Wednesday, May 18, 2016

And Down The Stretch They Come

In mid-April, the Atlantic Coast Conference baseball race was clearly defined, with four teams — Louisville, Miami, Florida State and NC State — separated from the rest of the field, followed by a nine-team muddle fighting for a spot in the top 10 and a berth in the conference tournament.

A month later, as we head into the final weekend of the regular season, little has changed. Four teams are firmly established at the top of the league standings, followed at a distance by eight teams muddling along, all within two games of one another. Six of the eight will be in the top 10 at the end of play Saturday and thus headed to Durham for the ACC Tournament.

Two things have changed in the last month, however. First, Pittsburgh is pretty much DOA at this point. For the Panthers to make the top 10, they’ll need to sweep Duke this weekend and hope like crazy that Boston College, Notre Dame and either North Carolina or Georgia Tech all lose big. Not likely to happen, meaning Pitt is very unlikely to make an appearance at Durham Bulls Athletic Park next Tuesday.

The other thing that’s changed is that NC State and Virginia have traded places. The red-hot defending national champion Cavaliers — winners of eight of their last 10 league games — have jumped into the top four, while the Wolfpack has fallen into the eight-team muddle by losing eight of its last 10 ACC games.

What happened? Well, UVa’s veterans started playing like veterans, and its talented youngsters finally grew up. Weekend starters Connor Jones (10-1, 1.96) and Adam Hasely (7-3, 1.97) are pitching like All-Americans. Matt Thaiss (.367/.468/.561), Ernie Clement (.345/.382/.408), Pavin Smith (.335/.429/.511), Daniel Pinero (.311/.423/.424) and Nate Eikhoff (.309/.340/.479) have come together to form the nucleus of a very strong and consistent everyday lineup. No one is predicting Virginia will win the national championship — of course, no one did a year ago either — but this young and talented team will surprise no one if it makes a deep run in the postseason.

In Raleigh, meanwhile, key injuries to a painfully thin pitching staff and an everyday lineup facing a steady diet of top-shelf pitching, especially lefthanded pitching, brought the high-flying Wolfpack back to earth. Friday starter Joe O’Donnell has been out eight weeks now and probably isn’t coming back. Bullpen ace Will Gilbert missed three weeks with tightness in his left bicep, and didn’t look anything like his old self in two appearances since returning. On top of that, Sunday starter Ryan Williamson came out of the finale of the Clemson series two weeks ago with forearm tightness, took his regular turn this past Sunday at Louisville, and looked like a pitcher with forearm tightness. He faced eight batters, got three outs, allowed four runs on three hits, walked two and didn’t come close to a strikeout.

NC State heads into the final weekend of the season at home but going in the wrong direction and facing a dangerous and somewhat desperate North Carolina team that has lost five of its last seven conference series, 14 of its last 21 conference games, and 16 of its last 29 games overall. After a blistering 19-3 start that included impressive series wins at UCLA and at home against Oklahoma State, the Tar Heels have watched their season swirl down the drain hole much the way they did a year ago. North Carolina enters the series in Raleigh in ninth place in the overall standings thanks to a tiebreaker, but in a virtual four-way tie with Duke, Notre Dame and Boston College.

NC State, two games ahead of the four ninth-place teams with three to play, is almost a lock to get to Durham — almost — but needs at least one win this weekend, maybe two, to avoid Tuesday’s play-in round. The Wolfpack catches several breaks in the schedule. Four of the teams chasing NC State are playing one another, meaning two of them will lose. Wake Forest, just a game behind the Pack but losers in the three-game series in Raleigh last month, and thus the tiebreaker, hosts Louisville, maybe the best team in the country. Wake probably needs to win the series and maybe sweep it to pass NC State. Good luck with that.

For NC State, it comes down to this: Win just one game in the series with UNC, and Wake Forest will have to sweep Louisville in order to pass the Wolfpack. Win just one game in the series with UNC, and whoever wins the Georgia Tech-Boston College series will need to sweep that series in order to pass NC State. Win just one game in the series with UNC, and the Wolfpack will finish ahead of Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Boston College no matter what those teams do.

Just one win.

Sounds so easy, but based on recent history, maybe not so much. The Wolfpack has lost its last four ACC games and five of its last six. Clemson won two of three from the Pack two weeks ago and Louisville easily swept NC State a week ago in Kentucky. The Wolfpack returns home this week and North Carolina is a far cry offensively from Clemson or Louisville. On the other hand, the Tar Heels can pitch, ranking second in the conference with a 3.02 staff ERA, led by righthander Zac Gallen (5-5, 2.35) and lefthander J.B. Bukauskis (6-2, 2.86).

At this point, the Wolfpack’s weekend rotation is less than a sure thing, with lefty Brian Brown (7-2, 2.83) and righthander Cory Wilder (3-3, 4.79) certain to start, and Williamson (7-2, 2.86) still a likely starter despite events of the last two weeks. What order they pitch and how much Williamson has in the tank, all that remains to be seen.

We took a close look at NC State’s recent offensive problems a week ago and speculated that they might find little to cure what ails them in Louisville. And so it went. Aside from Evan Mendoza (more on him in a moment), the Wolfpack had a long weekend at the plate, hitting .173 and scoring three runs in the three games. Mendoza went 5-for-12, drove in two of the three runs, and extended his hitting streak to a now-serious 23 games. Stephen Pitarra was 3-for-12 and Andrew Knizner 2-for-10. The other six regulars in each hit less than .200. Chance Shepard, Brett Kinneman and Josh McLain combined to go 1-for-29.

Before you get too alarmed at all that, understand what the Wolfpack was facing in the Cardinals. Friday starter Brendan McKay (10-2, 2.02) will be a high first-round pick in the 2017 MLB draft, maybe one of the top three players taken. Sunday starter Kyle Funkhouser (7-3, 4.24) was a first-round pick a year ago, 32nd overall to the Dodgers, and is suddenly pitching like a first-rounder again after a rocky start. Saturday starter Drew Harrington (10-1, 1.80) isn’t the top prospect that McKay and Funkhouser are, but he is arguably their best, one of the most accomplished and polished pitchers in the college ranks. Harrington carves up lineups with an upper-80s fastball and a slider from hell, and he definitely carved up the Wolfpack. The Louisville rotation is so stacked that Kade McClure has to pitch midweek games despite a perfect 10-0 record and a 2.45 ERA. When the starters tire in the late innings, closer Zack Burdi (1-2, 2.25) comes in throwing 99-102 mph with a slider that tops out around 90. He even gets his fastball to sink, which should be illegal. He throws both pitches for strikes, as evidenced by 42 K’s and seven walks in 24 innings. Burdi will be a first-round pick next month and probably will be pitching in the big leagues by the end of August.

You get the picture. What happened to NC State’s hitters last weekend has happened to others and could happen to anyone. How does facing a staff like that prepare a team for North Carolina? We’ll find out this weekend. UNC’s pitching isn’t as good or as deep as Louisville’s, but it’s very good nonetheless.

Just one win.

One win and the Wolfpack will probably finish sixth overall and avoid the play-in round. Maybe easier said than done.

• The Curious Case Of Evan Mendoza: There is a great old baseball movie called "Damn Yankees," about a middle-aged Washington Senators fan named Joe Boyd who makes a deal with the devil and becomes young Joe Hardy from Hannibal, Missouri. Joe Hardy, slugger extraordinaire, leads the Senators past the Yankees to the American League pennant.

No one is suggesting that Evan Mendoza sold his soul to the devil, but his emergence out of nowhere is eerily similar to Joe Hardy’s. Who is this guy? Mendoza came to Raleigh a year ago as a heralded two-way player from Sarasota (Fla.) High School, but mostly as a pitcher. In fall practice his freshman year, he may have been the best pitcher on the staff, baffling hitters with an assortment of quality pitches and above-average command. He also saw time at second and third base but did not figure to get much playing time as a position player, especially considering how good he looked on the mound.

The 2015 season did not go as planned for Mendoza. His first appearance on the mound, a start against Davidson at Doak Field, went well enough, five innings, four hits, one run, one win. His second, a start at Coastal Carolina a week later, was an unmitigated disaster — six batters faced, two hits, three walks, five runs, one out, and Mendoza’s first and, at this point, last college loss.

Mendoza made one start as a position player in 2015, April 26 in the first game of a home doubleheader against Virginia, and got three at-bats. He made the least of them, striking out out twice and flying out. Bubby Riley pinch-hit for him in the ninth and hit a walk-off solo home run.

Fast forward a year and Evan Mendoza is not only NC State’s best and most consistent player (.383/.446/.456 with 23-game hitting streak intact), but in most any other ACC season he’d be a lock for first-team all-conference. Unfortunately for Mendoza, Wake Forest third baseman Will Craig is well on his way to winning back-to-back ACC Player of the Year awards. Talk about bad timing.

Mendoza not only went 5-for-12 against Louisville’s big-league rotation last weekend, he’s hitting .513 (20-for-39) in his last 11 games, and .442 (34-for-77) for the duration of the hitting streak, which is now three games from matching Greg Briley’s school-record 26-game streak in 1986.

Mendoza’s hitting streak began April 2 at Virginia and ended a four-game hitless streak. This is not one of those empty hitting streaks marked with lots of one-hit games and games where the only hit came in the late innings after the issue was settled. Mendoza has gone past the sixth inning without a hit just four times during the 23-game streak — April 6 at Charlotte, April 11 vs. Wake Forest, April 29 vs. Duke, and May 8 vs. Clemson. Ten of the 23 games are multiple-hit games, including eight of the last 11.

He’s also hit all over the lineup during the streak, and hit well everywhere: three games hitting second (.545), two games hitting third (.375), one game hitting fourth (1.000), three games hitting fifth (.500), four games hitting eighth (.313) and 10 games hitting ninth (.455).

In addition to his spectacular hitting, Mendoza has been a revelation at third base, showing quick and sure hands to make numerous standout plays.

To accomplish all of that after essentially sitting on his duff and watching all of last year, well, he’s not Joe Hardy and he’s not gonna make first-team all-conference, but there are few if any stories in college baseball this year better than Evan Mendoza.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Trying To Recapture That Missing Mojo

The numbers say NC State’s offense is rolling. The Wolfpack scored 16 and 26 runs in its last two Atlantic Coast Conference series, against Duke at Doak Field and at Clemson a week ago. Forty-two runs in six ACC games, that’s an even seven runs per game.

The Pack batted .295 in those six games, with a .367 on-base percentage and a .395 slugging percentage. Dating back even further, to the final game of the Georgia Tech series on April 17, NC State is hitting .309 as a team with a .403 on-base percentage and a .464 slugging percentage in 11 games, averaging 8.36 runs per game. That’s tearing the cover off the ball, right?

Maybe not.

There’s an old saying that there are lies, damned lies and statistics, and that appears to be the case with NC State’s recent offensive stats. Mixed in those 11 games are three blowouts victories — 25-1 over N.C. A&T on April 24, 12-2 over Duke on April 30, and 20-9 over Clemson on May 7. That’s 57 runs and 54 hits, 13 of them for extra bases, in three games, and those three blowouts skew the Wolfpack’s recent offensive numbers quite a bit. 

The reality is that after riding an explosive offense for most of April, NC State has fallen into a slump in May. Take those three blowouts out of the picture and you have an entirely different story, an eight-game stretch — yes, a tiny sample size but not a meaningless one — in which the Wolfpack batted .253 with a .348 on-base percentage and a .411 slugging percentage. The Pack scored 4.38 runs per game in the eight games, losing five of them and being outscored 49-35. The last two weekends, NC State scored 10 runs in the four games it did not win by rout, which computes to 2.5 runs per game.

The lineup that was so solid one through nine is suddenly leaking oil from several spots in the order. Evan Mendoza (.481/.548/.593 in the eight games in question) is hitting at a Hall-of-Fame clip, while Brock Deatherage (.345/.406/.552) and Preston Palmeiro (.281/.343/.531) aren’t far behind. Chance Shepard (.250/.438/.583) and Brett Kinneman (.250/.382/.607) have been quite productive despite misleading .250 batting averages. Joe Dunand is hitting .258 with a .324 on-base percentage, but is slugging a puny .290.

And then it gets ugly. Josh McLain, who suffered a broken metatarsal in his left hand when struck by a pitch in the finale of the Georgia Tech series, is hitting .188 since then, with a .235 on-base percentage and a .290 slugging percentage. Playing with the broken bone won’t cause further injury but McLain is playing with pain and no doubt it’s affected his swing. He was the team’s hottest hitter by a wide margin heading into the Georgia Tech series.

Stephen Pitarra, in his first season as a regular and as leadoff hitter, seems to have hit the wall. During the team’s eight-game funk, Pitarra is hitting .156 with a .229 on-base percentage and a .156 slugging percentage.

Then there’s Andrew Knizner, one of the best pure hitters in the ACC the last two years. Knizner is batting .156 (4-for-32) during the eight-game slide, with a .176 OBP and a .156 slugging percentage. Even with more days off behind the plate this season thanks to the improved defensive play of Shepard, Knizner is still logging most of the innings at catcher, which takes a physical toll. Knizner was having a solid season through the Georgia Tech series, but is hitting .186 in the last 11 games. We can only hope this is not a late-onset of junioritis, a mysterious disorder that strikes draft-eligible players as the June draft approaches.

With so much on the line the next few weeks and with the pitching staff dinged up — more on that in a moment — this was an inopportune time for half the Wolfpack lineup to go into a collective slump. And this weekend may not offer many cures for what ails them. Louisville is one of the nation’s deepest and most talented teams. The sixth-ranked Cardinals lead the ACC in ERA at 2.83, with starters Brendan McKay (9-2, 2.22) and Drew Harrington (9-1, 1.73) ranking among the league’s best. Louisville’s Sunday starter, senior Kyle Funkhouser (6-3, 4.54), is no slouch either. Funkhouser was a first-round draft choice a year ago (35th overall by the Dodgers) but did not sign. He got off to a slow start to 2016 but has pitched progressively better each start for the last month. Closer Zack Burdi (1-2, 2.49, 7 saves) throws 99 mph with a good slider.

• Pitching Woes Continue: While the Wolfpack offense has jumped the rails the last month, the pitching staff continues to feel the longterm effect of two key injuries. 

Righthander Joe O’Donnell, at one time NC State’s Friday starter, has now been out of action seven weeks and counting since exiting in the first inning of the Wolfpack’s 8-5 loss March 25 at Florida State. Heading into that game, O’Donnell was 3-1 with a 2.64 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings.

Three weeks later, lefthanded reliever Will Gilbert came out of the middle game of the Georgia Tech series, on April 16 to be precise, and was out until the ninth inning of the Clemson series finale last weekend. He faced one Tiger batter and gave up the game-winning hit, but one hitter is not a good barometer of how far Gilbert is from the all-star form he exhibited before the injury. NC State needs Gilbert in the worst way — he was 1-0 with two saves and a 0.82 ERA in his last five appearances before his injury and is 3-0, 2.31 with four saves in 18 appearances overall — but even assuming he’s healthy, Gilbert has some rust to knock off following a three-week absence.

NC State has allowed 46 earned runs in 78 1/3 innings in its last three ACC series, a 5.29 ERA, but that includes three games against a hapless Duke offense that ranks next-to-last in the ACC in batting and dead last in runs scored per game and on-base percentage. Take those three games out of the equation and the Wolfpack’s ERA in series vs. Georgia Tech and Clemson is an alarming 7.48.

Not all of that is due to the absence of O’Donnell and Gilbert, but this is not a deep staff. There is, in fact, little margin for error, and losing those two is probably more error than the Wolfpack needs, especially at this point in the season.

There is some good news on the pitching front, specifically lefty starters Brian Brown (7-1, 2.48) and Ryan Williamson (7-1, 2.63). Brown has been the Wolfpack’s best starter for two seasons now, a 14-game winner for his career with at least four more starts coming this season. Williamson stepped into the weekend rotation on April 3 at Virginia and except for a blow-up at Georgia Tech he has pitched like an ace, going 3-1 with a 2.84 ERA his last six starts, 3-0, 1.39 not counting the game at Georgia Tech.

Williamson pitched his best game as a collegian and one of the best games by an NC State pitcher in recent memory last Sunday at Clemson, allowing just one unearned run on three hits in 7 2/3 innings. He struck out six, walked one, and generally made the Clemson hitters look like school children.

A cautionary note about Williamson, however. He had to come out of that game at Clemson in the eighth inning with tightness in his left forearm. He’s been cleared to pitch this weekend at Louisville. NC State can only hope he’s okay.

• The Run Support King: There’s nothing a pitcher likes more than run support from his teammates, and lefty Brian Brown has been swimming in run support this season. NC State has scored 113 runs in Brown’s 12 starts, an average of 9.42 runs per game.

The last month, however, the Wolfpack has scored enough runs for Brown to last a lifetime. It all began April 16 at Georgia Tech, a 15-6 rout for the Pack. A week later, Brown was the starting pitcher for NC State’s 25-1 annihilation of North Carolina A&T, and the following Saturday he got the win in the Wolfpack’s 12-2 romp over Duke. Last weekend, NC State blew up Clemson by a 20-9 score. Yes, Brown was the starting pitcher.

In Brown’s last three starts, NC State scored 57 runs, 35 of them while Brown was still in the game. (Two years ago, Carlos Rodon made 14 starts for the Wolfpack, which scored all of 48 runs in those 14 games. Explains a lot, doesn't it?) In Brown’s last four starts, the Pack scored 72 runs, 48 of them while Brown was in the game.

• Mendoza Still Raking: Evan Mendoza not only leads NC State in hitting with a .380 batting average, .041 ahead of runner-up Josh McLain, he is tied for sixth in the ACC in hitting, and also leads the Wolfpack in on-base percentage at .444.

Mendoza rides a 20-game hitting streak into Louisville this weekend, and as the streak has gone on he has hit with more and more authority. Six of the last seven games in the streak were multiple-hit games. Over his last 10 games, Mendoza is hitting .531 (17-for-32) with two home runs, 11 runs scored and nine RBIs. For the 20-game streak as a whole, Mendoza is batting .446 (29-for-65) with a double, two home runs, 16 runs scored and 14 driven in.

The NC State record for consecutive games with at least one hit is 26, set by Greg Briley back in 1986. Tom Sergio came within a game of matching that in 1995. Since then, three players — Brian Wright in 1999, Ryan Mathews in 2012 and Logan Ratledge a year ago — posted hitting streaks of 21 games.

• Snakebite: A quick note here on head coach Elliott Avent’s absence from the Louisville trip due to a copperhead bite. Those of us who live in Wake County know that copperheads are ubiquitous, especially in the county’s northern and northwestern suburbs. Their bite can be especially nasty. No, they’re not rattlesnakes and death from copperhead bite is extremely rare, but never underestimate the misery a copperhead can inflict. Pit vipers such as copperheads are especially dangerous this time of year when they’re fresh out of hibernation and their venom is strong and in plentiful supply.

The fact that Avent offered little resistance to his doctors when they told him not to travel this weekend speaks volumes about the pain he must be in and how serious this particular snakebite is. Avent is a Type A workaholic. To him the No. 1 responsibility in his job description is coaching games. The only games he ever missed were because of a suspension, the result of one of college baseball’s most spectacular ejections ever, and even though not allowed to coach the following weekend, he still made the trip to Charlottesville and managed to drive the press box crazy with constant phone calls for score updates.

Five years ago, he was in an auto accident on Oberlin Road in Raleigh and had to spend the night in the hospital with a concussion. Told to stay home and get plenty of bedrest for several days, Avent instead made the trip to UNC Wilmington two nights later, despite being in a thick mental fog most of the night. He even managed to get ejected that night without knowing it. Three batters into the next half-inning, the home-plate umpire stopped the game and had the surprised and wobbly Avent gently escorted to the team bus. He also coached a series a few years ago despite being nearly doubled over in pain from kidney stones.

For that same man to willingly miss one of the most crucial series of his career — this is not to say he was happy about it because he most certainly was not — says all you need to know about just how serious Avent’s snakebite is.

So make all the jokes you want about Avent and the Wolfpack being snakebit. Next time you go walking in tall grass or near a woodpile or along a city greenway, keep your eyes open. It could happen to you.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Staring Down Another Former Nemesis

NC State’s recent reversals against past tormentors gets another test this weekend when the Wolfpack plays a three-game Atlantic Coast Conference series at Clemson.

Newcomers to this rivalry might look at the schedule, see a series with Clemson and think this is a gimme for the Pack, which has, after all, won four of the last five regular-season series vs. the Tigers. NC State has even won its last two series at Clemson, which is among Wolfpack head coach Elliott Avent’s favorite places to visit and least favorite places to play.

Avent loves to visit. He fancies small, sleepy, Southern college towns, and Clemson could easily pass for a Southeastern Conference venue along the lines of Athens, Auburn, Oxford, Starkville and Baton Rouge. As much as Avent likes to visit Clemson and as much success as his teams have had against the Tigers the last five seasons, however, you can bet the mortgage he still has nightmares of past visits to Death Valley, which he will assure you is aptly named.

NC State has won its last two series in Death Valley and four of its last five games there. Prior to that, though, the Tigers absolutely owned the Wolfpack in the Upstate. Clemson officials no doubt sent out a police escort to make sure the NC State team bus made it to town safely for the start of the series each year. From the last game of the 2002 series at Clemson through the first game of the 2012 series there, the Tigers defeated the Wolfpack 12 times in 13 meetings at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. Clemson swept the Pack in 2004, 2006 and 2010, and won two of three in 2008. Understand that NC State was pretty good in 2004, and very good in 2006, 2008 and 2010, and still got boat-raced in Death Valley.

Former Clemson coach Jack Leggett owes a considerable chunk of his Hall-of-Fame credentials to his dominance of NC State. Leggett is gone now, fired by an empty suit masquerading as an athletics director. In Leggett’s place is Monte Lee, hired last summer from College of Charleston, where he built and maintained a mid-major powerhouse. In the 2010 NCAA Myrtle Beach Regional, Lee’s Cougars pounded the Wolfpack and future big league righthander Jake Buchanan by a 9-6 score that wasn’t that close. That was Lee’s second season at Charleston, his alma mater, and before he left to take the Clemson job, he coached the Cougars to three more NCAA postseason appearances, including a Super Regional berth in 2014. His seven-year record at Charleston was 276-145, an excellent .656 winning percentage and an average of nearly 40 wins per season. His last two teams there finished a combined 89-34.

Lee got off to a quick start at Clemson this spring, winning 17 of his first 20 games and five of his first six ACC contests, drawing near-universal acclaim for his handling of a young team in difficult circumstances. An early-season series win over arch-rival South Carolina guaranteed a lengthy honeymoon among the Tiger faithful. Turns out he needed it. After the quick start, which included a series win at Wake Forest, Lee’s Tigers got swept at Miami (could happen to anyone), lost two of three at Duke (not so easily explained), and got swept at Louisville (again, could happen to anyone). They managed to hold serve at home before dropping two of three to a floundering Georgia Tech squad two weeks ago.

The recent losses — eight defeats in their last 15 games and 12 in their last 18 ACC games — dropped the Tigers out of the national rankings, but their strength of schedule plus an impressive home series win last weekend against division-leading Florida State has kept them high in the NCAA’s Ratings Performance Index (the all-powerful RPI). Heading into this weekend’s series, NC State ranks eighth in the RPI, with Clemson right behind at No. 9.

The Tigers looked like their early-season selves in taking two of three from FSU, but of course, it’s no secret that Seminoles coach Mike Martin does not share Avent’s affection for the town of Clemson or anything about it. Clemson, in fact, has to rank near the top Martin’s list of least favorite places to visit, right between hell and Gainesville. Clemson’s fans can be loud, crude and omnipresent — imagine a casting call for the movie “Deliverance,” right in your own living room — and Martin has a reputation, deserved or not, for letting them get under his skin. Since joining the ACC in 1992, Martin’s Seminoles are now 14-25 in Death Valley. The Noles have lost nine of 14 series there, absorbing some memorable ass-whippings in front of the orange-clad faithful. Whether distracted by the hostile crowds or not, the Seminoles generally fare very poorly on their semi-annual trips to Tiger Town. They play like world-beaters most everywhere else.

None of which is meant to take anything away from Clemson’s series win last weekend. Quite the contrary. By defeating the Seminoles, and looking good doing it, Clemson has put some intrigue back into this weekend’s series with the Wolfpack, which is on track for a special season, but with a considerable amount of business still to tend to.

With three weekends left in the regular season, NC State is in position to challenge for its first-ever national seed for the NCAA Championship tournament, which would mean being in line to host a Super Regional. Following its trip to Death Valley, the Wolfpack travels to Louisville a week from now and then closes the regular season at home with a series against arch-rival North Carolina.

Clemson is fighting for a chance to host an NCAA regional. Louisville, No. 2 in the RPI, joins ACC rivals Florida State, Miami and NC State in the hunt for a national seed. No conference has ever gotten four of the eight national seeds, so one of those four is going to be disappointed. North Carolina, like Clemson, has struggled after a hot start but still has a high RPI and would like to fight its way back into the conversation for hosting a regional.

All three series are huge, especially the series next weekend at Louisville, and while losing any one of the three series might not necessarily be fatal, so much is on the line the next three weeks that the Wolfpack needs to win, win, win. A crash and burn at Clemson would not be a good way to start this final stretch.

There was a time not so long ago when a Wolfpack crash and burn in Death Valley was a sure thing. Those days are gone, at least for the time being, and the current NC State team has shown no signs of turning back. With so much on the line, it’s way too soon to turn back now.

• Relentless Offense: Duke’s pitching threw a wet blanket over NC State’s offense for much of last weekend’s series at Doak Field. The Wolfpack scored 16 runs in the series, 12 of them in the middle game of the series, and seven of the 12 in one inning when the Duke defense imploded, followed almost immediately by the pitching staff. Botched bunts on back-to-back at-bats led to the seven-run inning, with three of the runs unearned, but not necessarily undeserved. Take away that inning and the Wolfpack scored nine runs on 22 hits the rest of the series.

Last weekend notwithstanding, NC State’s offense continues to roll on, with a one-through-nine mentality in the lineup that makes this team so difficult to pitch to and so different from any Wolfpack teams of recent vintage. Seven of the nine everyday players are batting .305 or better, and everyone is hitting at least .286. Eight of the nine starters have at least 43 hits, with freshman left fielder Brett Kinneman lagging back with 24 only because he didn’t break into the lineup until five weeks ago.

Seven of the nine regulars are slugging at least .400, with first baseman Preston Palmeiro leading the way at .509. Six of the nine sport on-base percentages of .391 or better, led by Kinneman’s .449, right fielder Brock Deatherage’s .425 and third baseman Evan Mendoza’s .420. All nine have an OBP of at least .350. Mendoza, leading the team in batting with a .365 average and among the team leaders in both on-base percentage and slugging (.452), bats ninth. It’s that kind of lineup. Pass the baton. Keep the line moving. As a team, the Pack is hitting .310 and slugging .462 with a .391 on-base percentage.

The end result of all the stats is runs, and this Wolfpack team is averaging 7.02 runs per game through 43 games. The last NC State team to score more runs was the 2010 team, which scored 9.21 runs per game but with those ridiculous bats college baseball used prior to 2011. The Pack hit 98 home runs that year. The NCAA changed to the BBCOR bats for the 2011 season and NC State hasn’t hit 98 home runs in any two seasons combined since then. And that’s not a bad thing.

Focusing on the BBCOR era, only the 2012 team compares favorably offensively to the current squad. The 2012 Wolfpack, which averaged 6.93 runs per game, batted .297 and slugged .438 with a .376 on-base percentage. Of the seven everyday regulars on that team (two positions were platooned), five hit .300 or better with none lower than .278. Ryan Mathews belted 16 doubles and 17 home runs that year, giving him a team-best .628 slugging percentage. Danny Canela slugged .507, and four of the other five had slugging percentages of .417 or higher. Canela also led the team in batting (.348) and on-base percentage (.457), with Trea Turner sporting a.432 OBP and a school-record 57 steals.

Turner’s baserunning is the one dynamic that set the 2012 team apart. That club intimidated opponents with its speed — Turner completely unnerved opposing pitchers and catchers. While Deatherage is nearly as fast as Turner, whose sub-6.3 speed in the 60 was legendary, he is nowhere near the accomplished basestealer that Turner was. Turner and Jake Fincher, both freshmen, combined to steal 73 bases that year by themselves. The team stole 102. This year’s team, with 38 steals through 43 games, is on pace to steal 56 bases in the same number of games, 63.

While Turner scared the crap out of opponents with his speed, Mathews provided a power threat that the current team lacks, despite Chance Shepard’s 11 home runs. Those two gave the 2012 team a pair of dynamic star players unmatched by anyone on the current squad. Despite that, this year’s team has a better slugging percentage, a better on-base percentage, a better team batting average, and scores more runs per game thanks to the superior depth of its lineup. There are no breaks in this lineup, no easy outs. And that's what sets this team apart.

The 2012 team went to a Super Regional and might have advanced to the College World Series had it not been hosed by the NCAA Selection Committee and sent to top-seeded Florida for the Super Regional. The current team still has to write that chapter to its season and it’s a long way from here to there. Until then, comparisons are fun but ultimately meaningless.

• Sophomore Class, Addendum: A statistical note to add to last week’s piece about NC State’s sophomore class. The five sophomores in the everyday lineup — second baseman Stephen Pitarra, shortstop Joe Dunand, third baseman Evan Mendoza, center fielder Josh McLain and right fielder Brock Deatherage — plus reserve Shane Shepard (Tommy DeJuneas and Storm Edwards have 33 plate appearances between them and are not included), head into the Clemson series batting a collective .323 with a .402 on-base percentage and a .462 slugging percentage. They’ve stolen 31 bases in 40 attempts.

On the mound, DeJuneas and lefthander Brian Brown are a combined 8-2 with six saves and a 3.13 ERA. DeJunes has had his struggles in longer outings, but he’s been a reliable ninth-inning closer, and his fastball is electric. Brown has simply been, for the second year running, NC State’s best starting pitcher, sporting a 6-1 record with a 2.29 ERA in 11 starts.