State Now

NC State gives up too much “free stuff” in elimination game loss to Kentucky

Kentucky’s Connor Heady dives to tag out NC State’s Brad Debo in the first inning in the NCAA baseball tournament on Monday.
Kentucky’s Connor Heady dives to tag out NC State’s Brad Debo in the first inning in the NCAA baseball tournament on Monday. Michael Reaves

You could use N.C. State’s loss to Kentucky in the NCAA baseball tournament as an excuse to lament the Wolfpack’s lot in life.

There are portions of the fan base convinced their athletic program — at least in football, basketball and baseball — is cursed or jinxed. They have their reasons, some even well-founded.

Some fans are willing to add the difficult 10-5 season-ending loss in the Lexington regional final — the third at the same stage in as many years — to the conspiracy fire.

But the game, which started late after a 2-hour weather delay on Monday night and ended early Tuesday morning, was decided not by voodoo but by what Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent aptly described as “free stuff.”

N.C. State’s weary pitchers, working on little rest in college baseball’s convoluted postseason format, combined to walk nine batters and hit two more. Throw in four errors by the defense and that’s 15 free baserunners. On the road, against a talented team, that’s a bad formula.

For the most part, Kentucky did not reciprocate the kindness. The Wolfpack did get one run from a walk in the fourth and another on a fielding error in the fifth, but the Wildcats’ mistakes (five walks and two errors) were manageable by comparison.

Before the top of the fifth inning, the SEC Network broadcast crew interviewed Avent. He was pleased with his team’s big hits because, as he said during the game: “They don’t give you a lot of free stuff. They don’t hit you, they don’t give you a lot of walks.”

N.C. State, as it did in regional wins over Indiana and Kentucky, made its own way through six innings. Brett Kinneman hit a two-run homer in the second inning. The Wolfpack responded to a four-run fourth inning by Kentucky with a pair of runs of its own and then capitalized on a fielding error in the fifth to take a 5-4 lead into the seventh inning.

Then came the help. Kentucky, a powerful hitting team playing in their tiny hitter-friendly park, didn’t need any but got some anyway.

The Wildcats scored three runs in the seventh on two walks, a wild pitch, a passed ball, an error and one double. Three runs, one hit.

I wish things could have worked out a little differently for us but that’s just how it is.

NC State outfielder Brett Kinneman

Kentucky effectively ended the game with that rally in the seventh, the 6-11 Sean Hjelle, the SEC pitcher of the year saw to that with 3 and 1/3 inning of scoreless relief (and no walks).

The Wildcats added three more runs in the ninth for good measure and in similar fashion: three runs, two walks, two errors, one hit.

Kentucky scored the last six runs of the game on only two hits and neither was a home run.

As far as excruciating losses go, that’s not in the same category as some recent ones in baseball.

Nevermind the missed chip-shot field goal against Clemson in a football loss this season or the Sweet 16 loss to Louisville in basketball in 2015, the baseball team can top those chapters of N.C. State “stuff.”

There was an umpire blatantly missing a critical call at home plate (the 2014 ACC tournament), an umpire haphazardly calling balks (the 2015 TCU regional) and an umpire refusing to postpone a game during a torrential rain storm (the 2016 Raleigh regional). If there’s a bright side, this loss didn’t have any such umpiring controversies.

You have to control what you can control. Coaches, in all sports, love that cliche but it’s true. N.C. State didn’t do that against Kentucky. The Wolfpack’s season is over because of that, not a self-fulfilling prophecy among the fan base.

Either way, it shouldn’t diminish what this Wolfpack team did to get to this point. At 20-20 on April 23, after being swept at Boston College, N.C. State’s season looked like it was toast.

Instead, the Wolfpack won 16 of the next 19 games to get in position to win a regional.

Like the previous two years, N.C. State couldn’t close out the final game and advance to the Super Regionals.

“I wish things could have worked out a little differently for us but that’s just how it is,” Kinneman said after the game.

And on that, all N.C. State fans can agree.

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio