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.

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