N.C. State Baseball

NC State baseball: Relievers have been saving grace

calexander@newsobserver.comMay 30, 2013 

— N.C. State’s Ryan Wilkins and Josh Easley agreed that a nickname, something catchy and appropriate, was needed.

Wilkins and Easley put their heads together with Chris Overman and Grant Sasser and quickly came up with one.

“Call of the Wild,” Wilkins said. “That’s us.”

The Wolfpack bullpen now has its name, thanks to those four pitchers. N.C. State coach Elliott Avent prefers another phrase: “Saving grace.”

“I’ve said that from three or four weeks into the season,” Avent said Thursday. “At the start of the season, our starting pitching was where everyone thought we were going to hang our hat. But we kept going to our bullpen early, going to our bullpen early, and they kept delivering and kept delivering.”

The bullpen still is delivering – strong stints, timely outs, solid saves. Sasser has a team-high seven saves and Overman six, but so many have contributed.

The Wolfpack (44-14) begins NCAA regional play Friday, facing fourth-seeded Binghamton at Doak Field. Avent said Thursday that senior right-hander Ethan Ogburn would be the starter.

But if Ogburn falters, whether early or late, Avent won’t hesitate to turn to his bullpen.

“They’re so versatile,” Avent said. “It’s not just a great bullpen. They’re so versatile and can do many things.”

The bullpen has accounted for 28 of the Wolfpack’s 44 wins. Relief pitchers have inherited 195 runners and 55 have scored – 28 percent.

The most important numbers: N.C. State is 37-2 when leading after six innings and 38-0 when leading after eight.

“It’s an outstanding group,” Baseball America editor John Manuel said. “They have numbers and variety. They have multiple guys who can extend, two good closers in Sasser and Overman. There is so much depth and options.

"Some bullpens have players in it by default. Some coaching staffs bury players in the bullpen. Not N.C. State. When N.C. State brings someone in, it’s someone they can trust."

Avent has a lot of trust in Overman, a senior right-hander from Charlotte who has allowed three earned runs in a stretch of 30 innings stretching to last season. His streak of 23 scoreless innings ended Saturday in the 2-1 loss in 18 innings to North Carolina.

“It all comes down to throwing strikes at the end of games and we’ve been good at that this year,” Overman said.

Sasser, a senior lefty from Fremont, missed last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery but has been steady this year. He had a stretch in late March and early April when he had six saves and two wins in 12 games.

Easley, a senior righty, rescued the Wolfpack in the ACC tournament opener last week against Clemson, entering with the bases loaded, no one out and dangerous Garrett Boulware at the plate. He forced Boulware to ground into a double play and ended the inning with a strikeout as the Pack won 6-3.

“Our strength is that no one is the same. It’s a big variety of pitchers,” Wilkins said. “We don’t have too many flame-throwers. We have guys who know how to pitch and know what kind of pitcher they are and pitch to that. They don’t try to be someone they’re not.”

Wilkins starred in the Wolfpack’s regional title run last year at Doak Field. The right-hander picked up victories in both wins over Vanderbilt, with 6 2/3 scoreless innings in the two games.

Wilkins, a senior from San Diego, has had ups and downs this season – rough outings against Virginia and Georgia Tech were low points – but has six wins and two saves.

The Wolfpack has gotten a nice lift from junior right-hander Andrew Woeck, a transfer from Western Nevada College. Woeck has pitched 44 innings and is 6-1 with a 2.86 ERA.

“The toughest role in the bullpen is the long-relief guy and he has kind of anchored that long-relief position,” Overman said.

D.J. Thomas, Travis Orwig, Will Gilbert and Anthony Tzamtzis all have eight or more relief appearances. Thomas, a junior from Durham, had 3 2/3 scoreless innings Saturday against UNC.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys who are selfless and are willing to do whatever for the team,” Easley said. “You look at what (Chris) Overman did against Virginia Tech when he comes in to pitch 4 2/3 innings in a 14-inning ball game because that’s what we needed that night. That’s what you’ve seen all year – a bunch of guys who are willing to sacrifice themselves to win.”

Carlos Rodon is the Wolfpack’s top starter and can be dominant on the mound, but is willing to give the ball up to the relief corps.

“We can match up with anybody and any hitter,” Rodon said. “They’re all confident and go out there saying, ‘No way you’re going to beat me.’ I love that bulldog mentality.”

Staff reporter R. Cory Smith contributed to this report.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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