Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Unofficial Scorer’s All-Wolfpack Baseball Team 1981-2016 — Relief Pitchers

This is the 11th post in The Unofficial Scorer’s All-Wolfpack Baseball Team, 1981-2016. Today, we look at starting pitchers.

To recap how this team was selected, current players and players who finished their eligibility prior to 1981 were not eligible. Players who began their college career before 1981 but finished in 1981, ’82 or ’83 were eligible, with their pre-1981 achievements more or less grandfathered into this. This affected several players from the 1981 and ’82 teams.

At the end of the day, both objective analysis and subjective opinion played a role in determining who made this team. I’ve taken painstaking care in going over this to make sure I’ve included everyone who is worthy. If, however, I left off a deserving name, it was wholly inadvertent. And if your favorite player did not make this team, it was not intended in any way to diminish that player. NC State has had more than its share of great players. I couldn’t list everyone.

Coming Thursday: Superlatives from 1981-2016.

Relief Pitchers
• First Team — Joey Devine (2003-05)
For three years, Joey Devine came out of the NC State bullpen and pitched like a big leaguer. Like a big leaguer facing college hitters. He was as close to a human victory cigar as head coach Elliott Avent will ever know. Devine made 87 career appearances, picked up 11 wins, recorded 36 saves, struck out 206, and walked just 44 in 150 1/3 innings. He averaged 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings and posted a career ERA of 2.87. He holds the school records for appearances and saves. He ranks fourth in ACC history in saves. He is tied for the NC State single-season record with 36 appearances in 2003. He saved 14 games that year, tops in the ACC and one save shy of Jamie Wolkosky’s school record, set in 1992. He is the only Wolfpack pitcher ever to record 10 or more saves in a season more than once. He did it three times. He is one of just four NC State pitchers ever to make All-ACC three times, the only reliever on that list, and is one of just two Wolfpack pitchers (along with Carlos Rodon) to make first-team all-conference three times. Largely unheralded out of Junction City (Kan.) High School, Devine made life miserable for college hitters almost from the get-go. After emerging as the Wolfpack’s closer in the early weeks of the 2003 season, Devine helped NC State roll to a 45-win season (with only 10 home games due to stadium renovation) and advance to its first-ever NCAA Super Regional. Combining an unorthodox and highly deceptive near-sidearmed delivery with a mid-90s fastball and a wicked slider, Devine earned first-team All-ACC and second-team All-America honors as a freshman after compiling a 6-3 record, a 2.19 ERA and 14 saves in 36 appearances. He worked 65 2/3 innings, allowing 49 hits and 16 walks while striking out 78. Opposing hitters batted .210. Devine endured something of a sophomore slump in 2004, losing all four of his decisions with an inflated 5.25 ERA, yet he still led the conference with 10 saves and struck out 56 in 36 innings, 14.0 K’s per nine innings. He held opposing hitters to a .228 average. The ACC’s coaches dismissed the notion of Devine slumping and voted him first-team all-conference for the second time in as many seasons. There was no talk of a slump in 2005 as Devine had one of the greatest seasons ever by an NC State pitcher, starter or reliever, going 5-3 with 12 saves, a 2.03 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 48 2/3 innings. He began the season with six consecutive scoreless appearances (7.2 IP) and ended it with seven consecutive scoreless outings (11.1 IP). For the season, he walked a career-low 10 with a K/BB ratio of 7.2-to-1. He held opposing hitters to a .204 average. That June, the Atlanta Braves selected Devine with the 27th pick in the first round of the 2005 MLB Draft and had him in the big leagues less than two months later. Devine pitched parts of three seasons with the Braves before a 2008 trade to Oakland. Injuries began to interrupt his career about that time, and following Tommy John surgery in ’08, he made it back to Oakland briefly in 2011 before reinjuring his elbow and retiring in 2012. Devine recently re-enrolled in classes at NC State and will be a volunteer coach with the 2017 Wolfpack while finishing his undergraduate degree.

• Second Team — Clay Eason (1996-97)

NC State has had its share of great relievers over the years. I sorted through about a half-dozen names for this spot, but with apologies to Jamie Wolkosky, Grant Sasser and Will Gilbert, I chose Clay Eason because his story is by far the best and the most compelling of the bunch. Eason only pitched two seasons for the Wolfpack after transferring from Emmanuel (Ga.) College. In the first, 1996, he was arguably the worst pitcher in the Atlantic Coast Conference. That is not hyperbole. He stunk. He made eight appearances and allowed 13 runs, all earned, on eight hits and 12 walks in just 6 1/3 innings. That’s 13 runs and 20 baserunners in the span of just 19 outs. Not 19 innings, mind you; 19 outs. His ERA was 18.47. Hard to do. A year later, with a new head coach in Elliott Avent, Eason got a new lease on his baseball life and became just the second NC State pitcher ever to earn first-team All-America honors, going from worst pitcher in the ACC to arguably the best relief pitcher in college baseball, all in the span of a year. Even harder to do. And make no mistake about it, Eason earned it. He posted a 10-2 record with a 2.18 ERA and four saves. That’s not a lot of saves, but Avent didn’t use Eason as a traditional closer. Much has been made of the way Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona deployed Andrew Miller in the 2016 MLB postseason. Avent employed the same operating philosophy with Eason. Why save your best reliever for a ninth-inning save that might never happen? The game could be on the line anywhere from the second through the ninth, and Avent called Eason’s number whenever he felt a game was about to slip away, regardless of the inning. Eason made 28 appearances that year and worked 62 innings, an average of slightly more than two innings per appearance. Few of Eason’s appearances were average, however. Or conventional, for that matter, but again, he wasn’t a closer; he was an old-school fireman. When the alarm bells sounded, Eason came in and put out the fire. Of his four saves, only one was three or fewer outs, a two-out save April 11 vs. Maryland. In fact, he made just four appearances of three or fewer outs the entire season. On the other hand, he made 14 appearances of two or more innings, with an ERA of 1.83. Seven of those appearances were three innings or more, and his ERA in those seven was 1.23. The longer he pitched, the more likely NC State was to win, so no matter the inning or the situation, Avent called Eason’s number frequently and kept him on the mound until the world seemed safe again. With an average fastball, a hammer of a curveball and extraordinary command, Eason allowed just 42 hits and struck out 78 in 62 innings. He walked 27, giving him a WHIP of just 1.11. At season’s end, the ACC’s coaches voted him first-team all-conference. Collegiate Baseball magazine — with a little prodding from the NC State media relations office (i.e., me), including a faxed, typewritten game-by-game account of just how unconventionally Avent used Eason and how insanely effective he was — named him first-team All-America despite the absence of double-digit saves. That easily ranks as my most gratifying moment as a baseball SID. A little background: On the way home from the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament that year, a trip that took the team through the Atlanta airport, I had a brief conversation with Eason between flights. Already aware that Collegiate Baseball was strongly considering him, I let him know that he might make first-team All-America. He looked me straight in the eye and, in a voice that said he was certain I was stark raving mad, told me that if he was named first-team All-America he would run naked up and down the airport concourse. Collegiate Baseball announced its All-America team a week later, the day before NC State began play in the NCAA South II Regional in Tuscaloosa. Eason, hitting fungos as the Wolfpack took batting practice at Alabama’s Sewell-Thomas Stadium, was listed as the first-team All-America reliever. I showed him the press release and called him on his airport vow. He still hasn’t paid up, but he doesn’t need to. The look on his face (and on his father’s face later that afternoon) was all the payment I’ll ever need.

1 comment:

  1. Good work on all of these Bruce. I saw most of these guys, some more than others, and while I might differ slightly on a few spots if I was choosing I can see your point on each selection. I enjoyed reading each post.