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January 29, 2014

Baseball preview: Pack aims for repeat trip to Omaha




A year ago, NC State made its first College World Series appearance in 45 years, largely on the strength of a heralded sophomore class and a vastly underrated senior class.

The sophomores are juniors now. Led by two-time All-Americans Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner, that class is teeming with elite talent. Rodon, the best pitcher in college baseball, was 10-3 with a 2.99 ERA and a nation-high and school-record 184 strikeouts in 132 1/3 innings. Turner, a shortstop, batted .368 with a .455 on-base percentage, a .553 slugging percentage, 13 doubles, seven home runs and 30 steals while playing most of the season on a broken ankle.

Beyond those two, center fielder Jake Fincher (.313, 14 steals), catcher Brett Austin (.251, 21 doubles, 37 RBI) and second baseman Logan Ratledge (.250, 28 runs, 11 steals) return to provide reliable veteran leadership and production up the middle.

"You're talking about great players there, and great players do great things on the field," head coach Elliott Avent said. "There'll be some pressure on them. The expectations, especially for Carlos and Trea, are tremendous. And they're juniors, which means it's their draft year. That brings pressure. But these are guys who love to play the game. They live for the game. And because of that, I believe they'll handle the pressure."

The sophomores got most of the ink in 2013, but the seniors did much of the heavy lifting. The 2013 senior class may have been Avent's best in his 17 years on the job, and nowhere did those seniors flex their muscles more than in what may have been the best bullpen in the country.

"People who studied our team last year know that what made us a great team was our bullpen," Avent said. "I don't know how those guys got us out of some of the situations we put them in. They were just incredible."

How great was NC State's bullpen in 2013? During one 18-game stretch, in March, Wolfpack starting pitchers failed to pitch five full innings 14 times. They failed to get out of the second inning nine times. The average outing by a starter in that stretch, in fact, was less than three innings. That stretch could have been an utter disaster, but thanks to the bullpen NC State went 10-8 in those games.

Wolfpack relievers were 31-5 with a 2.57 ERA and 19 saves. In 315 innings, they limited opposing hitters to a .210 batting average. Left-hander Grant Sasser (3-0, 1.03 ERA, eight saves) and right-hander Chris Overman (1-1, 0.33 ERA, six saves) anchored the back end of the pen. Setting up those two and also pitching middle relief, Josh Easley was 7-2 with a 1.31 ERA and a save.

"Those three guys carried us down the stretch, and all three of them were seniors," Avent said. "The only guys back from last year's bullpen are Andrew Woeck [6-1, 3.09 ERA] and D.J. Thomas [2-0, 2.89 ERA], and they made their biggest contributions earlier in the year."

The candidates to fill the many holes in the bullpen are largely unproven. True freshmen Ryan Williamson, Joe O'Donnell, Cody Beckman and Cory Wilder were highly recruited, but are newcomers. Likewise, redshirt freshman Johnny Piedmonte has never pitched a college inning. Sophomores Brian Donovan, Will Gilbert, Karl Keglovits and Jon Olczak combined to pitch 30 2/3 innings in 2013.

"We're replacing proven seniors with guys who've never done it at this level, and that's a concern in a league as tough as the ACC," Avent said. "But I'm not going to sit here and say no one will step up to fill those roles. We need for Woeck and Thomas to pitch like they have in the past, and we need some of those younger guys to come through for us."

A year ago, Avent never hesitated to go to the bullpen, even in the first inning. He'll need to be more patient with his starters this year. The deeper into games the starters can pitch, the better. Rodon has always been the staff workhorse, but right-hander Logan Jernigan (1-1, 1.56 ERA, 34 2/3 innings) and lefty Brad Stone (3-2, 5.49 ERA) need to give the Wolfpack consistent innings. A little support from their teammates would help.

"The first thing we have to do is play great defense," Avent said. "Our pitching isn't good enough to overcome poor defense. If we want our starters to pitch deep into games, we have to play flawless defense behind them."

It would also help if the Wolfpack could score more runs. It's hard to imagine NC State scoring fewer runs than it did in 2013. The Wolfpack batted .277, scored just 5.3 runs per game, and slugged a meager 29 home runs, the fewest by a Wolfpack team in more than 30 years. This year's team doesn't figure to be power-laden, but should have no trouble putting more runs on the board.

"We had trouble scoring runs at times last year with a pretty capable offensive team," Avent said. "I don't think we'll be a great offensive team this year, but I'll be surprised if we don't score more runs."

At the top of the lineup, Turner appears fully recovered from the broken ankle that bothered him all spring and summer, and into the fall. Prior to the injury, suffered March 8 versus Clemson, Turner was playing at a level that would have had him in the running for the Golden Spikes Award. The injury robbed him of much of his elite speed and his defensive mobility. He looked fully recovered in the fall, and that's extremely bad news for the rest of the ACC.

The nucleus of Turner, Fincher, Austin and Ratledge will form the backbone of the everyday lineup. Several holdovers and newcomers will battle for the starting jobs at the corner positions. Bubby Riley, a transfer from Delgado Community College in New Orleans, should play left field. A small posse will battle for time in right. Freshmen Preston Palmeiro and Andrew Knizner are the favorites to flank Turner and Ratledge in the infield.

Avent's teams have always stressed defensive fundamentals, and this year's team should score more runs merely by virtue of Turner's return to health. In the end, however, Avent says it still will come down to the bullpen.

"We're still going to have to define what we're doing at the back end of games," he said. "Scoring more runs, playing great defense and getting more innings out of our starters - we need to do all that, and I believe we will. But if we're going to be a great team and meet expectations, we have to be able to pitch the late innings and close out games."



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