional.

Avent had arguably his best everyday lineup in 2005 and ’06, loaded from top to bottom with speed, power hitters, hitters for average, and spectacular defenders. Despite the standout lineup, the ’05 squad tripped and fell over itself at the start of the conference season, losing two of three at Miami, winning two of three against Maryland at the Doak, and then getting swept at Georgia Tech. After starting 3-6 in ACC play, the 2005 Pack won the rest of its conference series to finish at 17-13 in league play. That team also went 11-0 in midweek games and finished with a 41-19 record after a trip to the NCAA Lincoln Regional.

Three years later, in 2008, NC State limped to a 14-9 start and was 4-6 in ACC play after losing two of its first three conference series. A 19-5 spurt pushed the Wolfpack to a 42-22 overall mark, 18-11 in the ACC, and a berth in the NCAA Athens Super Regional, one win shy of the College World Series.

In 2010, one of the most power-laden NC State teams ever opened the conference season getting swept at Clemson — a longtime Wolfpack death march in those days and still a difficult place to win — then split its next two conference series to stand at 3-6 less than a month into league play. That club fought its way back to the break-even mark in the ACC at 15-15 and finished the year 38-24 after a trip to the NCAA Myrtle Beach Regional.

The 2011 team nearly buried itself in the early going of ACC play, losing two of three at Duke and getting swept at Georgia Tech (another traditional and longtime House of Horrors for NC State) to begin the year 1-5. The Pack rebounded by defeating both Clemson and Wake Forest two of three here at home, but then got swept at Miami and stood at 5-10 in ACC play midway through the conference season. That team also battled its way back to .500 in league play (15-15) and finished 35-27 after a trip to the NCAA Columbia Regional.

The most famous slow start in school history, and maybe the one that best applies to the current group, occurred three years ago. The 2013 Wolfpack began the year 10-1 overall but then slumped to an 18-10 mark, 4-5 in the ACC. This was not expected. Baseball America’s 2013 college preview issue featured NC State’s Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner on its cover along with North Carolina’s Kent Emanuel and Colin Moran. Both schools were preseason top 10 picks and consensus choices to make the College World Series. While the Pack lost nine of 17 following that 10-1 beginning, UNC got off to a historically blistering start, winning 39 of its first 41 games and 18 of its first 20 in the ACC. The Tar Heels stumbled for a stretch coming out of the final exam break, just as NC State caught fire and hit its stride. Beginning March 31, the Wolfpack won 15 in a row through April 23, 21 of 22 through May 11, and 26 of 29 through the first two rounds of the ACC Championships. A sweep of the NCAA Raleigh Regional and Super Regional made it 31 victories in 35 games heading into NC State’s first College World Series appearance in 45 years. An 8-1 victory over the resurgent Tar Heels in the CWS opener made if 32 of 36 and a school-record 50 wins overall before the Pack lost twice and bowed out of Omaha at the end of a truly magical ride.

Then there is last year’s team, which stood at 18-9 after a 10-6 victory at Charlotte on March 31, only to lose nine of its next 12 games, several of them in agonizingly creative fashion. That dropped the Pack to 27-21 the last weekend of April. A doubleheader sweep of eventual national champion Virginia ignited the Wolfpack, which won nine in a row and 13 of 15 heading into the ACC championship game vs. Florida State. The Pack went on to the NCAA Fort Worth Regional. The less said about the way that ended the better. Suffice it to say that NC State, which picked itself off the canvas after an ugly April swoon to finish at 36-23, had every reason to believe it should have advanced to the Super Regionals instead of regional champion TCU.

Okay, the current Wolfpack team has a lot of work to do and a long way to go before it can even think about getting from here to there. The point of all this, however, is not to predict this team’s final destiny but to point out that it still holds its destiny in its own hands. Only the truly greatest teams ever go through an entire season without some kind of slump. Think Cal State Fullerton in 1995 (57-9). Everyone else is merely mortal, including the 2016 Wolfpack. Slumps are inevitable. So would you rather see NC State struggle in mid-March or in mid-May?


• The Mendoza Line: Sophomore infielder Evan Mendoza is doing his part to redefine the traditional “Mendoza Line,” which historically has been a .200 batting average. Mendoza broke into the lineup Feb. 27 and made a huge early splash with 12 hits in 20 at-bats in his first five starts. A cooling off period was inevitable, and Mendoza was 2-for-20 in his next six starts, but rebounded with four hits in 10-at-bats vs. Indiana State to lift his average to .353 with a double, a homer, four RBIs and seven runs scored while anchoring the bottom third of the lineup. Though Mendoza has had to make adjustments at the plate as pitchers have adjusted to him, his defense has been rock steady, surehanded at both second and third base with a strong and accurate throwing arm. Even in his one inning of work at shortstop March 15 vs. Indiana State, he made an impact, backhanding a sharply hit grounder in the hole and starting a nifty 6-4-3 double play to snuff out a Sycamores rally. For what it’s worth, and it’s a small sample, Mendoza is hitting .545 (6-for-11) when playing second base.

• Top To Bottom: Josh McLain has had a solid sophomore campaign for the Wolfpack, hitting safely in 17 of the Wolfpack’s 19 games and running down everything in sight in center field. It was once remarked that Shoeless Joe Jackson’s glove was where triples went to die. The same might be said of McLain. Offensively, he began the year hitting atop the NC State lineup, but dropped to the nine spot March 11 for the first game of the Boston College series. Hitting ninth seems to agree with McLain, who is hitting .429 (6-for-14) with a double and four walks from the bottom of the order. For the year, McLain is hitting .299 with seven doubles, two homers, 15 RBIs and 14 runs scored. He has a .373 on-base percentage and a .468 slugging percentage. He ranks among the team leaders in just about every offensive category, and enters the Notre Dame series on a team-best seven-game hitting streak. He is batting .409 (9-for-22) during the streak.

• From A Trot To A Walk: Chance Shepard made school history with home runs in six consecutive games and in seven consecutive home games at Doak Field. Shepard hasn’t gone deep since March 6 vs. Bucknell, but he has remained productive offensively, driving in two of the Pack’s three runs in the Boston College series, and remaining a presence from the cleanup spot in the order. Heading into the Notre Dame series, Shepard has added the walk to his arsenal, walking six times in his last three games, including a career-high four bases on balls March 16 vs. Indiana State.

• Work Fast, Throw Strikes, Babe Ruth Is Dead: Chris Williams is never going to be mistaken for Clayton Kershaw. He sometimes gets overlooked among all the power arms the Wolfpack has on its staff — Williams’ fastball is clocked with an egg-timer — and everyone in the bullpen gets overshadowed by the incomparable Will Gilbert. Still, NC State’s sixth-year senior righthander has been a bellwether in relief for head coach Elliott Avent. In particular, Williams came out of the pen and stopped some serious bleeding in four consecutive midweek games — March 2 vs. UNC Wilmington, March 8 vs. Fairfield, and March 15 and 16 vs. Indiana State. In those four games, Williams worked 10 1/3 scoreless innings and faced 39 batters, allowing 10 hits but walking just one with five strikeouts. Williams came into each game with traffic on the bases, inheriting 10 baserunners and stranding them all. Opponents may be hitting .280 against Williams for the season, but they’re only hitting .238 with runners on base, .100 with runners on base and two out, and just .111 with runners in scoring position.

• Stranded: NC State relievers have stranded 45 of 59 inherited runners, but that is mostly the work of the trio of Sean Adler (7 of 8), Will Gilbert (6 of 7), and Chris Williams (a perfect 11 of 11). Between them, Adler, Gilbert and Williams have inherited 26 baserunners and stranded 24 of them.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

This Marathon Is Only A 10K, And We're Already At The 2.5 Mark

If the 162-game Major League Baseball season is a marathon, then the 56-game regular season that college baseball plays is more like a 10K cross country race.

NC State has played just 14 games, yet we’re already at the season’s quarter mark. So it definitely gets late early, as Yogi once said. The good news is the Wolfpack is 12-2. The bad news is we don’t know much about what that 12-2 means. The Pack is fifth in the latest unofficial RPI rankings thanks to a tough early schedule, but Central Connecticut is No. 2 in the RPI and St. Bonaventure is No. 10, so what does that mean? The national polls have the Pack everywhere from eighth to 20th. It’s still early.

We’ll find out much more, and quickly, beginning this weekend as the Pack opens Atlantic Coast Conference play against a surprising 12-2 Boston College. The Eagles haven’t played murderer’s row in amassing that 12-2 mark, but they have beaten the teams they’re supposed to (2-1 vs. teams with a winning record, 10-1 vs. losers). That’s a big step forward for a program that suffers from severe handicaps in terms of weather, facilities and financial resources.

BC has not enjoyed much recent success, but overlook them at your peril. While NC State is 10-4 against the Eagles since Mike Gambino took over as BC head coach in 2011, the Wolfpack is just 3-3 against Boston College at Doak Field in that time, and has lost three of its last four meetings overall against Gambino’s clubs.

All of which makes this a most interesting ACC opener for NC State, which has proven itself to be a formidable opponent when the mood strikes. It was just last Saturday that we saw the Pack play Alabama in what felt like an NCAA regional elimination game. Both teams pitched, defended and ran the bases well. Hits were at a premium, meaning every pitch seemed to carry the weight of the world, especially in the late innings. The coaches pulled out all the stops and emptied their bullpens. The crowd at the USA Baseball complex was loud and raucous. It was a great early-season taste of what college baseball is like in June, and NC State came away a 2-1 winner.

This past week, a seemingly uninspired Wolfpack played a two-game series at home against what should have been an overmatched Fairfield team, only to play down to the level of the competition and win a pair of clunkers, 4-2 and 4-0. In the two games, NC State went 8-for-28 with runners on base, 4-for-15 with runners in scoring position, and 6-for-19 with two out. The energy level from the Alabama game was palpable by its absence. If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from this, the Wolfpack should hope it doesn’t have to be learned the hard way.

There are teams in college baseball that often win games just because of the name on the front of the jersey. Florida State is one. The Seminoles just seem to intimidate some teams. Ditto Texas. Miami has been one of those teams over the years. Southern Cal won six College World Series championships in seven years from 1968-74, including five in a row from 1970-74. You can bet the Trojans spooked many an opponent just by showing up at the ballpark. LSU won five CWS championships from 1991-2000, steamrolling starry-eyed non-conference cannon fodder in the process.

Suffice it to say, the Wolfpack is not, has never been and likely never will be one of those teams. NC State’s best teams — Elliott Avent’s best teams in particular — have played with an edge about them, a noticeable chip on their shoulder. They wear the underdog role well. They play hard. They come to the ballpark resolved to shove the bat up the other team’s collective ass. When the Pack shows up thinking it can win just by flipping its gloves on the field, bad things tend to happen.

Based purely on the talent on the field and the home-field advantage, NC State should win this weekend’s series against Boston College, but that’s not to say it will be easy. It won’t be. First of all, the Eagles are pretty good. They can pitch. Weekend starters Mike King, Jesse Adams and Jacob Stevens are a combined 6-0 with a 1.88 ERA in 52 2/3 innings. As a staff, BC hasn’t allowed a home run in 14 games.

Offensively, Boston College boasts a veteran lineup and a team on-base percentage of .386. Senior first baseman Joe Cronin is hitting .372 with four doubles, a triple, a homer, 14 RBIs, a .581 slugging percentage and a .472 OBP, all team highs. BC is hitting .302 as a team and scoring more than seven runs per game. Also, the Eagles have experienced recent success against the Wolfpack and have no reason to come into the series expecting failure. In other words, Boston College is better than you might think and quite capable of winning.

The Wolfpack that defeated Alabama is a dangerous baseball team. The team that spent two days sleepwalking against Fairfield looked like a danger only to itself.

• Sheparding The Way: Most of college baseball heard about Chance Shepard’s school-record streak of six consecutive games with at least one home run. Readers of this largely unread blog know that when Chance and little brother Shane Shepard both homered Feb. 26 vs. Wright State it marked the first time since 1990 that a pair of brothers homered in the same game for NC State. There is one other Shepard stat worth noting. Between them, Chance and Shane have nine home runs. One or the other, or both, has homered in eight of NC State’s 14 games overall, and eight of 10 games at Doak Field.

• Comebacks: NC State continues its weird pattern of falling behind in nearly every game. The Wolfpack fell behind four times in its last five games, meaning it now has trailed at one point or another in 12 of its first 14 games of 2016. That’s truly rare, at least for a good team, but don’t expect anyone to look up just how rare. Just suffice it to say that it doesn’t happen often.

• Taking Advantage: Because the college season is shorter than you might think and because winning absolutely matters, coaches often have a short leash on players. Start the season in a five-game slump and you might find yourself on the bench. And when the coach gives you an opportunity, you’d be well-advised to take advantage of it quickly. This isn’t the minor leagues where you might get a few hundred at-bats to prove yourself and no one cares if those few hundred at-bats cost the team a playoff berth.

Evan Mendoza now has experienced both ends of this maxim. Mendoza came to NC State in the fall of 2014 as a heralded two-way player from a high-profile high school program in Sarasota, Fla. He impressed quickly on the mound in fall practices and entered the 2015 season as a weekend starter. A couple of poor outings later, Mendoza found himself at the far end of the bullpen. He finished the year with nine appearances and just 18 2/3 innings pitched.

Fast forward to 2016. The season is six games old and head coach Elliott Avent is looking for an offensive spark at third base. He plays a hunch and writes Mendoza’s name on the lineup card. Mendoza responds with three hits in four at-bats. Two of the hits were rollers that found holes in the infield, but bloodstained hits are still hits. Mendoza has been in the lineup ever since, and the hits are seldom cheap. In his first four starts he went 10-for-15. He hit safely in his first six starts and was hitting .542.

Mendoza has cooled since then, 1-for-11 in his last three games, but don’t look for Avent to yank him from the lineup anytime soon. His at-bats remain competitive and his glovework at second and third base has been exemplary. The game has yet to speed up on him, and probably won’t. This time around he was a textbook example of a player who was given an opportunity and didn’t wait to take advantage.

• Pitching In: We all know NC State’s pitching will be something of a work in progress this season, much as it was a year ago. The staff features some big arms and some equally big command issues. The Wolfpack and pitching coach Scott Foxhall will have to work around those problems as they are being (hopefully) ironed out. The first order of business should be setting a three-man weekend rotation, and then getting innings from those three starters.

Junior righthander Joe O’Donnell and sophomore lefty Brian Brown should be 1-2 in this weekend’s rotation vs. BC. Fourth-year-junior righthander Johnny Piedmonte should be the third starter, health permitting. Piedmonte worked just 2 2/3 innings in his only start, Feb. 19 vs. Old Dominion, and has been dealing with ongoing back issues since then. The Pack very much needs for those three to pull it together and pitch regularly into the late innings. Brown, who routinely pitched into the seventh and occasionally the eighth inning a year ago, should be fine. O’Donnell, a reliever a year ago, leads the staff with 15 2/3 innings, about 5 1/3 per start. Those two don’t figure to be a problem.

That’s not to say there is no problem, though. NC State starters are 5-1 with a 3.51 ERA but have worked just 56 1/3 innings. The bullpen is 7-1 with a 3.10 ERA and six saves in 69 2/3 innings. The starters are averaging slightly more than four innings per start, which means the bullpen is logging more than 55 percent of the innings pitched. That trend needs to reverse itself. Brown and O’Donnell must continue to lengthen their starts and Piedmonte or some other third starter candidate needs to emerge and do the same.

The good news is that things have improved noticeably as the season has progressed. The staff returned from its season-opening series at wind-blown Myrtle Beach with an unsightly 5.67 ERA. In 11 games since then, it’s a much more palatable 2.91. The bad news is that the bullpen still is shouldering far too much of the load.

NC State relievers are 7-0 with six saves and a 2.54 ERA since returning from the beach, holding opponents to a .205 average in 56 2/3 innings. That’s 14 more innings than the starters in 11 games. Will Gilbert (1.35 ERA, 13.1 IP), Evan Brabrand (2.89, 9.1 IP) and Chris Williams (7.0 shutout innings) have been outstanding since coming back from the beach. Tommy DeJuneas (6.00, 6.0 IP), Sean Adler (4.76, 5.2 IP) and Cody Beckman (4.91, 3.2 IP) have had their moments and figure to be stalwarts.

That’s potentially a very good bullpen, assuming the starters are regularly handing the ball off in the sixth or seventh inning and not the fourth or fifth. Or the third, as has happened three times already. Or the first, which happened Tuesday vs. Fairfield.

Stay tuned, and don’t forget those seat belts.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Wild Ride Threatens To Jump The Rails

A wild ride. That was the prediction here a week ago, wasn’t it? NC State baseball in 2016 was gonna be a wild ride. Buckle your seat belts.

Well, six games later, that seems a bit understated, doesn’t it? Before you bother with the seat belt, maybe you should make sure those insurance premiums are all paid up as well.

While NC State is far from a perfect team, it’s safe to say that thus far the 2016 Wolfpack — thanks to a deep, balanced and volatile offense — is never out of a game. Leave early and there’s no telling what you might miss. Only in the season-opening 6-0 loss to Old Dominion did the Pack sleepwalk through an entire game and never so much as threaten. Since then, comebacks have been the order of the day. Including the ODU loss, NC State fell behind in each of its first eight games of the season, only to come from behind to win six of them. And that’s against a schedule that’s much tougher than you might think.

Some of the comebacks, admittedly, were trivial. Trailing 1-0 after a half-inning and then winning handily is no great feat. Three times, however, the Wolfpack dug itself out of deep holes in the late innings to pull out victories over highly regarded opponents — Coastal Carolina on Feb. 20, Kent State on Feb. 21, and UNC Greensboro on March 1. The Pack, in fact, came from behind twice in the fifth inning or later against both the Chanticleers and Golden Flashes at Myrtle Beach the opening weekend of the season, then erupted for six eighth-inning runs against a stout UNCG bullpen to overcome a 4-2 deficit at the Doak.

The early offensive star has been Chance Shepard, who enters play this weekend with home runs in each of his last five games and a team-best 13 RBIs for the season. Shepard has been reason enough not to leave the ballpark early. He has as many or more home runs than any three teammates combined. In fact, Shepard has more home runs in nine games than all but three players from the 2014 team and all but two players from the 2013 College World Series team had those entire seasons.

The pitching is another story, still a work in progress, but Joe O’Donnell and Brian Brown look set as weekend starters, and Cody Beckman’s outing Feb. 27 vs. a very tough Wright State (3 1/3 shutout innings) put him squarely in the bullpen mix with Tommy DeJuneas and Will Gilbert.

The 4.56 staff ERA is partly a product of a demanding schedule, but no excuses. The pitching needs to get better and ACC play begins next weekend. At the same time, Shepard is due up any inning now, so keep that seat belt buckled and check on those insurance premiums.

• Home Run Streaks: Easily accessible computerized records only go back to 2003, so until someone in the media relations office at NC State goes through the scorebooks and box scores from 2002 and before, there’s no telling whether Chance Shepard’s current streak of at least one home run in five consecutive games is a school record. This program has produced numerous power hitters over the years, so it’s not safe to assume anything.

We can, however, tell you that Shepard’s streak is the longest by a State hitter in the BBCOR bat era (since 2011), an era whose standards have been softened a bit by the flat-seamed baseball introduced last year, but whatever. From 2011-15, the longest home run streak by a Wolfpack player was by Trea Turner, who homered in each game of a three-game series March 21-22-23, 2014, at Maryland.

In the eight years prior to the BBCOR era, NC State had four homer streaks of at least three games, the longest being a four-game streak by Justin Riley in 2003. Riley homered April 2 vs. UNC Greensboro, and then homered in each game of a series sweep at Duke the weekend of April 4-5-6. He homered twice in the first game of the Duke series, giving him five home runs in the four games and at least one home run in all four games. So Shepard’s streak is the longest since at least 2002.

One bit of research has been concluded on this subject. NC State hit a school-record 123 home runs in 1988, a record that may prove unassailable. The longest home runs streak by anyone on that team was three games, once each by Turtle Zaun and Dell Ahalt, and twice by Brian Bark.

Aside from that, well, the subject is awaiting the crack research team at the media relations office.

• The Shepards Catch The Barks: Chance Shepard and his younger brother Shane made a bit of Wolfpack history on Feb. 26 when they both homered in a 10-8 loss to Wright State. Shane, a sophomore playing left field, gave the Wolfpack a 2-1 lead with a two-run bomb in the bottom of the second inning. Chance, the Pack’s senior DH and backup catcher, got a three-run ninth inning started with a solo shot. Chance’s bomb made the Shepards the first brothers to homer in the same game for NC State since Brian and Robbie Bark both went deep March 27, 1990, in a 15-6 blowout victory at Davidson. Interestingly, Chance and Shane’s father, Steve Shepard, was a teammate of Brian Bark’s in 1988 and ’89, and earned first-team All-ACC honors in 1989. Steve was a dangerous power-hitting first baseman (18 home runs in 1989) and also a pretty fair lefthanded pitcher.

• Falling Behind: Here’s one more topic for the research staff at the media relations office. This year marks the first time since at least 2002 that the Wolfpack fell behind in each of its first eight games of the season. Six come-from-behind victories, three of them in the late innings, in the first eight games of the year is pretty remarkable. This isn’t basketball with its innumerable lead changes. Late-inning comebacks in the era of relief specialization are rare. Three in eight games is an achievement. Again, fasten those seat belts.

• Mendoza’s Hot Start: Evan Mendoza arrived at NC State in the fall of 2014 as a heralded two-way player from Florida, a righthanded pitcher with exceptional command and a good-hitting middle infielder. The season started, Mendoza struggled on the mound, and his playing time diminished and then disappeared.

Mendoza has reemerged this season. He came off the bench Feb. 21 vs. Kent State and got two plate appearances, going 0-for-1 with a walk. He got his first start two games later, Feb. 27 vs. Wright State, and delivered in a big way. Mendoza went 3-for-4 with a run scored and an RBI against the Raiders, and while two of the hits were bleeders that found holes in the infield, the fact is they found the holes and they count. Mendoza hasn’t stopped hitting since, and the hits aren’t all bleeders and bloopers, either. In four games since he cracked the starting lineup, Mendoza is 10-for-15 (10-for-16 overall) with three doubles and a home run. In the Wolfpack’s 5-2 victory over UNC Wilmington on March 2, he went 4-for-4 with a double, a long home run and two RBIs.

• RPI Notes: No one really knows how the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index (RPI) works, but there is no question that on any given day a look at the RPI standings can leave you scratching your head. The NCAA doesn’t release official RPI rankings until around midseason, for good reason, but there are several websites that assimilate the formula and list updated RPI rankings daily.

On Feb. 28, following a series win over Wright State and sporting a 5-2 record, NC State was No.1 in the RPI — best in the nation! — according to the website. Not sure if this is a first for the Wolfpack and there’s not really any way to research it, but a screen shot on the desktop preserves the moment in perpetuity.

Four days and two impressive victories later, the Wolfpack has tumbled in the RPI, falling all the way to fifth. The top five, through games of March 2, are Fresno State, Florida, Ole Miss, South Alabama and NC State, followed by Vanderbilt. Pretty good so far. Then, unfortunately, things get a little hinky. Maine, a college baseball powerhouse in the 1970s and ’80s, is seventh, despite a 3-4 record. Four spots later, Youngstown State is No. 11, and at this point the RPI loses any semblance of credibility. Why? Because Youngstown State is 1-6. Seven games, six losses, No. 11. Yeah, right. The RPI ranks the Penguins’ schedule at No. 1, toughest in the country, but how do three games against No. 56 Western Kentucky and four games against No. 1 Fresno State add up to the toughest schedule in the country? Doesn’t seem plausible. And how does anyone get ranked No. 11 with a 1-6 record? Doesn’t seem possible.

Coaches constantly complain that the RPI is flawed and that the NCAA relies on it far too heavily in selecting and seeding teams for the NCAA Tournament. No argument here. The good news is that the season is only two weeks old and small sample sizes will pollute any mathematical formula. These problems should, for the most part, sort themselves out over time. Still, Maine and Youngstown State in the top 11 despite a combined record of 4-10 … tough to explain that one.