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.

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