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.