If N.C. State is going to make it through the Raleigh Regional, it will have to do so the hard way.
The top-seeded Wolfpack fell to Army 5-1 in its NCAA tournament opener on Friday night.
The fourth-seeded Black Knights (37-22) manufactured runs with shrewd base-running, some timely hitting and a little help from N.C. State’s defense.
“That’s what we do,” Army coach Jim Foster said.
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Now N.C. State (40-17) will have to do what it routinely does, eschew the “easy” way for the road less traveled. The hard way has become routine for N.C. State. So much so that the hard way might as well be renamed the “Wolfpack Way.”
N.C. State coach Elliott Avent, who has seen his team exit the tournament in regional play in excruciating fashion the past three years, said he didn’t have much to say to his team after the game.
“They’re so kind of, I don’t want to use the word down, but that was a tough game,” Avent said.
Of course, N.C. State has gone through the losers' bracket before, in 2012, to win a regional but that was with stars Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner on the roster.
The stunning loss — it was Army’s first opening-round win in seven NCAA tournament appearances — means N.C. State (40-17) will have to win its next four games — three days — without a loss.
“We’ve got our hands full tomorrow but we have been a resilient group all year,” Avent said. “It’s going to take everything we got.”
N.C. State will face Northeastern, which lost to Auburn earlier on Friday, at 2 p.m. on Saturday in an elimination game.
Of course, the “easy” way for N.C. State would have included the roadblock of facing Auburn ace Casey Mize (the projected No. 1 overall pick in the MLB draft). Instead, the struggling Wolfpack hitters will get Northeastern ace Sean Mellen (10-3, 2.28 ERA) to keep their season alive.
The first sign N.C. State was in trouble on Friday was when it got three clean hits in the first inning off of Army starter Tyler Giovinco but didn’t advance a runner past second base.
A double play — while lined up in a shift for N.C. State lefty Brett Kinneman — helped the Black Knights escape the first without any damage.
The slightest opening was all Army needed. In the third inning, centerfielder Jacob Hurtubise, the NCAA leader in stolen bases singled, and then stole second. Hurtubise then hustled to score from second base on a ground out to first by catcher Jon Rosoff.
Hurtubise had taken off on the pitch to steal third when Rosoff hit the slow grounder. N.C. State first baseman Evan Edwards lobbed the throw to pitcher Reid Johnston.
Hurtubise noticed the soft throw and that Johnston had his back turned to the aggressive runner.
“Once I saw that, I was able to use my speed and score,” Hurtubise said.
It was that kind of night for the Black Knights. Anthony Giachin made it 2-0 in the fourth inning after he walked and then advanced to third when N.C. State catcher Patrick Bailey tried to pick him off first base. Edwards wasn’t ready for the throw and it sailed into right field. Giachin advanced to third and then scored on a sacrifice fly by Trey Martin.
A double by Rob Regine highlighted a two-run sixth inning for the Black Knights and then Giachin added a two-out RBI single in the seventh for a 5-0 lead.
The Wolfpack, with one of the highest-scoring offenses in the ACC, finally got on the board in the seventh inning. Edwards, who doubled to left field, scored on a sacrifice fly. Reliever Sam Messina came on and got Josh McLain to strike out with runners on first and third to end the threat.
The good news for N.C. State is it has been a resilient bunch all season. It lost the first game in four ACC series this season and came back to win the next two games.
The Wolfpack will have to double that to win the regional but that’s what happens when you take the hard way.