There were a few hundred umpires in the stands at Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Thursday calling balls and strikes. Not coincidentally N.C. State was playing, but even the Wolfpack fans’ disagreement was muted this particular afternoon.
For one thing, Brian Brown struck out a career-high 10 as the freshman starter pitched N.C. State to a solid 3-0 win over Notre Dame in the ACC tournament. For another, there weren’t that many Wolfpack fans anyway.
Some of that was the unseasonable weather, with the first pitch delayed 21/2 hours by rain and a chill in the air, but most of that was symptomatic of how interest in college baseball in the Triangle has regressed since the last time the tournament was played at the DBAP, in 2013.
That was the season where college baseball was on the verge of crossing over into the mainstream, with N.C. State’s rise providing a perfect counterpoint to North Carolina’s string of Omaha appearances, but in retrospect it’s clear the incursion was brief.
Durham is a fantastic venue for the ACC baseball tournament, and there’s nothing wrong with crowds in the mid-3,000s, but it’s a far cry from two years ago, the tournament that spoiled the Triangle rotten.
Blackwell Street was a mass of humanity awaiting entrance into the DBAP before N.C. State and North Carolina played Saturday night that year, the winner advancing to the championship game the next day. A tournament-record 11,392 found their way in to see the Tar Heels win in 18 innings.
The total official attendance from the first two days of the tournament this year – five games over four sessions, with Tuesday’s play-in games counted together – was only slightly higher than that single game: 13,100, a figure representative of the typical college baseball fan base.
Thursday’s opening game between the Wolfpack and Irish drew an announced 3,599, but the stands were nearly empty by the time Louisville and Clemson took the field.
Not to point a finger at N.C. State and its fans, either: North Carolina drew similarly modest crowds Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday night.
The best way to give the tourney a boost is for North Carolina and N.C. State to meet. Their 2012 meeting set a record surpassed a year later, and their play-in game last year in Greensboro was the best-attended game of that entire tournament.
That’s unlikely to happen this time around. Louisville appears likely to advance out of the pool that contains North Carolina, but N.C. State still has a shot to play for the title after Thursday’s win. The Wolfpack has won 11 of its past 13, with wins over Louisville, Saturday opponent Virginia (twice) and now Notre Dame.
“We’re obviously playing our best baseball right now,” N.C. State catcher Andrew Knizner said. “Our last 15 games or so, we’ve got a pretty good record against some pretty good teams. We’re playing with confidence.”
The Wolfpack will still have to beat Miami and Virginia – difficult, but not impossible – but it took care of business against the Irish, which in the ACC’s pool-play tournament structure prevents early disaster (North Carolina, after losing it’s opener, was at risk of being eliminated before taking the field late Thursday night), while applying pressure elsewhere.
“In this format, if you lose the first game, it doesn’t mean you’re out of it, but it’s kind of tough, you know what I’m saying?” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “Tough to be in the championship game. We’d love to win a championship for our fans and for each other. This team is really close.”
If N.C. State is still alive Sunday, it’s a safe bet a few more N.C. State fans will find their way to Durham, maybe even a few who wouldn’t normally consider attending a baseball game unless it’s against the Tar Heels.
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947