RALEIGH — If you looked at N.C. State’s baseball schedule in February, you would have said the most important game of the regular season would be in April at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
That’s still true, except it’s not the one-off game with North Carolina next Tuesday that matters most to the Wolfpack right now.
After a 5-10 ACC start, the importance of the only scheduled game against North Carolina has been surpassed by a three-game series with Duke, which will start Friday at DBAP.
N.C. State (19-13 with an RPI of 40) took two of three games from Clemson last weekend but still needs to jump start its season, especially in ACC play. The three games with Duke (18-16, 7-8) will count in the ACC standings, the one game with UNC won’t.
If the ACC tournament started today, the Wolfpack would be one of the four teams left out of the 10-team bracket in Greensboro.
Duke will enter the weekend in eighth place in the ACC, one slot ahead of UNC, which the Blue Devils swept at the end of March.
Duke, UNC (7-8) and Maryland (6-8) would be the final three teams into the ACC tournament. The Wolfpack was swept by Maryland, so a potential tiebreaker over Duke could be important.
“We just have to take it game-by-game in the ACC, win on Fridays and take it from there,” junior center fielder Jake Fincher said recently.
N.C. State has won an ACC series opener only once, 5-3 against Notre Dame on March 8. That’s a particularly stinging stat for the Wolfpack because its best pitcher, junior Carlos Rodon, is the Friday starter.
Rodon, one of the top pitching prospects in the country, will take a 2-5 record into Friday’s start against Duke. The Wolfpack has scored just three runs in his past four starts.
In 2010, UNC missed the ACC tournament and still made the NCAA tournament, but that was when there were only eight teams in the ACC field. The tournament changed formats and size with the addition of Notre Dame and Pittsburgh this season (Syracuse does not have a baseball team).
N.C. State and UNC played five times last season, including twice in the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., but the rivals won’t have an ACC series this season. As a result, they agreed to schedule one nonconference game at DBAP.
Before the season, that one game seemed like it would mean a lot, even though it was never going to count in the ACC race.
Instead, N.C. State can’t afford to overlook Duke, or anyone else, as it tries to put itself in position for the postseason.
“We don’t need to think about anything besides winning the game we’re playing, nothing in the future,” Fincher said. “That’s all we can do at this point. We have to keep playing hard every day and practicing hard and it will come together eventually.”