Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Even Dinged Up, NC State Roars Into The Home Stretch

NC State’s 6-1 victory over East Carolina this past Monday marked the Wolfpack’s final midweek game of 2016. That leaves four weekend Atlantic Coast Conference series and nothing else on the regular-season docket. The first of those four ACC series will be this weekend when Duke comes to Doak Field for the first time since 2012.

At 29-11 overall against a brutal schedule and 10-6 in the ACC, this is one of the best and most interesting NC State teams in recent memory. Eighth in the NCAA’s Ratings Performance Index (RPI) with an RPI strength-of-schedule (SOS) ranking of 6th, the Wolfpack has a nation’s best 14-6 record against teams in the RPI’s top 50.

With Louisville (No. 2 despite not winning a road series all year), Miami (5) and Florida State (6) also in the RPI top 10, the Wolfpack’s remaining four conference series could boil down to making a case not just to host an NCAA regional, which should be a given at this point, but to being one of the eight national seeds for the NCAA Championship Tournament. The national seeds are assured of hosting a Super Regional, assuming they advance past their respective regionals.

The ACC has never had more than three national seeds, and it’s unlikely that one conference will ever garner half of the eight national seeds anyway. The Wolfpack’s remaining four ACC series — Duke (62nd in the RPI), at Clemson (11th), at Louisville, and North Carolina (14th) — all are critical, all against teams with legitimate postseason hopes, with the series at Louisville the weekend of May 13-15 likely carrying enormous national implications. The good news is that NC State under head coach Elliott Avent has a well-earned reputation for finishing strong, and this season appears to be no exception.

Following an 8-5 defeat at Florida State on March 25, the Wolfpack stood at 16-8 overall, 3-4 in the conference. The Pack basically spun its wheels at home against Boston College and Notre Dame to open conference play, so the loss at FSU looked especially ominous given the Wolfpack’s awful history in Tallahassee. Rain mercifully washed away the final two games of the FSU series, and NC State came back to Raleigh a much different team than the one that had left town three days earlier.

Since returning from Florida State, the Wolfpack is 13-3 overall, 7-2 in the ACC, including series wins on the road at Virginia and Georgia Tech, two of the most difficult road venues in the nation. NC State is hitting .332 as a team and averaging more than nine runs per game in that time, with a .423 on-base percentage and a .486 slugging percentage, numbers admittedly skewed by blowout wins at Elon (23-3) and North Carolina A&T at home (25-1). Five everyday players are hitting .340 or better. The pitching has been deceptively good — a 3.93 ERA skewed by consecutive blowout losses at Georgia Tech (16-7 in the series finale) and at East Carolina (15-3) — but what has made this team’s turnaround has been the offense.

Prior to the loss at Florida State, especially during the series vs. Boston College and Notre Dame, the NC State offense was plagued by what can only be called uncompetitive at-bats, hitters who looked as though they couldn’t wait to make an out and get the hell back in the dugout. The series loss to BC was no disgrace because this is the best Eagles team in seven years, but the way the Pack lost was difficult to stomach. Trailing the final game 1-0, NC State loaded the bases with none out in the bottom of the ninth only to go down without scoring a run — without so much as a whimper, really — on a pair of weak pop-ups and a groundout.

The uncompetitive at-bats carried through the first two games of the Notre Dame series the following weekend. With that series tied at a game apiece, Notre Dame jumped to a 5-0 lead midway through the third inning of the Sunday finale. At that point, with the season apparently at a tipping point, the Wolfpack offense erupted, scoring five runs in the bottom of the third to tie the game, and ultimately outscoring Notre Dame 16-1 over the final five innings of a 16-6 rout.

That game, that third inning to be more precise, would appear to be the point at which the Wolfpack’s season turned around. Since then, NC State has been a load offensively. In fact, at full strength, this may be the most difficult Wolfpack team to pitch to, ever. That doesn’t mean the most dynamic NC State team ever. And it’s certainly not the most powerful, not by a long shot. With all that said, though, few Wolfpack teams have ever worn down opposing pitchers the way this one has the last 16 games. Up and down the lineup, it’s nothing but long, grinding, competitive at-bats, a seeming fight to the death on every pitch.

The key phrase in the previous paragraph is “at full strength.” NC State heads into the stretch run nicked up on several fronts. Friday night starter Joe O’Donnell left the Florida State game in the first inning with arm discomfort and has not pitched since. Lefty reliever Will Gilbert, easily the pitching staff’s MVP, left the middle game of the Georgia Tech series with tightness in his left bicep. The next day, center fielder Josh McLain, a peerless defender (his glove is where triples go to die) and the hottest bat in the lineup at the time, took a fastball off his left hand, breaking a bone and putting him on the sidelines.

Several other Wolfpack players are nursing various dings and dents, but are playing through them. With the midweek games out of the way, the walking wounded can heal up without missing too much game time. The open dates in the midweek also should provide ample practice time for the backups until the team is back at full strength.

The NC State brain trust is optimistic that O’Donnell, Gilbert and McLain will be back before the end of the regular season. Without those three, NC State is still a dangerous team that no one should want to see in its postseason bracket come June. With those three back and producing as they were before they got hurt — and that’s nothing more than an assumption at this point — based just on what we saw the past month, this Wolfpack team has to be viewed as a legitimate national contender.

• Up And Down The Lineup: To illustrate the potency of the NC State lineup the last month, consider that all nine spots in the order are hitting at least .271, with only the leadoff (.292), six (.295) and nine (.271) spots hitting less than .300. More to the point, only the nine-hole hitters at .353 have an on-base percentage less than .383. At .288, the nine hole is the only spot in the lineup with a slugging percentage less than .397.

Following are the batting averages, on-base percentages, slugging percentages and OBP (on-base+slugging) for the nine spots in the NC State lineup the last 16 games:

# —  AVG/OBP/SLG,     OPS
1 — .292/.400/.389,  .789
2 — .394/.481/.500,  .981
3 — .329/.383/.397,  .780
4 — .319/.388/.493,  .881
5 — .333/.410/.495,  .905
6 — .295/.408/.492,  .900
7 — .397/.533/.793, 1.326
8 — .367/.451/.583, 1.034
9 — .271/.353/.288,  .641

• NC State vs. Duke, The Series: The Wolfpack leads the overall series with the Blue Devils by a 152-122-1 margin. NC State is 31-19 against Duke in head coach Elliott Avent’s previous 19 seasons, including a 15-6 record at Doak Field. Avent’s Wolfpack is 14-13 in regular-season games at Duke — 9-9 at Jack Coombs Field on campus and 5-4 at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Avent is 2-0 against Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Tournament.

Duke and NC State did not meet a year ago due to the conference’s brainless scheduling formula. They also did not meet in 2006 and ’07. The two last met in 2014 at the DBAP, with the Blue Devils taking two of three, including the finale thanks to a spectacular late-inning meltdown by the NC State bullpen. Prior to that, from 2010-13, the Wolfpack won 10 of 12 from Duke, including sweeps in Raleigh in 2012 and at the DBAP in 2013.

• Picking Up For Joey Oeee: Joe O’Donnell was 4-2 with a 4.02 ERA when he left the Florida State game in the first inning March 25, but he had pitched better than the numbers indicate. He has not pitched since then and his importance to the staff cannot be overstated. With that said, the Wolfpack has received stellar starting pitching in O’Donnell’s absence. Cory Wilder is 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA since O’Donnell went down. Brian Brown is 3-1, 1.95. Ryan Williamson moved from starting midweek games to the weekend rotation in O’Donnell’s absence and is 3-1, 3.96 since then. And with no midweek games left on the schedule, head coach Elliott Avent only needs three starters while O’Donnell mends, meaning he won’t have to rush his Friday starter back into action before he is ready.

Road Warriors: The Wolfpack’s series wins at Virginia and Georgia Tech carry extra significance because they mark the first time NC State has ever won two road conference series against ranked teams in the same season. Virginia was No. 14 when it hosted the Pack. The Yellow Jackets were No. 19 two weeks later.

The ACC began playing a modified conference schedule with three-game series in 1988, allowing schools in geographic proximity of one another to break those series into single games played at different points of the season. The current format of nothing but three-game weekend series began in 1992.

• Series Winning Streaks: NC State has won three ACC weekend series in a row now, including the aforementioned two road series at Virginia and Georgia Tech. A series win vs. Duke this weekend will match the 2013 team’s stretch of four consecutive ACC series wins. On its road to the College World Series, the ’13 team, in order, beat Maryland two games to one and then swept Virginia Tech, Boston College and Georgia Tech.

The Wolfpack will have to win all four of its remaining conference series to match the ridiculous record set by the 2005 team, which won its final seven ACC series, a school record that may stand forever given the strength of the conference. The Pack closed out the ’05 regular season by winning series from, in order, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Wake Forest, Clemson, North Carolina, Duke and Florida State. NC State won all seven series two games to one.The series vs. Virginia, Wake Forest and Duke were on the road.

Oh, and by the way, the 2005 team also was the last NC State squad to win all of its midweek games, going 10-0 from Monday through Thursday.

• Approaching Double-Digit Wins: Ryan Williamson improved to 7-1 with NC State’s 6-1 victory over East Carolina, giving him an excellent chance to become NC State’s first 10-game winner since Carlos Rodon went 10-3 in 2013. Prior to Rodon, the last Wolfpack hurler to register double-figures in the win column was Gib Hobson, who went 10-2 in 2006. Should he record three more wins, Williamson would become the 18th pitcher in school history to win 10 or more games in a single season.

• Mendoza Streak At 14 Games: Heading into the Duke series, third baseman Evan Mendoza’s hitting streak (not hit streak, boys and girls, it’s a hitting streak) stands at 14 games, the longest by a Wolfpack hitter this season and the longest since Logan Ratledge’s 21-game streak a year ago. Mendoza’s streak began with a 1-for-2 game April 2 at Virginia. He is hitting an even .400 (18-for-45) during the streak with a double, a home run and 10 RBIs.

• Kinneman Hitting Streak At 10 Games: In addition to Evan Mendoza’s hitting streak, freshman outfielder Brett Kinneman carries a 10-game hitting streak into the Duke series. Kinneman kicked off his streak with a 1-for-3 game April 9 vs. Wake Forest. Like Mendoza, Kinneman is hitting an even .400 (14-for-35) during his streak. He has five doubles, two homers and 15 RBIs during the 10-game streak.

The only other Wolfpack hitter to cobble together a hitting streak of at least 10 games this year was a 10-game streak by Josh McLain earlier in the season.

• Left To Die: Of all the reasons NC State should want Will Gilbert back in action ASAP — and there are numerous reasons to want him back — his ability to come into a game with traffic on the bases and stop the damage cold is easily the best on the team. Gilbert has inherited 16 baserunners in 2016 and stranded 15 of them. Sean Adler (12 of 15), Tommy DeJuneas (12 of 16) and Travis Orwig (12 of 14) also have had success in stranding inherited runners, but none as successfully as Gilbert, who also stranded 31 of 37 inherited runners a year ago.

• Speaking Of Relievers: As long as we’re on the subject of Will Gilbert, it’s worth noting that the Wolfpack bullpen is 12-2 with a 3.62 ERA and 12 saves. Tommy DeJuneas leads the staff with six saves, followed closely by Gilbert with four. Evan Brabrand and Chris Williams have one save apiece. Nine NC State relievers have ERAs of less than 3.00 — Williams, Christian Demby, Johnny Piedmonte (primarily a starter) and Tim Naughton (all at 0.00), Travis Orwig (0.87), Ryan Williamson (1.29, but now in the starting rotation to stay), Gilbert (2.31), Kyle Smith (2.45) and Karl Keglovits (2.89).

• Splendid Sophomores: In the summer and fall of 2014, as the national college baseball media set about the process of ranking incoming recruiting classes, little was said about NC State’s class. What was said was mostly a matter of damning with faint praise. One national college baseball writer, who shall remain nameless, pretty much dismissed NC State’s entire class by saying he wasn’t impressed with any of the Wolfpack’s incoming players.

Fast-forward a year and a half, however, and those incoming freshmen, now sophomores, are a huge part of why NC State is ranked as high as No. 6 in the national polls and No. 8 in the NCAA’s Ratings Performance Index. The Wolfpack’s starting lineup features five sophomores — second baseman Stephen Pitarra, shortstop Joe Dunand, third baseman Evan Mendoza, center fielder Josh McLain and right fielder Brock Deatherage — and NC State would be way up the creek without a paddle without them.

Pitarra has been a revelation as leadoff hitter, a pest to opposing pitchers and an offensive catalyst. In addition to their hot hitting, Deatherage and McLain provide the dynamic of above-average speed, with Deatherage just a tick shy of Trea Turner on the blur scale. McLain, the team’s hottest hitter when he was injured April 17 at Georgia Tech, is as good defensively as any center fielder NC State has ever had not named Brett Williams. Mendoza has provided excellent defense at third base and may be the team’s most consistent hitter. Dunand, after an abysmal start at the plate, has 16 hits in his last 41 at-bats to lift his average to .305 and climbing.

There is depth behind those five. Shane Shepard, without getting consistent at-bats thanks to the team’s offensive depth, has as much raw power as anyone on the team, including his older brother. With six doubles, two triples, two home runs and 18 walks in just 100 plate appearances, Shane Shepard has a .386 on-base percentage and a .444 slugging percentage despite batting only .247.

Beyond the everyday lineup, the sophomore class also includes lefthanded starter Brian Brown and closer Tommy DeJuneas, a two-way player who also can play third base or the outfield. Brown is the team’s most reliable starting pitcher and arguably its best. DeJuneas, with his mid-90s fastball, is the Wolfpack’s top professional prospect.

Senior catcher/DH Chance Shepard provides the Wolfpack with its biggest power threat and with invaluable senior leadership. First baseman Preston Palmeiro and catcher Andrew Knizner, both juniors, stabilize the team with their offense and overall consistency as three-year starters. Joe O’Donnell when healthy was the Friday starting pitcher. Because of injuries, Cory Wilder and Ryan Williamson have stepped into starting roles on the weekend in recent weeks and come up huge. O’Donnell, Wilder and Williamson are third-year players. Will Gilbert, a senior, is the team’s most versatile and most valuable pitcher. With all of that said, the sophomore class, along with freshman Brett Kinneman, have been the backbone and the energy of the 2016 Wolfpack. 

Hindsight is always 20/20, or so they say, and it’s easy to look at this class today and appreciate what it means to the program. Without a Carlos Rodon or a Brett Austin, high-profile draft picks out of high school, this class flew under the national media’s rather short-sighted and draft-oriented radar. The Wolfpack coaching staff, especially recruiting coordinator Chris Hart, deserve extra credit for assembling what is shaping into a tremendous class that is threatening to leave as big a mark as the Rodon-Austin-Turner class of five years ago. Kudos.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Can NC State Survive Old Demons Without The Class?

NC State baseball’s great freshman class of 2011-12 — The Class, if you will — brought national attention to Doak Field and helped to lead the Wolfpack to the 2013 College World Series, its first appearance in Omaha in 45 years.

Along the way, Carlos Rodon, Trea Turner, Brett Austin, Logan Ratledge, Jake Fincher, Logan Jernigan et al helped Elliott Avent exorcise two of his three most nightmarish demons as a head coach, Clemson and Georgia Tech. (The third demon, Florida State, lives on and continues to torment Avent and the Wolfpack year after year, but that’s another story.) NC State experienced almost nothing but success against the Tigers and Yellow Jackets the last four years, winning six of seven combined regular-season series against the two.

The Wolfpack is in Atlanta this weekend to renew its rivalry with Georgia Tech after not playing the Yellow Jackets in 2015. NC State comes into the series having won seven of the last eight games between the two, including a sweep at Russ Chandler Stadium in 2013, the only sweep there for NC State in program history, and only the second series win ever in Atlanta.

It was not always this way. From Avent’s arrival in Raleigh in 1997 through 2011, the year The Class graduated high school, Georgia Tech routinely beat the stuffing out of NC State, winning 33 of 54 games. The Wolfpack was 7-17 in Atlanta, partly the result of Tech sweeps in 1997, 2005, 2007 and 2011. Even at the friendly confines of Doak Field in Raleigh, the Wolfpack was just 10-13 against the Yellow Jackets.

The rivalry was at its most lopsided the first decade-plus of this century. From 2002-11, the last 10 years before The Class came to the rescue, NC State won just seven of 28 meetings with Georgia Tech. That includes a 4-7 mark at Doak Field and a truly miserable 1-11 record at Chandler Stadium. That period included four of Avent’s best teams, the 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2008 squads. Combined, those four teams managed a 4-7 record against the Yellow Jackets, including a Georgia Tech sweep in Raleigh in 2005. The Pack and Jackets did not meet in 2008.

The arrival of The Class seemed to change everything. NC State won two of three from Tech in Raleigh in 2012, swept the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta in 2013, and won two of three again in Raleigh in 2014. The Pack has won seven of the last eight meetings. The 2012 and 2013 seasons rank among the very best in program history — a combined 93 wins, two Super Regional appearances and a College World Series berth in 2013.

If 2011-12 was a watershed year for NC State, it appears to have been the same but only in reverse for Georgia Tech. There was a time when, if you saw the Yellow Jackets arrive at the stadium for a game, you’d watch them get off the bus and swear it was the football team in baseball uniforms. The Yellow Jackets were a big, physical group in those days. The position players were mostly bruisers, the pitchers were all tall, raw-boned and threw hard. They often, but not always, played with a chip on their shoulder, and when they did they were damned hard to beat.

The last several years, Georgia Tech’s baseball team looked more like a soccer team than a football team, and therein lies the problem. The sheer physical talent that used to fill the Tech roster just wasn’t there, at least not in the same quantity. The Jackets haven’t had a winning season in conference play since 2011. Last year’s team stumbled to a 32-23 record, 13-17 in the conference, and appeared to be sleep-walking as Virginia’s Josh Sborz nearly no-hit them in the play-in round of the ACC Championship. It was a fitting end to a miserable season but not a fitting fate for a program with the tradition of Georgia Tech.

At first glance, the Wolfpack and Yellow Jackets seem headed in opposite directions as they collide this weekend. NC State is riding a hot streak into Atlanta, winners of eight of its last nine games and outscoring the opposition during that time by a whopping 73-31 margin. Admittedly, much of that is due to Tuesday’s 23-3 wipeout of Elon, but the inescapable fact is that the Wolfpack is feeling it for the first time in 2016. State rolls into Atlanta at 24-9 overall, 8-5 in the ACC, and the record does not indicate how hot this team is. NC State is definitely playing its best baseball of the season.

Georgia Tech, meanwhile, looks like a team that has yet to find its bearings in 2016. The good news is they no longer look like a soccer team. Coach Danny Hall definitely has a more physical-looking club than his last four. The Jackets roared out of the gates 12-0 to open the season, only to find inconsistency the last several weeks. The 12-game winning streak came to a crashing halt during a trip to Tallahassee and a sweep at the hands of Florida State. The Jackets bounced back a week later to sweep woeful Virginia Tech, and followed that up with a series win at then-third-ranked North Carolina. At that point, all evidence seemed to indicate that the Jackets were back, but Tech is just 5-4 since then, including a series loss to Duke in Atlanta, a series split at Pitt (the third game was rained out) and a non-conference loss Tuesday to a Georgia team struggling to play .500 baseball. The Yellow Jackets enter this weekend’s series with NC State with what seems to be a deceptive 23-9 overall record, 7-7 in the ACC.

This will be the first series between NC State and Georgia Tech since The Class finally graduated. It would appear that NC State should be the favorite, but that’s why they play the games. The more important question for the Wolfpack is — and we may not find out for several years — did The Class truly transform NC State baseball, or did they take their lucky rabbit’s foot with them when they left town?

• Red-Hot Wolfpack: It’s only nine games, but NC State is on a bit of a tear, 8-1 since dropping an 8-5 decision at Florida State on March 25. The lone loss since then was a 5-3 nail-biter two weeks ago at Virginia. During the nine-game skein, the Wolfpack is batting .325 as a team, with a .402 on-base percentage and a .460 slugging percentage.

Four NC State players have 10 or more RBIs in the nine games: Joe Dunand and Brock Deatherage with 11 apiece, and Brett Kinneman and Preston Palmeiro with 10 each. Seven regulars are batting .321 or better, led by a resurgent Dunand at .410 and Deatherage at .400, and followed by Josh McLain (.361), Kinneman (.333), Evan Mendoza (.333), Palmeiro (.324) and Chance Shepard (.321).

The pitching staff, meanwhile, sports an nine-game ERA of 3.11, allowing 72 hits and striking out 88 with 39 walks in 81 innings. Brian Brown (1-1, 0.00), Ryan Williamson (2-0, 1.84) and Will Gilbert (1-0, 2.45, 2 saves) have pitched especially well.

The starting pitchers are 4-1 with a 2.72 ERA. They’ve allowed 33 hits and struck out 39 with 23 walks in 43 innings. The one bit of bad news is that the starters are averaging just 4 2/3 innings per start, but the bullpen is 4-0 with a 3.55 ERA and four saves. Relievers have stranded 21 of 23 inherited runners, a .913 success rate. Gilbert alone has inherited eight baserunners the last nine games and stranded all eight.

• Hitting Streak: Heading into the Georgia Tech series, sophomore infielder Evan Mendoza owns the team’s longest current hitting streak at seven games. During those seven games, Mendoza is batting .364 (8-for-22).

• An Ass-Whipping At Elon: NC State had one of its biggest blowout victories in recent years Tuesday night at Elon, a 23-3 rout of the Phoenix. The Wolfpack began the game with six consecutive hits and had its first eight batters reach base en route to a seven-run top of the first. That marked the most first-inning runs for an NC State team since a 10-run first inning against La Salle on February 19, 2010. That 10-run inning led to a school-record 32-3 bloodletting. The seven-run first at Elon marked the biggest single inning by NC State since an eight-run eighth inning against Virginia last May 23 in the ACC Championship.

The Wolfpack finished the game with 24 hits, three shy of the team record (27 vs. High Point on March 4, 1980, and vs. Hofstra on Feb. 12, 2006) and one shy of the 25 hits amassed in that 32-3 shellacking of La Salle in 2010. The last time NC State scored more than 23 runs was Feb. 24, 2013, in a 25-4 drubbing of Wagner.

NC State scored in every inning but the third against the Phoenix, and scored multiple runs in six of the nine innings. The last time the Wolfpack scored two or more runs in six different innings in a single game was May 12, 2006, in a 21-3 blowout of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The last time NC State scored at least one run in eight innings in a game was April 19, 2013, at Georgia Tech, a 13-4 victory.

For the record, the last time NC State scored at least one run in all nine innings of a game was March 16, 2010, at NC Central, a 24-6 rout.

• Kinneman Drives In Seven: Several hitters had big nights in the Elon rout, none more than freshman outfielder Brett Kinneman, who broke into the starting lineup just eight games ago. Kinneman finished the night 4-for-6 with two doubles and seven RBIs. That ties for the most RBIs in a single game by an NC State player, dating back to the start of the 2003 season. Four other Wolfpack players drove in seven runs in a game in that time: Matt Bergquist (April 20, 2011, at UNCW); Danny Canela (May 9, 2010, vs. Towson); Drew Poulk (April 14, 2009, vs. Wofford); and Joe Gaetti (March 1, 2003, vs. Villanova, at Wilmington, N.C.).

• Hitters On A Tear: Several Wolfpack hitters have been swinging the bat well during NC State’s current hot streak and beyond, none more than sophomore outfielder Brock Deatherage. In his last eight games, dating back to the start of the Virginia series, Deatherage is 14-for-34 (.412) with three doubles, a triple, a home run and 10 RBIs. Deatherage went 3-for-4 in each of his last two games.

Other Wolfpack hitters swinging hot bats heading to Atlanta:

• Preston Palmeiro is 10-for-25 (.400) with two doubles, a homer, eight runs scored and nine driven in during his last six games.

• Joe Dunand has finally broken out of a prolonged and uncharacteristic slump and is batting .500 (9-for-18) with a home run, seven runs scored and six driven in over his last four games. He is hitting everything right on the screws.

• Brett Kinneman has hit safely in eight of his last 10 games, batting .397 (12-for-31) with six doubles and 11 RBIs. Kinneman is hitting .323 overall, but .393 (11-for-28) as a starter. He is 2-for-8 coming off the bench.

• Chance Shepard is 6-for-15 (.400) with three doubles, two home runs and five RBIs in his last four games.

• Andrew Knizner appears to be snapping out of a modest and abbreviated slump, going 7-for-18 (.389) in his last four games.

• Josh McLain is 13-for-34 (.382) with four doubles, a triple, six runs scored and five driven in during his last seven games.

• Xavier LeGrant, in limited playing time, is 5-for-14 (.357) in his last seven games, and only one start, dating back to March 20.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Memories of Monsoons In Tallahassee

A series-opening defeat at Florida State followed by a pair of no-brainer rainouts as a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico threatened to flood Tallahassee. That’s what happened to NC State last weekend in its semi-annual trip to the Florida panhandle, and it was an unsettling reminder of a similar weekend in the Florida capital 18 years ago.

Off to a 10-4 start in 1998, head coach Elliott Avent’s second Wolfpack squad flew to Tallahassee to open Atlantic Coast Conference play against Florida State, which began the season unranked (maybe the last time that ever happened) and finished it at the College World Series in Omaha. The Noles bombed the Pack 9-0 in the series opener that Friday night. By Saturday morning, a low-pressure system that looked on radar like a hurricane had settled in over the panhandle and heavy torrential rain pounded Tallahassee.

With little to do that Saturday other than splash through the rain to the mall across the road from the team hotel, the NC State baseball SID (that would be yours truly) went and had lunch at the cafeteria in the mall, browsed magazines and books in the local Barnes & Noble, then went back to the hotel for the inevitable word that Saturday night’s game had been rained out. A late-afternoon nap was interrupted right around dinnertime by sharp stomach cramps, which quickly evolved into vomiting, which evolved into uncontrollable binge vomiting, accompanied by sharp intestinal pain and diarrhea. 

To spare you too many of the ugly details and to make a long story short, following a miserable night at Tallahassee General, I was put in a taxi Sunday morning and sent back to the team hotel, C.O.D., to await word on Sunday’s rainout. There was no question about that one since if anything the rain had only intensified overnight. Tornados in the tropical system shut down the airport late Sunday morning, pushing our flight back until Monday. After about 18 hours of uninterrupted sleep I was able, barely, to make the flight, but only with physical assistance on and off both planes.

Thoroughly dehydrated and about 10-15 pounds lighter than when I’d arrived, all I could think about on the flights home was what the doctors told me in the emergency room at Tallahassee General: “You don’t have food poisoning. Food poisoning is much worse than what you have.” That seemed incomprehensible. The only thing worse than what I had was death, which I thought was about to happen several times during my night in the E.R. At one point they tried to stand me up to take an X-ray of my abdomen, but I collapsed in a heap on the floor before they could snap the shutter. This happened three times before they gave up altogether and wheeled me back to the emergency room.

Once I finally emptied my stomach and systems of all food and liquid matter, I had the pleasure of three-plus hours of dry heaves before they sent me back to the hotel. Luckily, the Wolfpack’s first baseman that year, Luis Figueroa, was the son of a physician who happened to be on the trip. Dr. Figueroa mercifully tended to me once word got around what had happened and helped me to regain at least enough strength that I could get on the plane that Monday without a repeat of my experience in the X-ray room.

Ah, good times!

Luckily, no one in the Wolfpack’s 2016 traveling party fell victim to anything like that last weekend. All the two weekends had in common were several inches of rain and an ass-whipping administered by the Seminoles. So what else is new?

• NC State vs. Defending National Champions: Virginia, this weekend’s ACC opponent, finally broke the Atlantic Coast Conference’s national championship draught last June, winning the College World Series to cap a wild postseason run.

This weekend’s series marks the first time NC State has played a defending national champion in 10 years and only the fourth season in school history in which the Wolfpack faced the previous year’s College World Series winner. NC State is 4-4 all-time against defending CWS champions.

• Before Virginia, there was Wake Forest, which won the national championship in 1955. The Wolfpack played the Demon Deacons three times in 1956 and won twice, losing the first game 10-8, but defeating the Deacons 8-7 and 6-2 in games played later that season.

• Forty-one years passed before NC State crossed paths with another defending national champion. LSU, the team of the nineties (CWS winners in 1991-93-96-97, and another in 2000 for good measure), took on the Pack in the final round of the 1997 Busch Challenge/Winn-Dixie Showdown, hosted jointly by New Orleans and Tulane at the Louisiana Superdome. A heavy underdog, NC State gave the Tigers a scare before falling 3-2 in front of 18,000 screaming whatever-they-were. NC State righthander Brett Black, who went 10-4 that season, pitched a gem in a losing cause.

• Miami has been in the ACC long enough now that many fans don’t remember that the Hurricanes only joined the league in 2004-05 school year. The Canes won the College World Series in 1999 and then came to North Carolina the following season for a three-game series with NC State, allowing UM coach Jim Morris to exorcise some past demons and nightmares. The Hurricanes pistol-whipped NC State 12-0 at Durham Bulls Athletic Park in the series opener, then completely disemboweled the Wolfpack in a 19-1 rout at the Doak in the second game of the series. Understand that Doak Field was a house of horrors for Morris when he was coach at Georgia Tech in the 1980s and ’90s, so that one must have been especially gratifying for him. The Wolfpack saved some face by salvaging the series finale 5-4.

• While no team dominated the 2000s the way LSU owned the 1990s, Texas did win a pair of College World Series in the decade and also finished second twice. The Longhorns’ last national championship came in 2005, and NC State made sure the Horns did not repeat. The Wolfpack joined Stanford, UT-Arlington and Texas at the 2006 Austin Regional. The Longhorns were the top seed for the regional and the No. 3 overall seed for the NCAA Tournament.

In a huge upset, the Pack eliminated the Horns, 6-3, behind Gib Hobson’s complete-game five-hitter in the regional’s third round. Texas scored twice in the bottom of the first, then got one hit over the next five innings as Hobson settled in and pitched a gem. UT scored a run in the seventh but Hobson retired the last seven men he faced to end both the game and the Longhorns’ season. Jon Still went 3-for-5 for the Wolfpack, and became just the 30th player ever to hit a ball over the 20-foot-high batter’s eye at UT’s Disch-Falk Field. Still’s blast, a solo shot in the second inning, went an estimated 440 feet.

NC State, by the way, is 4-0 all-time against Texas, with three of the four wins coming in Austin. The other came at the 1968 College World Series.

• The Series Vs. Virginia: So what are NC State’s chances of improving its record against defending national champions this weekend in Charlottesville? Well, if recent results in the series are predictive — and they likely aren’t but let’s look anyway — the Wolfpack could be in some trouble.

On the one hand, Elliott Avent has an admirable 41-25 record against Virginia in his previous 19 seasons, including a 22-16 record against current UVa coach Brian O’Connor. On the other hand, Avent is 12-15 at Davenport Field in Charlottesville, 6-9 there against O’Connor. And the Wolfpack not only got swept the last time it went to Virginia, in 2013, the Pack has lost its last five games at UVa and seven of its last nine. NC State last won a series at Virginia in 2007.

One side note on Avent’s record vs. the Cavaliers. The Pack went 1-2 at UVa in 1997, Avent’s first season, but those games should not count against his record. Avent was suspended for the series for one of the most spectacular, colorful and entertaining ejections in the history of college baseball the weekend before at Duke. That’s saying a mouthful, but you had to be there to see it. Those who were will never forget.

Avent made the trip to Charlottesville the following weekend with the team, but stayed at the hotel and missed the first two games of the series, as were his instructions from administration. Instead, he phoned the press box what seemed like every other minute for updates. At one point, he called twice within the span of a single at-bat. This is not an exaggeration. With the team checked out of the hotel prior to the series finale, Avent witnessed that game, a break for the guy answering the press-box phone. Wearing a modest disguise (a windbreaker jacket and an unstructured ball cap pulled low over his eyes) Avent watched the game from the grounds and grandstand of the UVa soccer stadium, which looms large over the left-field stands at what is now Davenport Field.

Ah, more good times!

• Pitarra Stays Hot: NC State’s sophomore class looks more and more productive as time goes on. The latest Wolfpack sophomore to assert himself is infielder Stephen Pitarra, a Cary native who moved into the starting lineup more or less for good on March 5 vs. Alabama and has done nothing but hit ever since. In 14 games dating back to the 2-1 victory over the Crimson Tide, Pitarra is batting .404 with four doubles, a triple, 12 runs scored and six runs batted in. He has one of three four-hit games turned in by Wolfpack hitters this year — Preston Palmeiro and Evan Mendoza have the other two — and has gotten hotter the longer he’s been in the lineup. He has 16 hits in 32 at-bats in his last eight games.

• Knizner In The Clutch: There isn’t a more consistent hitter in the Wolfpack lineup than junior catcher Andrew Knizner, who enters play against Virginia hitting .330 with four doubles, four homers, 17 RBIs, a .409 on-base percentage and a .490 slugging percentage. Tied for the team lead with 10 multiple-hit games, Knizner has not gone hitless in consecutive games since April 12-17, 2015, a span of 49 games.

• McLain’s Hitting Streak Snapped At 11 Games: Sophomore outfielder Josh McLain entered play last weekend at Florida State riding the Wolfpack’s longest hitting streak of the season — and it’s a hitting streak, not a hit streak — an 11-game streak that ended with an 0-for-4 night against the Noles. McLain batted .515 (17-for-33) with two doubles, a triple, a home run, nine runs scored and seven driven in during the hitting streak. Despite a pair of hitless games since then, McLain still is one of NC State’s top hitters going into the Virginia series. He’s hitting .433 (13-for-30) in his last 10 games, and .342 (25-for-73) in his last 20. That hot hitting has McLain batting .323 for the season with eight doubles, three home runs, 20 runs scored, 19 RBIs and five steals in seven attempts.

• Allergic To The Top Of The Order: It’s sort of overstating the obvious to say that an offense begins with the leadoff hitter, but that maxim illustrates an important point for NC State. As we near the midpoint of the 2016 regular season, the Wolfpack’s leadoff hitters collectively are batting .264 with a .331 on-base percentage. Only the seven spot in the lineup is faring worse.

Elliott Avent has tried three players as his leadoff hitters thus far — sophomores Brock Deatherage, Josh McLain and Stephen Pitarra — and nothing has worked. Deatherage and McLain fare much better at the bottom of the order, while Pitarra just moved to the leadoff spot for this week’s 6-1 victory at Charlotte, meaning his is too small a sample size to consider.

As for Deatherage and McLain, this one is a head-scratcher. In 10 games atop the lineup card, Deatherage batted .256 with a .388 on-base percentage (6 walks). Batting ninth, though, Deatherage is a .326 hitter with a .412 on-base percentage and a .465 slugging percentage. McLain thus far has hit leadoff in 14 games, batting .270 with an anemic .281 on-base percentage (1 walk in 64 plate appearances). Hitting eighth and ninth he turns into Trea Turner, a combined 14-for-31 (.452) with a .647 on-base percentage and a .778 slugging percentage. Go figure that one.

Given Pitarra’s hot hitting of late, he deserves an extended shot at the top of the order. And filling that top spot becomes even more important if McLain and Deatherage bat eighth and ninth and are on base consistently and creating RBI opportunities.