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.

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