Well, time for college baseball at last. While baseball and spring might seem to go hand-in-hand, the college season starts off every year in the dead of winter. NC State opens its season on Friday against William & Mary, where temperatures are expected to be in the 30s.
The Wolfpack, ranked No. 28 in the Baseball America preseason poll, might keep opposing bats just as cold as the February weather all the way through June. The Pack enters the season with a deep, talented staff headlined by junior flamethrower Andrew Brackman.
"It's been nice having him out here the whole time – he's grown so much in just the mental part of the game," coach Elliot Avent said. "The last few years he just came out here and threw just on sheer ability. Now he has something to go with that."
But Brackman is just tip of the iceberg for the Pack pitching staff. The staff returns its top six relievers and two starters, adds on a couple of transfers and some freshman that could all contribute. Not to mention the return of Jeff Stallings, one of the Pack's best pitchers two years ago who missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
"We probably have the best staff we've ever had at NC State since I've been here," Avent said. "That's saying something, when I say that I talk about depth. I could throw name after name after name."
While the Pack returns plenty of pitchers from last season, the offense has undergone a complete overhaul. Last year the Pack pounded opponents into submission with a patient offense that got on base, worked counts and capitalized on mistakes.
But the Pack is now left with just three returning starters from last year's line-up. Five of the six departing players were taken in the draft, while third baseman Matt Mangini unexpectedly transferred to Oklahoma State. With a host of new faces the Pack is forced to re-establish its offensive identity. Despite the losses, Avent believes there is enough talent in the line-up to keep the Wolfpack offense churning.
"The one thing about NC State is that we're always known for having a great offense. We score a lot of run and we have the ability to that this year," Avent said. "We can bunt, we can handle the bat a little bit, and we've got some guys that understand the strike zone and have a lot of confidence, guys that are going to be clutch hitters. We can score runs in a lot of different ways."
Even though the season has been starting in early February for years, opening day seems to have crept up on Avent a little faster than normal. In his 11th season with the Pack, Avent has dealt with a rash of injuries and illnesses before the first pitch of the year is thrown. The variety of ailments have kept his players off the field and kept his team from being in top form for opening day.
"There's no way you can get prepared to be ready to go on February 9th with some of the injuries and some of the sicknesses we've had," Avent said. "We're going to get ready by going through the season, playing some games. You're not going to see a team this weekend that's ready to play."
The most damaging loss for the Pack has been the loss of Caleb Mangum, one of just three returning starters on offense. Mangum, an All-ACC player, hit .353 last season and is a great defender behind the plate. But the senior backstop will miss at least the first few weeks of the season with a knee injury, leaving two true freshman catchers to split time until he returns.
"You've got a couple of freshman behind him and you never want freshman to start at such a pivotal position," Avent said. "Hopefully we'll get him back in a few weeks – its not that tough and injury it's just something that we're trying to protect and hope he's healthy in May and June."
Pneumonia has been passed around like bubble gum in the locker room, most recently affecting pitcher Clayton Schunik. Marcus Jones, slated to be the Pack's starting center fielder, is suffering from a wrist injury that has him in and out of practice. Mike Roskopf, an Adam Dunn clone who should see plenty of time at DH, just returned from a hip injury that kept him in the dugout for most of January. Starting shortstop hopeful Drew Martin has a balky left shoulder that's hurting his throwing and could require surgery in the future.
Catcher: The position is Caleb Mangum's when he's healthy, but until then David Lindsay and Nate Cockman will split time behind the plate. Both players are true freshman and could struggle, especially defensively, as they try to fill in for the Pack's All-ACC catcher.
First base: Pat Ferguson, a JC transfer from California, will begin the season as the Pack's starting first baseman. The lefty-hitting junior hit .405 last season at Saddleback Community College, but wasn't much of a power threat with only five home runs. Mike Roskopf, a classic left slugger, will see some time at first but will spend most days in the DH slot.
Second base: One of the few spots on the field where the Pack won't see a new face, Ramon Corona returns after batting .353 for the Pack last season. Corona is one of two NC State players, along with Andrew Brackman, tabbed as a preseason All-American by Baseball America.
Shortstop: Junior college transfer Tommy Foschi will begin the season as the starter, but Drew Martin should get some starts as long as his shoulder holds up. The sophomore has been battling problems with his left (non-throwing) shoulder for some time and still has to wear a harness under his jersey when on the field.
Third base: The hot corner is one position that still has no clear-cut starter. The Pack could go with Ryan Howard - not the one of Phillies fame but a transfer from Paris JC in Texas. Joe Florio, another transfer, gives the Pack a lead-off option and could also see some time at third.
Outfield: Ryan Pond returns for the Pack and moves over the right field. Pond hit .288 for the Pack last season and also started four games as a pitcher, going 2-1 with a 6.20 ERA. Sophomore Marcus Jones, who hit .289 in limited play last year, moves into the starting center field spot. Jeremy Synan will take over in left field after hitting .288 in just 52 at-bats last season. Wade Moore, a true freshman, could see some time in the outfield or at designated hitter.
Starting Pitchers: Friday nights will be all Andrew Brackman, whose focus on baseball this year could lead to a monster season. From there, things get a little cloudier. Lefty Eric Surkamp is penciled in as the Saturday starter with Jeff Stallings following on Sundays. Stallings missed all of last year recovering from Tommy John's surgery but was a key piece of the Pack rotation two years ago, going 5-3 with a 3.48 ERA in nine starts. Jimmy Gillheeney, a true freshman that can throw four pitches for strikes, will begin the year as the mid-week starter but could work his way into the weekend rotation. Sam Brown, a freshman from Millbrook high school, and Clayton Schunik are also on the radar should any of the starters struggle.
Relief Pitchers: The coaching staff has tabbed former starter Eryk McConnell as their new closer. The red-shirt junior started 16 games for the Pack last year and went 7-6, but the staff thinks he has the make-up to thrive in the pressure-packed closer role. The Pack also returns its top six relievers from last season - Joey Cutler, Kyle Rutter, Travis High, Joel Brookens, Adam McLaurin and Matt Payne. Any of the starting rotation candidates could see innings out of the bullpen as well. Nate Karns, a true freshman who can dial up mid-90s heat, should also factor into the equation when he returns from injury.
Tomorrow Pack Pride will have an exclusive feature on 6-foot-10 junior Andrew Brackman so stay tuned!