Here are some thoughts and observations on NC State's baseball team following the weekend series at No. 4 North Carolina.
Toe-to-toe with a contender
North Carolina took two-of-three in the series and did so with a relentless offensive attack and pitching that ranks among the best in the nation. The Tar Heels entered the series with a team ERA of 2.62 and average scoring over seven runs per contest. While some long-time Carolina observers feel this is not the best team Mike Fox has had since coming to Chapel Hill, a team record of 27-7, 14-4 in the ACC suggests it is a national title contender.
NC State lost the first two games in Chapel Hill but the separation occurred late in the contest once the Wolfpack turned to the bullpen. For the first five or six innings on Friday and Saturday the games were nip and tuck and State will feel there was chances to win both.
In the series finale the Pack got what had been lacking earlier in the weekend in the form of Johnny Piedmonte. The big righty from Davidson, North Carolina gave NC State five huge shutout innings of relief, often finding ways to wiggle out of jams as North Carolina tried to repeat its late inning heroics.
Three games do not tell the tale of the tape, but from a NC State perspective the Wolfpack will likely gain confidence from its performance at UNC. The team stood toe-to-toe with an ACC and national title contender and handled itself well when the bullpen held up its end of the deal.
The victory Sunday was NC State’s second top-5 win of the season and will likely send the Wolfpack upwards in the RPI rankings. The remainder of the schedule, coupled with confidence gained from the weekend set with North Carolina, could propel State going forward. The possibility for the Pack to go on a late-season run is real.
Front to back
The regular weekend starters for NC State appears to be set. Head coach Elliott Avent looks comfortable with the trio of Sean Adler, Brian Brown and Michael Bienlien.
Avent has handed the ball to Bienlien on Sundays of late. He started versus North Carolina and put the Wolfpack in a position to win the game despite hurling only four innings.
A starting pitcher throwing only four innings may seem like a poor quality effort on the surface but what the freshman gave NC State on Sunday was much needed. It is akin to an inverse save or a hold in that he set up Piedmonte for his heroics. Make no mistake, Bienlien -- who is 2-1 on the season -- played a big role in the Wolfpack averting the sweep in Chapel Hill.
Brown has a quiet confidence about him-- or at least that’s the impression he gives. Often times in baseball the separation occurs with the third game in a series. Good teams win at least two games on a weekend set while bad teams lose at least two-of-three
This makes Brown’s starts important. Whether coming off a win or a loss, when NC State plays Saturday it will not be going against a beginning of the weekend starter and Avent probably feels Brown is as good as anyone the Wolfpack will face that same contest. If he gives the team six innings consistently and the State offense is holding up its end the Pack suddenly becomes a team that avoids prolonged losing streaks. Those are the squads that can make a deep run in the postseason.
Adler has been getting the nod on Fridays and, while he has fared well, his biggest issue typically has been the sheer quality of the opposition’s starter that same contest--especially as it pertains to the frontline starters in the ACC.
With Adler, it would be helpful for NC State if there is one more durable arm in the bullpen that can provide the Wolfpack with two or more innings of effective relief. If Piedmonte is going to be a midweek starter going forward, perhaps that could be his role and then Avent would need a reliable long man on Sunday.
None of the three starters will go eight or nine innings deep into a contest. NC State will go as far as its bullpen lets them.
Two out attack
NC State scored four of its seven runs in Chapel Hill with two outs. This comes after the Wolfpack scored six of its eight runs with two outs in a Sunday victory over No. 22 Florida State a week earlier.
Lambasted over the years for excessive bunting and sacrifices, the Pack is not giving up at bats as often in 2017 and is battling until the final out of each frame.
A first for Pitarra
In one of those weird moves that seemingly only Elliott Avent would think of, Stephen Pitarra is now a first baseman.
It first happened in the opener of NC State's series against Louisville, who was top-ranked at the time.
Regular first baseman Shane Shepard then got hurt against Campbell and Avent moved Pitarra, who had also been a designated hitter, back to first and he has not looked back.
Pitarra, who bats leadoff, had never played first base at any level but he has responded, both in the field and at the plate.
In the last five games, Pitarra has fielded the position flawlessly while going 8-for-20 at the dish over that span. NC State won three of the five games with two coming in league play against ranked opposition.