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.

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