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.

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