Baseball Tackles In-State Foes ECU, Elon
RALEIGH, N.C. Another week, another two-game midweek for NC State as the Wolfpack plays at East Carolina on Tuesday and at home against Elon on Wednesday.
Tuesday’s game at ECU is scheduled for a 6 p.m. start. Wednesday’s game at Doak Field at Dail Park will start at 6:30.
After playing four heavyweight conference series to begin the year, the Wolfpack enters the week 15-9 overall and 5-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and will take on two in-state rivals enjoying big seasons. The Pirates are coming off a series win at 19th-ranked Central Florida and are 18-7 overall. ECU enjoyed a 13-game winning streak the first three weeks of March. Elon, which began the year by winning 16 of its first 17 games, is coming off a series sweep at Furman and is 22-6 heading into the week.
The Wolfpack has struggled offensely but erupted for 15 hits in an 8-6 win over third-ranked North Carolina on Saturday. Sunday’s game with the Tar Heels was rained out, making Sunday starter Eryk McConnell (2-1, 4.62) available to start Tuesday against the Pirates. ECU will send Sthil Sowers (2-1, 5.55) to the mound. On Wednesday, Sam Brown (0-1, 3.68) will start for the Wolfpack against Elon’s J.D. Reichenbach (0-1, 2.00).
Senior right fielder Matt Payne (.367 average, 1 home run, 18 RBIs) continues to lead the Wolfpack offensively. Marcus Jones (.309-3-16), who homered in eight at-bats against North Carolina, Jeremy Synan (.311-0-11) and Pat Ferguson (.310-2-11) also have been swinging the bats well for the Wolfpack.
Junior first baseman Stephen Batts (.378-4-30), senior outfielder Harrison Eldridge (.388-2-15), junior second baseman Ryan Wood (,347-8-28), junior outfielder Brandon Henderson (.363-6-24) and senior catcher Corey Kemp (.366-6-26) lead a veteran ECU lineup offensively.
Elon takes its cue offensively from junior infielder Bennett Davis (.357-10-39), seniro infielder Donny Jobe (.356-1-25) and junior outfielder Chris Dove (.391-4-20).
Tuesday’s game will be broadcast live on WKNC-FM (88.1) and will be available on-line at gopack.com through Pack Pass. Wednesday’s game will be an internet broadcast only.
NC State vs. East Carolina: NC State holds a 60-36 lead in the series with East Carolina, including a 12-9 record since Elliott Avent became head coach of the Wolfpack in 1997. In the Avent era, NC State is 6-3 vs. the Pirates at Doak Field at Dail Park, 4-2 at Clark-LeClair Stadium, and 2-4 on neutral fields.
Despite the overall strength of both teams, NC State has enjoyed a surprising advantage in the series in recent years, winning three games in a row against ECU and seven of the last eight. The Wolfpack won both meetings a year ago. The Wolfpack took the opener March 3 at the Keith LeClair Classic in Greenville, winning 5-4 in 10 innings on Mike Roskopf’s pinch-hit single in the top of the 10th inning. Eryk McConnell worked the final 2 1/3 innings without allowing a run to pick up the victory. ECU made the return trip to Raleigh on April 4 and carried a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning thanks to the pitching of Mike Anderson and Jason Neitz, and solo home runs from Harrison Eldridge and Brandon Henderson. The Pack rallied for three in the bottom of the eighth on an RBI groundout by Ryan Pond, and RBI singles from Pat Ferguson and Caleb Mangum. McConnell got the final two outs to record the save in relief of winner Drew Taylor.
NC State vs. Elon: The Wolfpack has played Elon 36 times over the years, and NC State holds a 30-6 advantage in the series. The Pack is 9-1 against Elon since Elliott Avent became head coach in 1997, winning seven of eight games vs. the Phoenix at Doak Field at Dail Park and winning two of two at Elon. The two teams met at least once every year from 1999-2005. This year’s game marks the first time the two clubs have met since a 12-5 NC State victory on March 30, 2005.
Slumbering Bats Awaken vs. Tar Heels: Heading into last weekend’s abbreviated two-game series vs. No. 3 North Carolina at the USA Baseball Training Complex in Cary, N.C., NC State had lost three of its last four games, and the Wolfpack offense seemed to be in hibernation during the four-game slide. Counting a 9-5 win over Marshall on March 25, the Wolfpack batted .158 (19-for-120) during the four games, and in two of those games March 23 at Clemson and March 26 vs. Marshall the Pack got a combined three hits in 57 at-bats. The four-game slump dropped NC State’s team batting average from .293 to .270.
A series with the Tar Heels generally is not the way to shake an offense out of a slump (UNC has an ACC-best 2.34 staff ERA as of March 31), and the Heels’ Alex White and three relievers combined on a five-hitter, but the Wolfpack offense was much more aggressive in the opener, then erupted for 15 hits in the second and final game of the series, including eight hits in the final three innings. Leadoff hitter Dallas Poulk went 4-for-4 with a triple. Jeremy Synan had three hits and Nick Stanley had two hits. The 15 hits, which tied for the most given up by North Carolina in 2008, lifted the Wolfpack’s team average from .266 to .272.
Miscellaneous Pitching Notes: NC State has three pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched and an ERA of less than 2.00 ... Wolfpack pitchers have allowed double-figure hits nine times in 24 games, and double-digit runs just twice, both to Miami, which ranks 10th nationally in runs scored ... Through games of March 23, NC State ranked 12th nationally in staff ERA (3.02) ... Through games of March 30, opponents were batting .249 against NC State, and the opponents’ batting average had not gone north of .250 since the third game of the season.
Bullpen Notes: While NC State’s offense has struggled at times, its bullpen has been dominant. For the season, Wolfpack relievers are 11-2 with a 1.64 ERA and nine saves. The bullpen has allowed 88 hits and 31 walks while striking out 96 in 104 1/3 innings of work ... Three different NC State relievers have recorded saves, and eight have been credited with victories. In the last 15 games, 42 NC State relievers have gone to the mound, have logged a 7-0 record, saved six games, and posted a 1.15 ERA. In 62 2/3 innings, the pen allowed 16 runs, eight earned, on 47 hits and 16 walks while striking out 49 ... In its last five ACC games, in series at Clemson and at North Carolina, the bullpen went 2-0 with two saves and a 0.73 ERA, allowing one run on 11 hits in 12 1/3 innings, walking three and striking out eight ... For the season, Wolfpack relievers have inherited 50 baserunners and stranded 34 of them. Kyle Rutter has stranded 10 of 12 inherited runners, Jimmy Gillheeney has stranded seven of eight, and Alex Sogard has stranded eight of 11. Joey Cutler has inherited four runners and stranded all four.
Jimmy Gillheeney Anchoring Bullpen: NC State’s long run of standout closers continues in 2008 with the somewhat surprising emergence of sophomore lefthander Jimmy Gillheeney. A starter in 2007, Gillheeney has been just about a lead-pipe cinch at the end of games this season. In nine appearances, Gillheeney is 1-0 with a 0.59 ERA and six saves. Gillheeney who defies the stereotype of a hard-throwing closer, has allowed one run on seven hits in 15 1/3 innings. He has walked four and fanned 20. He has inherited seven baserunners and stranded six of them. Gillheeney has won or saved each of his last six appearances.
Typical for a college closer, Gillheeney’s saves have not all one-inning, 1-2-3 appearances in the ninth inning. His first save, March 2 at The Citadel, he stranded two runners on base in the bottom of the eighth before striking out the side on 10 pitches in the ninth. The following weekend at home against Virginia, he retired the Cavaliers in order in the ninth inning on 10 pitches in the middle game of a three-game ACC series, then entered the finale with one down and a runner aboard in the ninth. He struck out the two men he faced on a combined seven pitches. He recorded the final out in the eighth inning March 29 at North Carolina, then pitched around a pair of hits in the ninth, striking out perennial Wolfpack-killer Chad Flack for the final out of the Pack’s 8-6 win over the third-ranked Tar Heels.
Breakthrough Game For Alex Sogard: After two years of pretty much sitting on the bench at Oregon State, redshirt-sophomore lefthander Alex Sogard transferred to NC State in the hopes of assuming a much more prominent role with the Wolfpack than he had with the Beavers. He showed the rust of two years’ worth of inactivity in his first 10 appearances with the Wolfpack, then showed why he was so highly regarded out of Thunderbird High School in Phoenix, Ariz., with a sterling performance March 30 at third-ranked North Carolina. Sogard entered the game with one down in the sixth inning, a runner on first base and the Tar Heels leading 6-2. He got out of the sixth with a groundout and a fly ball to left, then set down the next five men in a row before turning the game over to closer Jimmy Gillheeney. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack offense scored three times in the top of the seventh and three more in the top of the eighth to make sogard the pitcher of record. Gillheeney nailed down the save for Sogard’s first college victory. In 2 1/3 shutout innings, Sogard allowed one hit and struck out one and used an efficient 26 pitches to retire seven batters.
Lineup Juggling: With his team scuffling to score runs, NC State coach Elliott Avent has juggled his lineup and milked his roster in an attempt to find the right offensive combination. Through 24 games, nearly halfway through the season, Avent has used the same lineup in consecutive games just once. He has used 11 different hitters in the six spot in the lineup, eight in the seven hole, and seven in the two and five spots. The Wolfpack has used six hitters in eighth spot in the order.
The most commonly used hitter at any spot in the starting lineup is Dallas Poulk, used 16 times as leadoff hitter.
Brutal Early Schedule Now Behind The Wolfpack: NC State opened the 2008 Atlantic Coast Conference season by diving head-first into the deep end of the pool. The Wolfpack’s first four series all were against traditional ACC heavyweights Virginia, Miami, at Clemson, at North Carolina. Miami (21-2 overall, 9-1 ACC) and North Carolina (21-5, 8-3) are ranked Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, in the latest Baseball America poll, and Virginia (23-5, 8-4) is No. 14. Clemson (18-8, 6-6) is unranked, but Doug Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson is one of the most daunting places for a visiting team to play.
Through games of March 30, those four teams had a combined overall record of 83-20 (.806) and a combined ACC record of 31-14 (.689). The Wolfpack came through that season-opening gauntlet with a 5-6 record, including a 2-3 combined record against the Hurricanes and Tar Heels.
NC State’s next five ACC series are Wake Forest (12-13, 5-6), Duke (21-7, 4-7), at Virginia Tech (8-18, 0-12), Boston College (11-14, 2-10) and at Maryland (14-13, 3-9). Those five teams combined are 66-65 overall (.504) and 14-44 in the ACC (.241).
Home Field Advantage: Since Doak Field reopened in 2005 as Doak Field at Dail Park following a $5 million renovation, NC State has been tough to beat at home. The Wolfpack went 27-5 at home in 2005, the fifth best home record since Doak Field first opened in 1966. The Pack went 24-7 at home in 2006, and finished 24-8 at the Doak a year ago. Off to an 11-5 start at home in 2008, NC State is now 86-25 at home since Doak Field at Dail Park re-opened in 2005, a .775 winning percentage.
Attendance News: Through 16 home games, NC State has drawn 16,716 fans to Doak Field at Dail Park, an average of 1,044 fans per game. Should that figure hold for the remainder of the season, NC State will finish with its fourth-best season ever for average attendance. The Wolfpack averaged 1,308 per game in 1995. A year ago, an average of 1,176 fans per game came through the turnstiles at the Doak, two more per game than attended in 2006.