Tudor: N.C. State slugger a hit at his fourth school

ctudor@newobserver.comMay 22, 2012 

  • ACC Baseball Championship: Day one When: Wednesday Where: NewBridge Bank Park, Greensboro Schedule: Ga. Tech (8) vs. Fla. State (1) 11 a.m. Miami (6) vs. N.C. State (3) 3 p.m. Wake Forest (7) vs. North Carolina (2) 7 p.m.

— The hottest hitter in ACC baseball might have been nicknamed “Suitcase” in years past.

In search of “a good fit” and more playing time, Ryan Mathews is at his fourth college since leaving Boone High School (Orlando, Fla.) in 2007.

“It took a while, but I ended up in a great school with great teammates and great coaches. I’m blessed,” Mathews said Monday at the Wolfpack’s Doak Field.

Equally blessed has been State’s baseball’s program, which is one reason Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent greeted Mathews with a big bear hug Monday.

Earlier in the day, the outfielder/designated hitter was selected first-team all-ACC and the league’s player of the week heading into Wednesday’s start of the league championship tournament in Greensboro.

“There’s no way to measure what that guy’s meant to this team – on and off the field,” Avent said. “I think he’s our most popular player. With this group, that’s saying something.”

Having played very little for the Wolfpack in 2010 and ’11, Mathews will take a .343 batting average, 14 home runs, 52 runs batted in and a 21-game hitting streak into Wednesday’s tournament game against Miami (3 p.m., NewBridge Bank Park, Greensboro).

To put Mathews’ impact in proper perspective, the remainder of the 38-15 nationally 13th-ranked team has hit 20 homers all season.

In the past seven games, Mathews has hit six homers. The No. 2 home run hitter on the team – catcher Danny Canela – has hit six this season.

“Ryan’s been unbelievable, I don’t how else to put it,” said senior captain Andrew Ciencin.

Religious and team-oriented to a fault, Mathews, a redshirt senior, repeatedly refers to himself as “blessed” and “fortunate.”

After signing and enrolling at Florida out of high school, Mathews transferred to Western Carolina following a coaching change.

In one season with the Catamounts (2008), he hit .297 with 17 doubles and five homers – enough to rekindle his dream of playing in either the SEC or ACC.

With that goal in mind, Mathews transferred to Santa Fe Junior College in Gainesville, Fla., where he hit .356 with 15 home runs and 70 RBIs in 2009 and was recommended to Avent and the Wolfpack.

But in Raleigh, the 2010 season became a lost cause when Mathews underwent an early-season appendectomy and was granted an additional year of eligibility.

Back in good health last season, Mathews couldn’t play his way off the bench, batting only .120 with no homers in 18 games.

“I never lost faith,” Mathews said. “There are things in life other than baseball. I knew I would be led to where I should be if it was baseball or something else.”

At Wilson in the 2011 Coastal Plain League summer season, Mathews’ power came back. He hit .283 with a league-best and franchise-record 15 home runs, plus 41 RBIs and 11 stolen bases.

“I got a temporary contract with Wilson, and I kind felt the pressure,” Mathews said. “If I didn’t perform, I knew I would be gone. It could have been the last time I played baseball really. The third week at Wilson, I finally started playing pretty well.”

What started as an audition ended with the Chicago White Sox offering a free-agent contract at the end of the Tobs’ season.

Instead of signing and moving up, Mathews eventually decided to return to State.

“I took a lot of quiet time with God and I got the feeling that I still had some work to get done here at N.C. State. It had always been my dream to play Major League Baseball, but I trusted Him that I would still get that opportunity by coming back,” Mathews said.

Avent is confident that chance will arrive with the June 4-6 MLB Draft.

“Oh, I think the White Sox will be more interested now, but there are 30 big-league teams and I think a lot of them will be interested in him,” Avent said.

At 6-feet-3, 183 pounds and with above-average quickness to go with his big pop, the right-handed Mathews may have only one question mark – age. At 22, he’s the same age as most fourth-year college players but a year or two older than the top third-year prospects and four or five years older than the top high school seniors.

But Mathews’ performance at No. 1 ranked Florida State last week had to put him on scouts’ radar. He went 5-for-11 with four homers and seven RBIs.

“And that was with pitchers trying to stay away from him,” Avent said. “There are always two or three hitters in every game who you say, ‘Don’t let those guys beat us by themselves.’ Ryan’s been one of those kind of guys all season, and he still keeps making great contact,” Avent said.

Mathews will go to the tournament with the school-recording consecutive hitting streak in sight. Former star Greg Briley has the mark with 26 straight games (1986).

“The streak is fun, but it’s not the big thing to focus on,” Mathews said.

“The main thing is we win as many as we can and go as far starting this week as we can. That’s why all of us are here, and we’re all in it together.”

Tudor: 919-829-8946

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