Triangle teams on ACC baseball bubble

Trio vying to make baseball field

Staff WriterApril 30, 2010 

  • Georgia Tech at N.C. State

    Doak Field, Raleigh

    6:30 p.m. tonight

    1 p.m. Saturday

    1 p.m. Sunday

    Virginia at Duke

    Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Durham

    6 p.m. today

    2 p.m. Saturday

    1 p.m. Sunday

    Note: North Carolina is off this weekend.

North Carolina has already won its series against N.C. State, and Duke has already won its series against UNC.

That leaves only one regular-season series between two of the Triangle's three ACC baseball teams: N.C. State at Duke, on May 20-22.

But with less than a month to go until the ACC tournament, all three teams are still competing among themselves for a bid to the conference's postseason event. And their competition against non-Triangle foes doesn't get any easier.

This weekend, N.C. State faces Georgia Tech, the No. 8 team in the country according to Baseball America's top 25 poll, while Duke takes on No. 1 Virginia.

"I think we're all three going to be fighting for our lives here down the stretch," Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said.

With nine ACC games left for each team, UNC, N.C. State and Duke are at risk of not making the eight-team conference tournament, which begins May 26 in Greensboro. The top two teams from the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions automatically make the round-robin tournament, joined by the four squads with the next best league records.

If the tournament started today, the Wolfpack (9-12 in the ACC) would be the eighth-seeded team. Wake Forest (4-17 ACC), Maryland (4-17), Duke (7-14) and UNC (8-13) would be the odd teams out.

It's not the scenario that observers such as Baseball America national college baseball writer Aaron Fitt are accustomed to witnessing.

"North Carolina's been to the College World Series season after season. Just two years ago, State was in a Super Regional. Last year, Duke had one of the best seasons it's had in a while," Fitt said. "... So the fact the entire state [of ACC teams] could be shut out of the tournament is surprising."

Carolina's struggles could be the most eyebrow-raising. Although the Tar Heels, who have competed in four straight College World Series, were expected to take a step back after losing starting pitchers Alex White and Adam Warren as well as Dustin Ackley, the second-overall pick in last summer's Major League Baseball draft, the backslide has been more of a reverse leap.

"Our biggest weakness has been inconsistency," said Fox, whose team has this weekend off because of final exams. "We've played 44 games, and I can't remember but a few that we've put together a complete game - pitched well, played defense, had a decent offensive game, good baserunning.

"We've had a breakdown in one or two of those areas in a majority. Some we've overcome, but in 17 we haven't."

Meanwhile, State - still rebuilding from last year's disappointing finish (25-31, 10-20 ACC) - had looked to be in pretty solid position to return to the league tournament, especially after beating Virginia two out of three games early this month.

But the Wolfpack, a fiery offensive club that leads the league in runs scored (426) and hits (556), also boasts the second-most errors (74) and was swept by Boston College last weekend to put itself back into a precarious position.

"We played solid defense the first half of the season, but the last three weeks we've made some errors, and it seems like one error has just led to another and another," Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent said. "...This league is so doggone tough that you can get swept one weekend and get yourself in a hole, and that's where we are now.

"But I do think we'll finish strong."

Duke remains a formidable defensive team, leading the league in fielding percentage (.979), but it never has managed to settle on a pitching rotation.

Even Thursday morning, preparing for this weekend's series against Virginia, Blue Devils coach Sean McNally knew only that freshman Marcus Stroman (5-1) would start Saturday; the other two games were still up for discussion.

"We've shown flashes; we just haven't been consistent enough on the mound," McNally said. "We just need guys who can get us to the sixth inning, with a chance to win. ... And we hope it all comes together in the next couple of weeks."

Duke will need to.

Fitt said that because of their low RPI ratings (79 and 92, respectively, as of Sunday), Duke and State likely not only need to make the ACC tournament, but win it in order to make the NCAA tournament via an automatic bid.

Because UNC boasts the 36th-best RPI in the country, it has a better shot at an at-large bid. But that's not enough for his club to get an NCAA berth, Fox said.

"We have no chance if we don't make the ACC tournament," he said. "These last nine [league] games are going to be key."

The same could be said for all three Triangle teams.

robbi.pickeral@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8944

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