Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Unofficial Scorer’s NC State Baseball Superlatives: 1981-2016

In case you missed it, the Unofficial Scorer’s All-Wolfpack Baseball Team 1981-2016 is now unofficial (this is the Unofficial Scorer, so everything here is unofficial) and in the books. But I didn’t want to stop with simply naming the team and writing briefly about each player. Working NC State baseball the last 36 years not only allowed me to watch some great players and teams, but also experience some great moments and meet some great individual people, and I wanted to write a bit about some of that as well.

There are people in this world who go to the mall to sell shoes every day for a living. For several decades, I went to Doak Field and watched the Wolfpack play baseball. Whose job would you rather have? Don’t misunderstand. Working baseball can be a grind. A college baseball SID has to juggle a details and perform an equal number of thankless tasks. It’s hard work and in May and June the workweek often exceeds 100 hours, but I never once had to force a size 7 shoe onto a size 8 foot. Don’t think for a minute that I don’t appreciate that.

With that in mind, here are some superlatives for the All-Time Wolfpack Baseball Team 1981-2016.

Greatest player: Okay, right out of the gate I’m going to cop out and not name a greatest player. Instead, in the next few weeks I’m going to make the case for six players and let you decide for yourself. The six players played in different eras — from 1987 through 2014 — and their ranks include table-setters, sluggers and all-around all-stars. Comparing players from different eras is difficult, too much apples and oranges for me, especially when their skill sets are so dissimilar, so I’ll leave greatest player up to you. I’ll post an introductory essay next Tuesday.

Greatest starting pitcher: The nominees for greatest player are all position players. Comparing everyday players with pitchers is more than I care to deal with. Their contributions are so different and their values are measured in such disparate ways that I just decided to restrict outstanding player to position players. Besides, I already made it pretty clear who the greatest starter and the greatest reliever are. Their identity should surprise no one. Carlos Rodon was easily the greatest starting pitcher I ever saw in an NC State uniform.

Greatest relief pitcher: Same as the paragraph above. In case you haven’t been paying attention, the Wolfpack’s greatest reliever, by leaps and bounds, was Joey Devine. I’ve already made that case pretty clearly.

Most important player: Chris Combs.

The website address is If Twitter is your thing, try #TeamChrisCombs.

I think most NC State fans are aware by now that former Wolfpack standout Chris Combs (1994-97) was diagnosed this past spring with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, as it’s commonly known. I first met Chris when he was about 8 years old and serving as a bat boy for his dad with the Wolfpack’s summer league entry in a now-long defunct college summer league called the North State League. I met him then, but I didn’t really get to know him until he came to NC State as a player in the fall of 1993. Like everyone else who’s ever come in contact with him, I liked him immediately. Impossible not to, really. There’s something disarming about Chris Combs that just puts people at ease. Bloodlines certainly have something to do with it. As most Wolfpack fans know, Chris comes from a great family with super parents. He was raised well. And part of it is just his own DNA. I can’t say I know him well but I know him well enough. Wolfpack head coach Elliott Avent only coached Chris for one season but absolutely loved him, still does, and ranks him among his favorite players ever. Once his playing career was over, Chris and his people skills were a perfect fit for the Wolfpack Club. He was, and remains, a rising star there.

I don’t need to remind anyone what a horrible disease ALS is. And as most people reading this blog probably know, it’s stricken a disproportionate number of baseball people since Lou Gehrig was diagnosed in 1939, or so it seems. The list includes Gehrig, Catfish Hunter (how’s this for irony? Francis Combs, Chris’s father, was Hunter’s high school catcher), former big league catcher Ed Sadowski, Georgia Kindall (wife of former major league infielder and University of Arizona coach Jerry Kindall), former East Carolina coach Keith LeClair, and former Boston College first baseman and team captain Pete Frates. Painful as it is, we now have to add Chris Combs to the list.

To no one’s surprise and to his everlasting credit, Chris is not fighting ALS in private. Possibly because of his high-profile job and his fund-raising contacts with the Wolfpack Club — more likely because he’s a competitive former ballplayer and plays everything to win — he’s fighting this very much in the public eye (again, check out the Twitter account and website address above, and don’t be afraid to pull out your checkbook). A charity auction he helped to organize in October raised more than $1 million for ALS awareness and research. We can expect much more of the same in the months and years ahead.

Because of Frates, diagnosed in 2012, college baseball has moved into the forefront of the fight against ALS. Frates was the inspiration for the now legendary ice-bucket challenge, which helped to raise hundreds of million of dollars for ALS research. BC head coach Mike Gambino’s stated goal is to make college baseball as synonymous with the fight against ALS as college basketball is for its Coaches Against Cancer campaign. Because of Chris Combs, NC State now has joined Boston College as leaders of that fight, and that means everyone, administration, coaches, players, former players, fans, former SIDs and blog writers, like it or not, we’re all part of this.

Dating back to Lou Gehrig’s diagnosis in 1939, medical science went more than seven decades with no progress towards finding any kind of treatment or cure for ALS. No progress, as in none at all, nada, zip, zero, the null set. That’s changed in the last few years. Thanks to research funded by the ice-bucket challenge, a gene that researchers believe is a common link among ALS sufferers has been discovered and isolated. Because of this discovery and subsequent research, a possible treatment could be approved by the FDA in the next year or so. That’s a far cry from a cure, mind you, a quantum leap, in fact, but a treatment to help allay some of the symptoms is a huge first step. And that’s where we come in. At the very least, contribute to your local ALS Foundation chapter. Wear the red bracelet to show your support in the fight against ALS. And don’t forget to pray, for Chris Combs, for Pete Frates, for every ALS patient, and for their families and their loved ones. Keep them in your thoughts. Send them good vibrations.

Heightened awareness and further research are vital in helping to strike out ALS. This is more than sports; it’s life and death, and it’s the least we can do to honor Chris Combs, who is now the most important and the most inspirational player in NC State baseball history. His fight is our fight.

Most gratifying moment(s): The story about helping get Clay Eason named first-team All-America ranks as my most gratifying moment as a baseball SID. Eason suffered through a humiliating first season with the Wolfpack, but his senior campaign may have been the greatest single season I ever saw by an NC State reliever. Because he only saved four games, his work did not fit the traditional statistical profile of a bullpen ace, a “closer,” which is what usually draws postseason accolades. Clay did all the work. All props to him. All I did was watch and tell people about it. Nice work if you can get it, right? I was only glad to help.

The other moment that stands out came that same season, during the ACC baseball tournament in St. Petersburg. I forget which day it was, but the All-ACC team was announced during the tournament — during one of NC State’s games, in fact — and on the postgame walk back to the team hotel (directly across the street from Al Lang Stadium), I pulled senior catcher/DH Scott Lawler aside and told him he had made second-team all-conference. Lawler was and remains one of those all-time good guys who are so easy to pull for. He struggled to stay in the lineup much of his early career with the Wolfpack, but was one of several players who made a connection with then-first-year head coach Elliott Avent. In ’97 Lawler had a terrific senior season on a terrific team that won 43 games in a storybook season. And he was so grateful for the recognition. It was only second team All-ACC but you’d have thought he’d won the World Series and been elected to the Hall of Fame. Lawler’s family, all terrific people, was with him when I delivered the news, and their reaction was priceless, one of those feel-good moments that makes the job a little less of a grind.

Favorite player: Jonathan Diaz. See his entry in the shortstop listing.

Most deserving players who didn’t make this team: In retrospect, I have no doubt whatsoever that I got the entire first team of the All-Wolfpack Baseball Team 1981-2016 exactly right. Nailed each and every one. You can disagree with me but you’d be dead wrong. Second team, well, that’s another story. I’m not saying I got it wrong, just that there were some really tough choices to make, none of which would have been the wrong choice. I went back and forth at several positions, even compromised to the point of adding an extra starting pitcher to the second team, and I still came away with some nagging doubts. The guys that ultimately made second team all were deserving of recognition, but so were several who didn’t make the cut. It was with deep regret that I had to omit any of them.

At first base, Aaron Bates (2005-06) had an incredible two-year run here after transferring from San Jose State. He batted .425 with a .523 on-base percentage (both just missed setting school records) in 2005 and earned All-America and first-team All-ACC honors in the process. He was almost as good a year later, although opposing pitchers were much more careful pitching to him. His numbers declined some as a result, but he still earned second-team all-conference. Bates anchored the heart of the order for two of the best offensive teams in school history. There’s a reason for that. His .387 career batting average is still tops in school history. At almost any other position he’d have made second team easily, maybe first team. With Turtle Zaun and Tracy Woodson standing in his way, however, Bates had no shot.

Choosing Brian Ward over Doug Strange (1983-85) for second-team second baseman was probably the most difficult call I made, one that I went back and forth on for weeks. It didn’t help matters that I consider both to be great friends, and badly wanted to include them both. It did not help Strange’s cause that NC State played played just 37, 40 and 45 games, respectively, in his three years in Raleigh. I talked about this in the entries for Woodson at first base and for Chuckie Canady in left field, and it definitely applies to Strange. I have no idea what kind of numbers he’d have put up had he played 60 games each year. Ward, on the other hand, played more games in two seasons (126) than Strange did in three (121) and put up record-breaking numbers. That much I do know. Strange was a great player who went on to enjoy a nine-year big league career, but his college career was truncated by an administration that chose to cut costs rather than field a baseball team for an entire season. Everyone who played in those years deserved better, including Doug Strange.

Former Wolfpack coach Sam Esposito used to preach that catcher and shortstop are defensive positions, that you have to get defense from your catcher and shortstop, even if that means sacrificing some offense. So be it. Those words have stayed with me over the years — many of Espo’s lessons are burned into my memory bank — and in large part because of that, my second-team choices at catcher and shortstop — Greg Almond and Jonathan Diaz, respectively — were the best defensive players NC State has had at those two positions. Almond was actually a pretty good hitter and made second-team All-ACC in both 1992 and ’93, but several Wolfpack catchers over the years hit better and were good defenders as well. None played defense like Almond, however. He was the best defensive catcher I’ve seen in 36 years.

At shortstop, Alex Wallace (1984-87) was a superb player for four years, a three-year team captain and a smooth defensive shortstop with some pop in his bat. Terrific player, and another good friend. Chris Diaz (2010-12) was an All-American in 2012, an excellent defender who punished the ball offensively, and an acclaimed team leader. I went with defense again. It is my honest opinion that if NC State plays baseball for another 100 years, the likes of Jonathan Diaz (Chris’s older brother) might not pass through those clubhouse doors again. That’s not a knock on Wallace or Chris Diaz any other shortstop who’s played here, or who will play here in the future. That’s just a hint at how special Jonathan Diaz was with a glove on his left hand.

My first two years covering NC State baseball were 1981 and ’82 when I was the play-by-play announcer for games on WKNC-FM. It was my great pleasure those years to call games pitched by Joe and Dan Plesac. Dan (1981-83) went on to pitch for 18 years in the major leagues and now is a successful and highly entertaining analyst on the MLB Network. It was his brother Joe (1980-82), however, who came within an eyelash of making the All-Wolfpack Baseball Team 1981-2016. Joe was first-team All-ACC his first two years at NC State, a dynamite starting pitcher who was money in the bank every time Esposito handed him the ball. Dan was something of an erratic fireballer who lit up radar guns, made second-team all-conference as a freshman, and became a first-round draft pick in 1983. Joe, on the other hand, was a polished pitcher, blessed with a good two-seam fastball, a plus breaking ball and changeup, and had command of all three. When Dan was in the strike zone (which was not as often as his coaches might have liked), he blew hitters away. Joe lived on the fringes of the strike zone and routinely carved up opposing lineups. Joe probably would have been a first-round pick in the 1982 draft, but a shoulder injury held him back and dropped him into the second round, where the Padres took him. He never made the big leagues, but when healthy he certainly looked like a future big leaguer. I already had four second-team starting pitchers when I got around to Joe, and I just couldn’t stretch it to five.

No one was more deserving of making this team than Clay Eason, but he was hardly the only reliever I considered for the second team. Brian Bark (1987-90), the first-team center fielder, is second in school history with 20 career saves and led the ACC in saves as a senior in 1990. Jamie Wolkosky made first-team All-America after setting what then was an ACC record (and is still an NC State record) with 15 saves in 1992, his only year in Raleigh. Grant Sasser (2008-13) was 3-0 with a 1.03 ERA and eight saves in 33 appearances in 2013. His slider was lethal and opposing hitters batted .193 against him. In many respects, he was as responsible as Carlos Rodon for NC State clawing its way to the College World Series.

So as you can see, many of the second-team selections weren’t as cut and dried as the first-team picks. Many of those who were left off easily could have made it, and many who made it easily could have been left off. Had I done this team a week earlier or a week later, things might look very different. That’s how much I wavered.

Best team: 2013. Other teams hit better than this one (most teams hit better than this one), but none pitched better, especially out of the bullpen, and none had better or tougher leadership. I don’t remember a Wolfpack team winning so many close, low-scoring games or winning so many games when the starting pitcher (always someone not named Carlos Rodon) failed to get out of the third or fourth inning. And of the 36 NC State teams I’ve covered or worked, this is the only one to get to the College World Series. They always found a way to beat you. Case closed.

Best everyday lineup: 1988, 2005-2006. More on both below, but in a nutshell, the ’88 team is listed here for its overpowering offense, the 2005 and ’06 teams for their combination for strong offense and other-worldly defense.

Best hitting team: 1988. This team put up video-game numbers — a .346 team batting average, 9.36 runs per game, 139 doubles, 123 home runs, a .419 on-base percentage and a .591 slugging percentage. Unreal. Six different players hit 10 or more home runs and eight drove in 40 or more runs. For some perspective, one player on last year’s team hit double-digit homers and three drove in 40 or more runs. Four players from the ’88 team made first-team All-ACC and another made second-team. Turtle Zaun earned ACC Player of the Year and All-America honors by hitting .399 with 19 doubles, 25 home runs, 87 RBIs, a .489 on-base percentage and an .811 slugging percentage.

Best defensive team: 2005 and 2006. Both teams had basically the same lineup, so I’ve lumped them together here. Both were exceptional defensive teams, especially up the middle with catchers Jake Muyco (2005) and Caleb Mangum (2006), second baseman Ramon Corona, shortstop Jonathan Diaz and center fielder Matt Camp. Diaz and Camp, both with instincts and baseball IQs off the charts, were like coaches on the field. Watching these two teams execute fundamentals such as cutoffs and relays and first-and-third plays was like watching big leaguers run a clinic.

Favorite team: 1992. I liked pretty much every team I worked with, genuinely loved several of them, but the 1992 team was the first that I officially travelled with. I made more meaningful and lasting friendships with guys from that team than from any other. That’s my sentimental reason for choosing it. There were objective reasons as well. The ’92 team was a great team, 46-18 overall, 15-9 in conference play, and a beast down the stretch, winning 24 times in a 32-game stretch through the ACC Tournament finals. Four players from that team made first-team All-ACC — shortstop Sean Drinkwater, designated hitter Vinny Hughes, starting pitcher Matt Donahue and relief pitcher Jamie Wolkosky. Three more — third baseman Paul Borawski, outfielder Pat Clougherty and catcher Greg Almond — were voted second-team all-conference. Donahue and Wolkosky anchored the pitching staff and both were All-Americans. After finishing third in the league’s regular-season standings, the 1992 Wolfpack won the ACC championship, the program’s last ACC title (a drought that hopefully ends in Louisville this coming June). Hughes, Drinkwater, Borawski and Donahue were voted to the all-tournament team. Donahue won two games in the tournament, both complete games, the second one on short rest in the finals, and was voted tournament MVP.

Best overall pitching staff: 2013. NC State was hardly an offensive juggernaut in 2013. The team hit .277, scored about six runs per game and had slugging and on-base percentages well south of .400. Keep those guys in the game, however, and they usually found a way to win. And that pitching staff invariably kept them in the game. Combine Carlos Rodon (10-3, 2.99 ERA) and a bullpen anchored by Grant Sasser (3-0, 1.03, 8 saves, 33 appearances, 43.2 IP, .193 opponents batting average), Chris Overman (1-1, 0.33, 6 saves, 21 appearances, 27.1 IP, .110 opponents average), and Josh Easley (7-2, 1.38, 1 save, 25 appearances, 45.2 IP, .224 opponents average) and it’s easy to see how NC State got to Omaha. The staff ERA was 3.08 for the season, but 1.71 in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. It was 2.03 in the three rounds of the NCAA Tournament. When the money was on the table, they delivered.

Best starting rotation: 1992. Matt Donahue (14-2, 2.41), Terry Harvey (6-2, 2.48), Shawn Senior (5-3, 4.19), Rob Steinert (3-2, 5.23) and Tommy Sports (7-1, 2.69) combined to pitch nine complete games with 395 strikeouts and a 3.01 ERA in 386 innings. Donahue was the staff bellwether, but he wasn’t alone. Harvey came from football and earned Freshman All-America. Sports transferred in from Methodist College and seemingly came out of nowhere the second half of the season. Senior, a future fourth-round draft pick, was a stalwart all year, a tough lefty with a big curveball. Helping the starters immensely was All-America closer Jamie Wolkosky, who saved a school-record 15 games.

Best bullpen: 2013. The true and often overlooked heroes on the 2013 College World Series team. The 2013 bullpen went 31-5 with 19 saves and a 2.57 ERA. The pen made 203 appearances, worked 315 innings (4 2/3 innings per game), allowed just 238 hits and held opposing hitters to a .210 average. Over the final 41 games of the season, the pen went 20-2 with 13 saves and a 2.24 ERA in 181 innings. Rodon made 19 starts, usually giving the relievers the night off. The bullpen did most of the heavy lifting the rest of the time.

Most memorable season: 2003 — Hard to beat a College World Series appearance, but 2003 was truly unique. With only 10 home games all season and a lot of long bus rides and forgettable hotel stays due to stadium renovations, the 2003 season was exhausting and exhilarating. After a 5-4 start, the Wolfpack developed a road-warrior mentality, won 16 games in a row, and never looked back. They kept on winning, rising in the polls as the season unfolded and reaching as high as No. 2 in April and early May. NC State advanced to the finals of the ACC Tournament and hosted an NCAA regional in Wilson before ending the season at the school’s first NCAA Super Regional.

Toughest team to kill: NC State has authored numerous great comebacks over the years, but in 1997, Elliott Avent’s first Wolfpack team pulled off one stirring come-from-behind victory after another. That team was never out of a game.

On Feb. 21, the Wolfpack trailed a strong New Orleans team 5-0 through seven innings in the first round of the Winn-Dixie Showdown at the Louisiana Superdome. Thanks to Jake Weber’s grand slam homer, NC State scored five runs in the top of the eighth and won 8-5 in extra innings.

On March 11, George Mason led NC State 7-2 in the bottom of the sixth inning at Doak Field, and 8-4 heading into the bottom of the eighth. The Wolfpack scored two in the sixth and four in the eighth to tie the game at 8-8, then won 9-8 on Tom Sergio’s two-out solo homer in the bottom of the ninth.

On April 1, 1997, in the granddaddy of all comebacks, NC State trailed The Citadel 11-1 heading into the bottom of the sixth inning in the first game of a doubleheader. Thanks to a grand-slam homer by Scott Lawler and back-to-back homers from Jake Weber and Chris Combs, the Pack scored 11 times in the bottom of the sixth and won going away, 17-13. (NC State won the nightcap 16-0, btw, meaning the Wolfpack outscored The Citadel 32-2 over the final 13 innings of the twin-bill.)

On April 4, NC State trailed North Carolina 3-0 in the sixth inning, 7-3 in the seventh, and 8-5 in the eighth, but rallied each time, winning on 9-7 on Brad Piercy’s two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth. In that game, Chris Combs hit the longest ball I ever saw struck at Doak Field, a blast just to the left of dead center field that cleared the south goal on the practice soccer field on Lee Field.

On May 22 in the first round of the NCAA South II Regional in Tuscaloosa, the Wolfpack trailed perennial NCAA Tournament power Wichita State 8-0 heading into the bottom of the seventh, but scored six in the seventh and three more in the eighth to tie the score at 9-9. Walk-on infielder Jason Smith stroked an RBI single in the bottom of the 10th to secure the victory and shock the Shockers, 10-9.

Most memorable moment: Winning the 2013 super regional and getting to the College World Series for the first time since 1968. Dating back to the 1980s, NC State fought an uphill battle for respect and credibility in the world of college baseball. Beginning in 1986, the Wolfpack became a regular participant in the NCAA Tournament, earning a regional bid 24 times in 31 years, including a school-record six years in a row from 2003-08. Several of those teams knocked on the door to the College World Series. The 1991 team made the regional finals in Gainesville. The Wolfpack was the last unbeaten team in the 1998 West Regional in Palo Alto. The 2003, ’08 and ’12 teams advanced to NCAA Super Regionals only to lose. So many teams got within hailing distance of Omaha, but the frustration mounted and by 2013 it had been 45 years. That’s a lot of history, a lot of teams, and several generations of players who gave their all only to fall short. The 2013 team was playing for those all those former players as well themselves. All of that added up to a lot of pressure on a team already fighting history and great expectations. When the ’13 team finally got that monkey off its collective backs, they did it the hard way. Yes, the Pack swept the Super Regional against Rice, but had to rally for a pair of two-out runs in the bottom of the ninth to win game one, then went 17 innings and a lengthy rain delay before eliminating the Owls in a nail-biting marathon in game two. It had to be the most excruciatingly difficult sweep in college baseball history.

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