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.

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