Preston Palmeiro knew exactly where N.C. State was going after he authored an improbable win in extra innings against Miami late on Friday night in the ACC baseball tournament.
In the euphoria of Palmeiro’s walk-off “Little League” home run to beat Miami 5-4 in 12 innings and during the post-game celebration, the sophomore first baseman stopped to think about just how far the Wolfpack has come in a short period of time.
“It’s unbelievable,” Palmeiro said. “From where we were three, four weeks ago when people questioned if we were even going to make it into the ACC tournament. Now we have a shot to win it.”
After tournament wins over Notre Dame and Miami, N.C. State (33-20) will face Florida State (40-19) in the ACC championship game on Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
It’s the first time in the title game since 2010 for the Wolfpack, which has four ACC titles but none since 1992.
One month ago, N.C. State lost at home to Virginia and its record stood at 21-18 overall and 9-12 in ACC play. Getting to Sunday’s title game seemed about as unlikely as Palmeiro’s game-winner on a throwing error by Miami’s defensive replacement on Friday.
The Wolfpack had lost 9 of 12 games and its postseason prospects looked grim on April 24. At best, it looked like N.C. State might squeak into the play-in round of the ACC tournament. And, with a few more losses, it would have been one of the four conference teams left home.
But, as senior shortstop Logan Ratledge said before the ACC tournament, there was still hope among the players.
“This team just believes in each other,” Ratledge said. “And we knew we were close.”
During the rough 12-game stretch to start April, five of N.C. State’s losses were by one run and a sixth, at Notre Dame on April 18, was in extra innings. Ratledge said the players took some consolation in those close calls.
Then after the 8-3 home loss to Virginia on April 24, N.C. State saved its season. Senior outfielder Bubby Riley and freshman third baseman Joe Dunand each hit game-ending home runs to sweep a doubleheader with Virginia on April 26.
“That was the spark, the extra confidence that we needed,” Ratledge said.
Since then, N.C. State has barely looked back. The Wolfpack entered Saturday’s meaningless pool play game with Virginia having won 12 of 14, including four by one run.
Freshman pitcher Brian Brown (7-3, 1.72 earned run average) has emerged as the team’s ace, winning four straight starts, and more important, coach Elliott Avent said Friday night, the bullpen has found its stride.
“We wouldn’t be here without our bullpen,” Avent said.
In Friday’s 5-4 win over second-seeded Miami, N.C. State got 62/3 innings of scoreless relief from Jon Olczak, Travis Orwig and Tommy DeJuneas. DeJuneas, a hard-throwing right-hander with a 1.81 ERA, struck out six Miami batters and allowed only one hit in extra innings.
Curt Britt threw three scoreless innings in relief of Brown in Thursday’s 3-0 over Notre Dame. In the first two ACC tournament games, N.C. State’s bullpen allowed six hits and two runs in 13 innings.
Avent credits first-year pitching coach Scott Foxhall with developing the young pitchers — both Brown and DeJuneas were pitching in high school last year and neither was picked in last year’s major-league draft.
Avent is also quick to credit Ratledge, who leads the team with a .327 batting average and eight home runs. Ratledge’s single, with one out and N.C. State trailing 4-3 in the ninth inning Friday, set the table for Palmeiro’s moment in the 12th.
“Logan Ratledge won’t let this team even think about losing,” Avent said.
Ratledge and senior centerfielder Jake Fincher are the only regular holdovers from N.C. State’s trip to the College World Series in 2013.
After a disappointing 2014 season, missing the NCAA tournament for just the second time in 12 years, N.C. State is in position to not only go back to the NCAA tournament but win its first ACC title in 23 years.
“That’s why we’re here,” DeJuneas said.
But only a few could have predicted it.