Baseball Preview: N.C. State

After a four-month roller coaster regular season, the Cardinal get a clean slate. 3rd seeded Stanford begins their postseason journey on Friday morning with a matchup against #2 N.C. State in the Austin Regional. The Wolfpack, fresh off an impressive showing in the ACC Tournament, feature one of the most potent offenses in the country. Here is a complete preview of the opening-round tilt.

The N.C. State Wolfpack enter the Austin Regional on a very different note than the Cardinal.  While Stanford enjoyed a terrific final month of the regular season before falling flat during the last weekend, the Wolfpack were the exact opposite.  N.C. State struggled throughout the last month of the regular year before turning it on in the ACC Tournament. 

The Wolfpack's last series win was way back in mid-April (14th-16th) when they swept Maryland.  They followed that up with series losses to North Carolina, Miami, and Florida State with a two-game split versus last-place Virginia Tech mixed in.  But N.C. State turned things back in the right direction last week with an impressive showing in their conference tournament.  A 3-2 record saw the Wolfpack post all their wins against top-notch competition before eventually falling to top-seeded (and eventual #1 national seed) Clemson in the championship game.  That performance last week should mean N.C. State is riding high with a lot of confidence going into this regional.

The Wolfpack, the #2 seed in the Austin Regional, are 38-21 on the season.  Their 16-13 regular season record in ACC play was good for a tie for sixth place with Florida State (a #2 seed) and Wake Forest (a club that was left out of the NCAA Tournament). 

N.C. State was unranked in the preseason, but burst out of the gate with a spectacular 13-1 record in their first 14 games.  The offense carried the Wolfpack during that early stretch of games reaching double figures in nine of those wins.  Of course, it should be noted the type of teams N.C. State was taking on : Delaware State, Hofstra, North Carolina A&T, and Penn State among others.  Their first real test came in early-March when they hosted up-and-coming UCLA in a three-game series.  The Wolfpack never had a chance.  The Bruins went into Raleigh and held the vaunted offense to just eight runs over the three games en route to 7-2, 5-4, and 13-2 victories.  If you're looking for a comparison, Stanford fared much better against their Southern California rival notching one win in their series at UCLA (while losing another by one run).

As you would expect, N.C. State proved to be a very difficult team to beat at home during conference action.  The Wolfpack notched a series win over Georgia Tech (a national seed) and a sweep of Virginia (a regional host).  The ACC received a well-deserved seven bids into the NCAA Tournament, but the bottom four clubs (Maryland, Duke, Virginia Tech, and Boston College) are all terrible, and that's putting it mildly.  N.C. State missed Duke this year, but had little trouble against the other three teams.  Bottom line, the competition at the bottom of the ACC Conference is nowhere close to the bottom teams in the Pac-10.  The Wolfpack have put up some gaudy hitting numbers this year, but it should be noted that it wouldn't be nearly as high if they played Stanford's extremely difficult non-conference and conference schedules.

Speaking of those offensive numbers, N.C. State ranks right at the top of the ACC with a stellar .335 team batting average.  They score a whopping 8.8 runs per game and offer no breaks in their lineup for opposing pitchers.  There's good power up-and-down the order with five regulars currently hitting above the .340 mark.

The one caveat with their offense is that they have shown a tendency to slow down in big series'.  In addition to the matchup with UCLA, the Wolfpack have been swept two other times this year.  At Clemson in late-March, N.C. State mustered just nine runs over the three games.  Meanwhile, in a series at North Carolina (a regional host) in late-April, the Wolfpack pushed across just five runs in the three losses.  There's no question that N.C. State has an extremely potent offense - one of the best Stanford has seen this year.  It's an offense that could do some serious damage in the later games of the Austin Regional versus depleted pitching staffs.  But the matchup against probable first round draft pick Greg Reynolds on Friday morning could still very well be a low-scoring affair.

Individually, it all starts with senior center fielder Matt Camp.  A four-year starter, Camp resides in the leadoff spot in the order and is having another tremendous year.  Entering play this weekend, Camp is batting at a sizzling .387 clip with 20 doubles, two home runs, 42 RBI, and nine stolen bases.  He's everything you could want from a leadoff hitter as he makes a lot of contact, hits for a high average, can drop down a bunt, and has good speed.  Camp usually saves his best for the big games as well - another sign of a great player.  Last June in the Lincoln Regional, the leadoff man hit .462 (6-for-13).

While Camp and #2 hitter Ramon Corona (.363 AVG, 6 HR, 57 RBI) do a great job of setting the table, the 3-4-5 guys are some of the finest run producers in college baseball.  First baseman Aaron Bates was an All-American in 2005 as a redshirt sophomore when he hit an amazing .425 with 12 home runs.  Despite an eighth round draft selection last June, Bates elected to return to school.  The focal point of this lineup, the average has dropped for Bates this year although he still checks in at .338 heading into the weekend.  Add in 19 doubles, nine homers, 50 RBI, 44 walks, 16 hit by pitches, and a team-best .472 on-base percentage and you've got a serious threat in the middle of this order.  Certainly a key for Reynolds and any Cardinal relievers will be to limit the baserunners in front of Bates.

Jon Still and Brady Aragon complete the middle portion of this lineup as the duo has combined for 15 home runs.  N.C. State doesn't have any double-digit home run hitters, but everyone in the lineup has the ability to go deep meaning no lead will ever be safe.  Disch-Falk Field is a large ballpark though and with Reynolds on the mound Friday, it will be interesting to see if the Wolfpack elect to try to play some small ball early in the contest even with mind-boggling offensive numbers across the board.

On the mound, N.C. State owns a solid 4.37 team ERA.  They're without a dominant #1 starter which is a welcome sight for the Cardinal as they've faced so many in the Pac-10 and with their non-conference opponents this year.  Junior right-hander Gib Hobson has been their Friday ace and figures to be the most likely candidate to get the ball against the Cardinal.  In 13 starts and six relief appearances, Hobson boasts an impressive 9-1 record.  His ERA checks in at 4.60 while opponents are batting at a .287 clip against him.

Hobson has been a regular member of this starting rotation in each of the last two years.  Ironically, he was a teammate of Reynolds' last summer for the Bourne Braves in the Cape Cod League.  Reynolds and Hobson were both starting pitchers on that club with each putting up excellent numbers.  Reynolds had an ERA below two while Hobson notched six wins which was good for second in the entire league (2.55 ERA).

Hobson fired a complete-game ten-hitter versus North Carolina in their ACC Tournament opener last Wednesday.  He surrendered three runs to go with three strikeouts in N.C. State's 9-3 win.  However, the start before that saw Hobson tagged for eight earned runs on 11 hits over six innings versus Florida State.

Sophomore right-hander Eryk McConnell (7-6, 4.20 ERA, 83.2 IP, 21 BB, 65 SO) has been a solid #2 starter of late and has excellent control.  Freshman lefty Eric Surkamp (2-3, 4.89 ERA, 57.0 IP, 31 BB, 47 SO) and sophomore right-hander Ryan Pond (2-1, 6.20 ERA, 20.1 IP, 4 BB, 9 SO) have also garnered some starting assignments of late.  A lot of different pitchers see time on the mound for the Wolfpack with ten different hurlers registering 20 or more inning during the regular season.  Sam Walls (5-4, 2.91 ERA, 8 SV, 43.1 IP, 32 SO) gives N.C. State a very capable closer.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Matt Camp, CF  (Sr., .387, 2 HR, 42 RBI, 9 SB)
2. Ramon Corona, 2B  (So., .363, 6 HR, 57 RBI, 8 SB)
3. Aaron Bates, 1B  (Jr., .338, 9 HR, 50 RBI, 5 SB)
4. Jon Still, DH  (Jr., .347, 6 HR, 53 RBI, 3 SB)
5. Brian Aragon, RF  (Sr., .324, 9 HR, 52 RBI, 5 SB)
6. Ryan Pond, LF  (So., .285, 3 HR, 34 RBI, 3 SB)
7. Matt Mangini, 3B  (So., .342, 7 HR, 60 RBI, 1 SB)
8. Caleb Mangum, C  (Jr., .367, 4 HR, 34 RBI, 1 SB)
9. Jonathan Diaz, SS  (Jr., .270, 1 HR, 29 RBI, 5 SB)

SP - Gib Hobson, RHP  (Jr., 9-1, 4.60 ERA, 88.0 IP, 28 BB, 61 SO)




STANFORD NOTES
The Cardinal will be appearing in the NCAA Tournament for the 13th consecutive season when they take on the N.C. State Wolfpack on Friday morning.  Stanford finished the regular season with a 30-25 overall record.  Their 11-13 conference mark was good for a tie for fifth.

The Cardinal enjoyed a solid final month of the regular season to climb out of the Pac-10 cellar and into fifth place.  That strong finish was soured a bit by two season-ending losses to UC Davis last weekend, but Stanford still had just enough to earn an at-large bid into the postseason.

Greg Reynolds gets the start on the mound versus the Wolfpack - his second career postseason starting assignment.  Last June, Reynolds pitched into the 12th inning in the first championship game of the Waco Regional against the host Baylor Bears.  Reynolds suffered the loss, but only allowed four runs to go with ten strikeouts in what proved to be a preview of what he was capable of accomplishing during the 2006 campaign.

In 16 regular season starts totaling 111 2/3 innings, Reynolds went 6-5 with a 3.47 ERA.  He struck out 92 batters compared to just 26 walks and held opponents to a .254 batting average against.  The hard-throwing 6'7" right-hander has also been receiving mention as a potential high first round pick in next week's draft.

It certainly will be expected for Reynolds to go deep into Friday's game.  With the possibility of having to play four more games over the following three days, it will be of vital importance for Reynolds to eat up some innings to keep as many arms available as possible for the remainder of the weekend.  A key for Reynolds on Friday will certainly be to limit his walks.  As mentioned above, N.C. State features one of the best offenses the Cardinal have seen this year, so Reynolds can ill-afford too many free passes.

Offensively, Stanford has seen their season average climb to .279 after spending most of the year hovering around .260 and at the bottom of the conference.  Senior shortstop Chris Minaker is having an outstanding season and will certainly be the player opposing pitchers key on this weekend.  Minaker is currently leading the team in batting average (.346), doubles (17), home runs (11), RBI (64), and slugging percentage (.574).  Middle infield partner and classmate Chris Lewis has matched Minaker's production at the plate over the last month.  After a difficult first half of the year both offensively and defensively, Lewis has come on strong to end the regular season with a .308 batting average.  His totals of eight homers and 44 RBI are both second on the club to Minaker. 

Meanwhile, Michael Taylor has found his power stroke of late.  The sophomore right fielder hit three homers in the last eight games of the regular season (after one in the first 47) while his batting average currently resides at .309.  Center fielder Ryan Seawell has found a home in the leadoff spot in the order as his .319 batting average is second on the club (while his .422 on-base percentage is tops).  First baseman Jason Castro has hit safely in 12 of his last 13 games while Grant Escue has come out of nowhere to catch fire in the #2 spot in the order.  Escue, who is 14-for-28 on the year, figures to continue to see playing time at DH against right-handed pitching.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Ryan Seawell, CF  (Jr., .319, 2 HR, 11 RBI, 4 SB)
2. Grant Escue, DH  (Fr., 14-for-28, 0 HR, 7 RBI, 0 SB)
3. Chris Minaker, SS  (Sr., .346, 11 HR, 64 RBI, 5 SB)
4. Michael Taylor, RF  (So., .309, 4 HR, 33 RBI, 2 SB)
5. Chris Lewis, 2B  (Sr., .308, 8 HR, 44 RBI, 2 SB)
6. Jason Castro, 1B  (Fr., .277, 3 HR, 16 RBI, 5 SB)
7. Joey August, LF  (Fr., .266, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 2 SB)
8. John Hester, C  (Sr., .263, 1 HR, 19 RBI, 4 SB)
9. Randy Molina, 3B  (So., .297, 0 HR, 9 RBI, 0 SB)

SP - Greg Reynolds, RHP  (Jr., 6-5, 3.47 ERA, 111.2 IP, 26 BB, 92 SO)



ODDS AND ENDS
* N.C. State was a #2 seed in a regional hosted by Nebraska last year.  They never played the Cornhuskers though falling twice to third-seeded Creighton to end their season.

* Hobson threw a no-hitter versus Maryland in 2005 as a sophomore.

* Against the Tar Heels in their ACC Tournament opener, N.C. State defeated power left-hander Andrew Miller.  Miller is widely considered the top prospect in this year's draft and has an excellent chance to be selected first overall.  The UNC ace was charged with five earned runs on six hits with five walks over six innings.

* Bates is currently projected as a third round pick in the upcoming draft according to Baseball America (N.C. State's highest draft eligible prospect).

* The Wolfpack have scored in double figures 25 times this year (compared to just nine for Stanford).  They've also scored 20 or more runs in four games.

* N.C. State is 5-12 in games away from home versus NCAA Tournament clubs.  Three of those wins came last week at the ACC Tournament.  By comparison, Stanford is 3-6 (2-1 at Fresno State, 0-3 at Oregon State, 1-2 at UCLA).

* N.C. State (.970) fields at a slightly higher clip than the Cardinal (.967).  Stanford didn't commit an error in their final three games of the regular season.

* Stanford has twice previous traveled to Austin for NCAA Regional competition under Mark Marquess.  In 1981, Stanford advanced to the second championship game before falling to the host Longhorns, 10-2.  Then in 1994, the Cardinal went 0-2 dropping games to Texas and Oklahoma. 

* Last year, Stanford went 2-2 at the Waco Regional hosted by Baylor.  After a 5-1 loss to #2 seed TCU in their opening game, the Cardinal bounced back with consecutive wins over UT-San Antonio (6-2) and the Horned Frogs (12-4).  Stanford then dropped a heartbreaking 4-3, 12-inning affair to Baylor in the first championship game.

* Neither team is currently ranked in Baseball America's Top 25 also both clubs spent a portion of the season in the poll.



AUSTIN REGIONAL

All times Pacific.

Friday -
Game 2: (3) Stanford vs. (2) N.C. State, 9:00 A.M.
Game 1: (4) UT-Arlington vs. (1) Texas, 1:00 P.M.

Saturday -
Game 3: Game 1 Loser vs. Game 2 Loser, 9:00 A.M.
Game 4: Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner, 1:00 P.M.

Sunday -
Game 5: Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Loser, 10:00 A.M.
Game 6: Game 4 Winner vs. Game 5 Winner, 2:00 P.M.

Monday -
Game 7: If Game 5 Winner Defeats Game 4 Winner in Game 6, 4:00 P.M.


- All games televised live on ESPNU -

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