You can turn a loss into a win, 35 of them, even.
At least, that’s what N.C. State’s baseball team has tried to do this season.
The Wolfpack (35-20) will host Navy (41-13-1) on Friday night at Doak Field in their first regional game of the NCAA tournament.
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It was last year’s painful loss in the regional final, 9-8 at Texas Christian in 10 innings, that has fueled the Wolfpack this season.
Most teams prefer to leave a loss in the past, especially that type of loss, but this N.C. State team, with many of the same key players (five everyday starters) in place from last year’s group, is different.
“Just about every day we talk about it,” senior designated hitter Chance Shepard said.
“It’s the fear of letting that happen to us again,” Shepard said.
Bottom fell out
What happened was N.C. State was four outs away from upsetting TCU, the No. 7 national seed, and moving on to the Super Regional for the third time in four years.
Just getting to that point took quite a run by the Wolfpack, which was treading water with a 21-18 record after a home loss to Virginia last April 24.
But then N.C. State caught fire with a pair of walkoff wins over Virginia and won 10 of 12 down the stretch to not only play its way into the ACC tournament but to the championship game.
The Wolfpack, the No. 2 seed in the Fort Worth regional, stayed hot with a 3-0 win over Stony Brook in the first game of the NCAA tournament.
Shepard’s dramatic two-run home run in the ninth inning gave N.C. State a 5-4 win over host TCU in the next game. The Horned Frogs responded with an 8-2 win to set up the rubber match for the regional.
N.C. State, with more clutch hitting from Shepard, got three runs in the third, another in the fourth and four more in the eighth to take an 8-1 lead.
Even after two errors, N.C. State got two outs without giving up a run. That’s when the bottom fell out.
“I don’t want to say we fell asleep but we relaxed a bit in Fort Worth,” Shepard said.
The part that bothers N.C. State coach Elliott Avent – the “toughest loss of my career” – is that it wasn’t that TCU simply got hot, got a bunch of hits and the better team won the game.
The Horned Frogs found a way to score six runs on two hits in the eighth inning. They were helped by errors, balks, walks and passed balls.
“There were some things we probably could have done better,” Avent said. “But there were some things that were out of our control that probably could have happened differently.”
N.C. State still had an 8-7 lead after the TCU rally in the eighth. The Horned Frogs tied it in the ninth, after another balk and a pair of passed balls.
TCU won the game in the 10th after some help on a throwing error on a pickoff attempt by the pitcher.
It was a slow, death-by-a-million-cuts exit. Unlike his players, Avent doesn’t like to talk about the loss.
“You don’t like to bring up bad memories but you sure like to learn from them,” Avent said.
Junior first baseman Preston Palmeiro said most people would “try to black it out.” But N.C. State’s players don’t want to forget it, at least not what they learned from the loss.
Right fielder Brock Deatherage, just a freshman last year, remembers being under the stadium as the Horned Frogs and the crowd celebrated the improbable comeback and a spot in the Super Regionals.
The emotions ranged from anger to disbelief to nausea. Deatherage knew he would get another chance but he was sick for the seniors on the team.
“It was a knot in your stomach you just couldn’t get out,” Deatherage said. “It’s kind of hard to explain the feeling.”
We’ve already been through the worst possible thing. That’s why this team comes back and wins games. We know we can handle anything now.
NC State’s Preston Palmeiro
That hasn’t stopped N.C. State’s players from trying to talk about it and use the moment as a positive.
Palmeiro is surprised how much the topic comes up.
“We talk about it more than I thought we would,” Palmeiro said.
There’s a few good reasons for that, Palmeiro said.
The main reason is to avoid wallowing.
“We let it go,” catcher Andrew Knizner said. “It doesn’t really bother us.”
Nothing left to lose
TCU made the College World Series but didn’t win it.
Virginia, a team N.C. State beat three times in four-week span, did to become the ACC’s first national champion since 1955.
“That showed how close we were,” Palmeiro said. “It’s hard to say what would have happened but that could have been us.”
“If one thing goes different …” Palmeiro shakes his head and he doesn’t finish the thought.
Another reason, which has kept N.C. State going this season, especially in the toughest moments, is there’s nothing left to lose.
“We’ve already been through the worst possible thing,” Palmeiro said. “That’s why this team comes back and wins games. We know we can handle anything now.”
The Wolfpack showed that spirit in the ACC tournament last week in Durham. After a pair of tough losses to Florida State and Miami, it rebounded to beat Georgia Tech in 12 innings.
But to get here, back to this stage in the NCAA tournament, is what N.C. State has waited and worked a year for.
This is the opportunity that seemed so out of reach 12 months ago but is now there for the taking.
“It is a chance to come back and hopefully close out a regional and show people that we can do it,” Knizner said.
It’s the chance to turn the TCU pain into a winning memory.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
N.C. teams in the tournament
No. 1 N.C. State (35-20) vs. No. 4 Navy (42-14), 7 p.m.
No. 2 Coastal Carolina (44-15) vs. No. 3 Saint Mary’s (33-23), 2 p.m.
No. 1 Virginia (37-20) vs. No. 4 William & Mary (29-29), 1 p.m.
No. 2 Bryant (47-10) vs. No. 3 East Carolina (34-21-1), 6 p.m.
College Station regional
No. 1 Texas A&M (45-14) vs. No. 4 Binghamton (30-23), 7 p.m.
No. 2 Minnesota (34-20) vs. No. 3 Wake Forest (34-25), 2 p.m.
No. 1 South Carolina (42-15) vs. No. 4 Rhode Island (30-25), 7 p.m.
No. 2 UNC Wilmington (39-17) vs. No. 3 Duke (33-22), 1 p.m.
No. 1 Clemson (42-18) vs. No. 4 Western Carolina (30-29), 7 p.m.
No. 2 Oklahoma (36-20) vs. No. 3 Nebraska (37-20), noon