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.

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