NC State ranked high in preseason baseball polls based on its deep pitching staff and veteran hitters Andrew Knizner and Preston Palmeiro. While the pitching has been solid enough and the junior duo have been productive at the plate, a trio of sophomores have emerged, to some extent out of nowhere, to lead a Pack team that just took two of three on the road from defending national champion Virginia.
Josh McLain, Stephen Pitarra, and Brock Deatherage have emerged to give Elliot Avent a lineup without an easy out from one to nine.
Deatherage was the most known commodity of the three, having batted .291 in 46 games (35 starts) during his freshman campaign. But the wonderfully named lefty swinger had a serious hole in his game, the strikeout. He fanned in nearly a third of his at bats, a fact that would not portend much room for improvement, but improve he has. His average (.299) is in the same range as a year ago, but a better eye and an increase in extra base hits have made him a more potent player. Deatherage's OBP and slugging were an identical .383 last year; this season he's posting marks of .412 and .433, respectively. His OBP is second on the club. He's still striking out too much (25.7% of his at bats) for a guy without a ton of power, but if he can keep reaching base in better than two out of five plate appearances, you can live with the K's.
McLain's statistical leap is remarkable. As a freshman, McLain appeared in 35 games (10 starts), often as a defensive replacement, and couldn't manage to surpass the Mendoza line. He hit just .182 with one extra base hit in 43 at bats. Now he's arguably the best hitter on the team. McLain is triple slashing .336/.400/.533 for a team best .933 OPS. McLain's slugging even edges masher Chance Shepard's .528 mark. He's second to Deatherage's six with five stolen bases, and he's played errorless defense in centerfield.
Pitarra managed to find the field in just six contests as a freshman and logged a whopping three at bats, all of them hitless, and he began this season seemingly buried behind Xavier LeGrant, State's top recruit, and incumbent second baseman Ryne Willard. Pitarra eked out a little PT here and there as the guys in front of him struggled, and all he did was hit and hit some more. Now he's a fixture at the pivot and the top of the lineup. Pitarra is triple slashing .388/.449/.475; his .924 OPS is second to only McLain. Like his sophomore teammate, Pitarra has been sure-handed in the field, where's he made just one error in 89 chances. For some perspective, consider that Trea Turner's best season in terms of average was 2013, when he hit .368 (or 20 points lower than Pitarra's current clip).
To his credit, Avent has taken notice, batting the trio 1-2-3 (Pitarra-McLain-Deatherage) in the Pack's series-clinching win over Virginia on Sunday. The threesome made good with a combined five hits and drove in four of State's five runs.
Though they haven't had quite the impact of the three aforementioned sophomores, Evan Mendoza and Shane Shepard deserve an honorable mention. Mendoza, a converted pitcher who, like Pitarra, only managed three at bats last year, is second on the club with a .338 average, though his complete lack of power precludes him from matching the production of his classmates. Of his 26 hits, 24 have been singles, and he's managed to drive in just five runs, far and away the lowest total among Pack regulars.
While McLain and Deatherage have started every game, the third outfield spot has been a revolving door. Freshman Brett Kinneman is the latest to walk through it. He's appeared in just 10 games (two starts) but his numbers beg for more PT; Kinneman is triple slashing .375/.412/.500. He'll have to battle little brother Shepard, yet another sophomore, for more ABs. The younger Shepard hasn't been too shabby in his own right, slashing .267/.371/.467. That's a marked improvement over his .160/.323/.240 line in 50 freshman at bats.
With Knizner and Palmeiro good bets to join the pro ranks after this season, State's offense should still be in good hands thanks to a class of 2014 that has broken out in a big way with the bat in their sophomore seasons. In large part due to the contributions of Deatherage, McLain, and Pitarra, the Pack are hitting .299/.375/.444 as a team after posting a .271/.354/.412 mark a year ago.