College baseball: Can Pack win it all?

calexander@newsobserver.comFebruary 15, 2014 

— N.C. State shortstop Trea Turner used a three-word tweet this week to sum up the thoughts of most local baseball players: “I hate weather.”

The snow and ice that swept into the Triangle played havoc with college baseball schedules and caused last-second scrambling to get games arranged.

The Wolfpack, ranked sixth nationally by Baseball America, had to cancel its season-opening three-game series at UC-Santa Barbara and instead set up home games with Canisius. N.C. State shoveled off the snow Friday at Doak Field with the help of fans, only to have Saturday’s game wiped out by rain.

North Carolina was to open Friday against the College of Charleston at Boshamer Stadium. The Tar Heels packed up and headed to Charleston for three games and lost their season opener 7-4 Saturday.

Duke also had to postpone its Friday opener against Binghamton at Jack Coombs Field, and swept a Saturday doubleheader.

But forget the delays and rescheduling. It promises to be a college season with some compelling plots.

Back-to-back in Omaha for the Pack?

It took N.C. State 45 years to earn a second trip to the College World Series, and the Wolfpack wants to make it two straight after getting to Omaha last season.

“Last year we wanted to make it. This year we want to win it,” Turner said.

N.C. State, coached by Elliott Avent, has a number of goals on its 2014 checklist: Atlantic Division championship, ACC championship, national seed in the NCAA field, NCAA title.

“Coach Avent says he really wants an ACC championship,” catcher Brett Austin said. “It would be good for the school, good for our fans.”

Junior left-hander Carlos Rodon arguably is the best pitcher in college baseball. Turner might be the best position player. Both are projected top-five picks in the June draft. The Wolfpack, 50-16 in 2013, may lack power in its lineup but has a team with experience and balance to go with its two big stars. It’s a team that could win its first ACC title since 1992 and be in Omaha again.

“But it’s more than about winning games,” Avent said. “It’s about winning games at the end. And you need some luck.”

Rebuild or reload for the Tar Heels?

A lot of familiar names are gone at UNC – Colin Moran, Kent Emanuel, Cody Stubbs, Chaz Frank, Hobbs Johnson. That’s one reason Baseball America has the Tar Heels 17th in its preseason poll after starting last season No. 1.

But this could be the year Skye Bolt emerges as one of the ACC’s best. He hit .321 as a freshman last season despite an injury that set him back and is a terrific outfielder.

Landon Lassiter, like Bolt, was a freshman All-American and is another to watch after hitting .358 in 2013.

Trent Thornton’s pitching numbers as a freshman last season included an eye-opening 12-1 record, 1.37 ERA, eight saves. The right-hander from Charlotte spent much of 2013 in the bullpen and was an occasional starter, but now could be the one to replace Emanuel, the 2013 ACC pitcher of the year.

The Tar Heels won 59 games last season and their sixth ACC championship. Coach Mike Fox’s team may not win 59 this year, but UNC should contend for a Coastal Division title, another ACC title and to be an NCAA regional host.

Is Virginia the best team in the nation?

The Cavaliers are ranked No. 1 by Baseball America and have a lot of believers. It also has a team to match the hype.

In a poll of the ACC baseball coaches, 10 picked the Cavs to win the ACC title this season. They looked at a Virginia lineup that has All-American first baseman Mike Papi, center fielder Brandon Downes and right fielder Joe McCarthy, and a pitching staff headed by sophomore left-handers Brandon Waddell and Nathan Kirby.

Papi was the ACC batting champion (.381) and had 57 RBIs in 2013, and Downes had 59 RBIs and 67 runs scored. McCarthy was the 2013 ACC freshman of the year after batting .336, the highest for a Virginia freshman since 1984.

Cavs coach Brian O’Connor has the hitting. He has depth in his starting pitching and bullpen.

The Cavs were beaten by Mississippi State at home in the NCAA Super Regional last year. They want nothing less than a trip to Omaha this season.

Will Duke take the next step?

The Blue Devils were 26-29 overall last season in Chris Pollard’s first year as coach, and that was seen as a step in the right direction.

Duke won an ACC series at Miami, a nice step. It took two of three from Georgia Tech in another ACC series.

Pollard believes the Blue Devils will be more balanced offensively this season although they again will lean on senior Jordan Betts and junior second baseman Andy Perez, both second-team All-ACC selections last season. Pollard noted Betts has been called the ACC’s best fielding third baseman, and Perez hit a team-best .316.

Pollard said junior lefthander Trent Swart pitched like an All-ACC performer (4-4, 2.75 ERA) in 2013 but didn’t get much run support.

Can Campbell get an NCAA invite?

The Camels keep winning. And waiting.

Campbell won 49 games last season, had one of the nation’s best pitchers in Ryan Thompson and believed it was deserving of an NCAA at-large selection. But it never came, leaving the Camels and coach Greg Goff disappointed.

Thompson, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound righthander, was the Big South Conference pitcher of the year in 2013. His had a 9-1 record, 0.88 ERA and 10 saves.

For a pitcher, it doesn’t get a lot better than that. Thompson, a senior from Turner, Ore., is on the watch list for the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year Award and was named to the Louisville Slugger Preseason Second Team.

The Camels, whose opener Friday against LaSalle was postponed until Saturday, were the No. 1 seed in the Big South tournament last season but lost the title game 2-1 to Liberty. With a win, their name would have been called on NCAA selection day. Maybe this year.

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

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