Baseball: No. 6 NC State riding high as UNC series nears

csmith@newsobserver.comApril 24, 2013 

NC State, Appalachian State, baseball

N.C. State's Grant Sasser (42) pitches during N.C. State's game against Appalachian State Friday, February 15, 2013, at Doak Field in Raleigh, N.C.


— N.C. State has had trouble living up to hype this year.

The football team talked about winning 10 games and finished 7-6. The basketball team opened the season ranked No. 6 and lost its first game of the NCAA tournament.

After the baseball team opened ranked No. 8 and lost four early games, it appeared it might follow suit.

It hasn’t. The Pack, which started 16-9, has won 15 consecutive games and climbed to No. 6 in Baseball America’s poll, its highest since reaching No. 2 in 2003, heading into the biggest series of the year against No. 1 North Carolina.

When asked what the biggest change was, State coach Elliott Avent attributed it to “sticking together.”

“In college sports, anybody can beat you,” he said. “It’s been a season where early we had some injuries. You go through some things early with injuries, then you find a way to win some games and get some toughness. Through that, you gain confidence. We’re a little healthier and we’re playing well right now.”

Shortstop Trea Turner said the midseason turnaround has “been cool to see.”

“I’d say through the first 15 to 20 games we didn’t really know how to play with each other,” he said. “We’re starting to learn how to pick each other up, and it’s coming together pretty well.”

One of the most tangible aspects of the Pack’s turnaround was Turner’s return to the lineup. The preseason All-American missed 11 games after suffering an ankle injury against Clemson, and State subsequently went 5-6 – including being swept by Virginia.

They have gone 17-1 since he returned March 27 with three hits and 3 RBIs in a 10-6 win at UNC-Wilmington – which ended the Tar Heels’ 14-game winning streak Tuesday night.

Turner leads the ACC and is second nationally with a .438 batting average, but he says the Pack was improving during his absence.

“I’ve tried to assume that (leadership) role as much as I possibly can,” Turner said. “But guys like Tarran (Senay) and Grant (Clyde) have done a great job all year and not just when I was gone. It gave us more confidence when I came back, but we’re a good team with or without me.”

The Pack’s ability to bounce back has carried through to games, too. The Pack has outscored opponents 122-58 after the sixth inning, and much of that can be attributed to the success of the bullpen.

Ryan Wilkins, Grant Sasser and Chris Overman have combined for an 8-1 record with 13 saves and a 1.56 ERA in 86 2/3 innings. With Wilkins moving to the starting role and being tabbed as the starter in the first game against North Carolina on Friday, Avent said he still expects the bullpen to play an important role this weekend.

“Our bullpen’s been our saving grace all year,” Avent said. “It’s been the one segment of our ball club that’s been good all year long. At times, starting pitching hasn’t been what we thought it would be and through the injuries our offense hasn’t been as good … but the bullpen’s been our stabilizer.”

Smith: 919-829-4841

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