With the Wolfpack’s series against the Tar Heels looming, NC State is starting to heat up at the right time.
After a disheartening start to the 2017 season, NC State’s season looks to be heading in the right direction.
The Wolfpack is currently riding a three-game winning streak into this weekend’s matchup against No. 5 UNC-Chapel Hill and has won six of its last nine contests. State wrapped up last weekend by taking two out of three against then-No. 22 Florida State, knocking the Seminoles out of the D1Baseball Top 25.
Despite an early No. 6 preseason ranking, when one looks at the early results in the schedule, this current streak can appear to be a stark contrast to the first games on the slate. Losses to Rhode Island, Maryland, and Charlotte as well as a series loss to now-No. 24 Wake Forest seemed to signal the end of the Pack’s chances before the season had barely begun. Even in the first Florida State game, it seemed to be a “return to form” as State surrendered 10 runs in the seventh inning to the ‘Noles.
But even though there have been games that had appeared out of reach, the Wolfpack refused to back down. Head coach Elliott Avent has mentioned time and time again that this team continues to fight with its backs against the wall. As an example, immediately after the 10-run inning the Seminoles had just finished, the Pack plated four runs in the bottom half of the frame. State also had a late-inning rally against Campbell fall short despite having a tying run 90 feet from home.
More importantly, NC State appears to finally have a strong offensive lineup that seems to bring out the best in the entire batting order. Junior infielder Stephen Pitarra had a horrendous start to 2017 after a strong season last year, ending 2016 as one of the Pack’s best hitters. Freshman infielder Will Wilson capitalized on Pitarra’s slump to earn the starting job at second base.
Pitarra looked to be on the outside looking in to get in the lineup until junior first baseman Shane Shepard got injured against Campbell. After starting the next game as probably one of the shortest first basemen ever, Pitarra was placed into the leadoff spot in the batting order, and he’s seemed to find his swing ever since. He’s currently batting .269, but whenever he’s leading off an inning, he’s floating around .500, and when somebody can set the table that early in an inning, it can easily translate to runs especially with Wilson and junior center fielder Josh McLain immediately following him.
Speaking of Wilson, the performance of the Wolfpack’s freshmen has been exceptional. Wilson and freshman catcher Brad Debo have catalyzed the offense while right-handed pitchers Dalton Feeney (2-1, 2.25 ERA, 1 Sv) and Michael Bienlien (2-1, 4.19 ERA) have provided strong support on the mound. Wilson is batting .302 with two home runs, 14 doubles, and a team-high 28 runs batted in while Debo is the team leader in batting average with .380 and already has three homers and 27 RBI.
After a couple of rough patches early as a reliever, Bienlien is currently State’s Sunday starter and picked up wins over Notre Dame and FSU and has struck out 26 batters in 34-1/3 innings. Like Bienlien, Feeney also has a few starts under his belt and has shown strong potential with 10 strikeouts in 16 innings of work.
Finally, the biggest indicator that NC State is back on track is the return of the Wolfpack’s ace southpaw: junior Brian Brown. After beginning the season injured, Brown returned to his role as the Saturday starter during the Wake Forest series but was limited in his first games back in the fold. Other than a rough matchup against Louisville, Brown has been dominant in his return. The Glenmoore, Pa. native picked up his first win of the season last Saturday against Florida State and will be pivotal in the Pack’s climb toward another trip to Omaha.
NC State has a tough road ahead especially with the Pack traveling to its biggest rival and one of the nation’s top teams. With everything clicking as of late, the Wolfpack looks poised to shake up the conference and return to form as a top contender in college baseball.