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.

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