N.C. State, a preseason top 10 team and a favorite to get back to Omaha, lost its ninth consecutive conference game Sunday in lopsided fashion to Miami. Zack Collins belted a pair of homers in a six-RBI afternoon to propel the Canes (17-12, 8-4) to a 12-5 win. The Pack (15-11, 3-9) dropped the first two games of the series by identical 2-1 scores.
The series was a microcosm of what's wrong with the team in 2014. First and foremost, with the loss of Tarran Senay (eight home runs, .459 slg%) and Grant Clyde (16 doubles, .429 slg%) from the middle of the order, the team lacks offensive punch. The 2014 team's slugging percentage is down from .381 last year to .356. The Pack are averaging just 2.9 runs per game against teams from BCS conferences; they're 4-10 in those games. It's telling that Logan Ratledge, a guy triple slashing .213/.286/.319, and Bubby Riley (.208/.356/.264) are typically fixtures in the top five slots in the batting order. Ratledge batted second Sunday and went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. Riley was 0-for-3 from the #5 spot.
After Carlos Rodon, last year's staff lacked any consistency from the starting rotation, but a deep bullpen bailed out the starters time and time again. It's more research than I'm willing to do on this somber evening, but at one point last year the team won something like eight or nine games in a row in come-from-behind fashion. That just doesn't happen, but it did. When Logan Jernigan or Ethan Ogburn went to the showers early, Andrew Woeck, Ryan Wilkins, Travis Orwig, Josh Easley, Grant Sasser, and Chris Overman held the opponent within reach until a rally put the Pack on top in the end. The only guy back from that group is Woeck, and the starting staff has been so bad behind Rodon again this year that Woeck has been forced into the rotation.
That's the second reason for State's struggles: the bullpen has gone from being arguably the best in the nation to being battered. The series finale against the Canes was a great example, or perhaps a terrible yet illustrative example. Jernigan spotted Miami three runs before a quick hook and the Pack eventually went down 4-0. They battled back to take a 5-4 lead. Last year's team wins. This year's team coughs up eight more runs. D.J. Thomas (1.88 ERA) is about the only guy Elliott Avent can count on but he couldn't go to him on Sunday because Thomas went 3.2 innings the day before. Instead, Avent turned to demoted starter Brad Stone, who continued his Steve Blass impersonation by hitting a guy, walking a guy, and going 3-0 on the next batter before being yanked. On comes Jon Olczak, a sophomore who hadn't allowed a run all year but really has never pitched in this kind of high leverage situation. By the time he left the game his ERA had gone from 0.00 to 5.23. State now has five relievers with an ERA over five. Last year they had five guys make 15 or more appearances and post and ERA of 3.09 or lower.
A third problem is in the dugout. Avent has done a good job at N.C. State and I am not calling for his head or even suggesting he's on the hot seat, but he is not exactly Tony LaRussa when it comes to pressing the right managerial buttons. A couple of glaring examples from the weekend were his ill-timed bunts. The man loves his bunts, and the book says that with a runner on second and no outs, down a run in the bottom of the ninth at home, play for the tie. Avent did so in game two of the series with Andrew Knizner at the plate. Knizner leads the team in hitting and slugging; in fact, his slugging percentage (.529) is 62 points higher than Trea Turner's. Avent took the bat out of the hands of the guy who has been the team's best hitter all season. Knizner may have won it with a home run; he may have doubled in the run and given the team a chance to win it instead of tie it. Instead, Knizner moved the runner up 90 feet and he died there.
In Sunday's game the bunt worked, but it was still a bad call. Down 4-1 with runners on first and second and no outs, Avent had Jake Fincher lay down a sacrifice bunt. It wasn't a great bunt and Brad Radziewski had a shot at Jake Armstrong at third but an errant throw allowed Armstrong to scamper home. Fincher was hilariously given a single on the play even though he was clearly trying to sacrifice and Rad would have had him easily if he had gone to first. But none of that matters. Avent was playing to cut the lead to 4-3 in the inning with that bunt, and I'm not sure that's ever the right call under any circumstances, but it's definitely not the right call when YOU DO NOT HAVE LAST YEAR'S BULLPEN ANYMORE. You could possibly afford to chip away if Easley and Sasser are getting loose in the pen, but unfortunately Avent didn't realize that Miami would not be stuck on four runs forever and he opted for small ball.
Just because your team doesn't have a lot of power does not mean you need to over-manage to manufacture runs. In fact, the lack of power is perhaps the best argument NOT TO GIVE AWAY OUTS. That, of course, and the other problem of lack of pitching depth. If you play for a run, that's all you'll ever get. If you let guys swing, you might just hang a crooked number every now and then.
N.C. State has the twelfth "best" record in the ACC right now with trips to Clemson and Duke looming. Duke, just in case you haven't been paying attention, swept North Carolina this weekend and is anything but a soft spot on the schedule. The Pack have gone from pre-season Omaha favorites to extremely questionable for the ACC tournament, much less the NCAA tournament. At least there's some small solace in the fact that the Tar Heels have lost seven of eight (including a loss to Winthrop) and five straight in the ACC.
In other crappy news, the Pack softball team was rained out of what would have likely been three wins at Maryland. The Terps are 2-24. Do they not have a grounds crew in College Park?
The games will not be made up. State sits 1.5 games behind Florida State in the race for regular season supremacy in the ACC, and the Noles would get the number one seed in the event of a tie. Weather has played havoc with the women's ACC schedule all season. For example, Notre Dame has only managed six conference games so far.
Let's end on the rarest of things, actual good news. The men's swimming and diving team finished 13th in the NCAA championships, their best mark since an 11th-place result in 1979. The women finished 16th last week; it's the first time both programs have had a top-20 finish in the same year.
Sure, 13th is the 12th loser and all that, but the Pack placed higher than any ACC school for the second straight year. So that makes us the best at something, sort of. Suck it, Holes.
There were too many all-Americans to list, so go on over to gopack.com for all the details.