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.