Luke DeCock

Facing elimination, N.C. State's record-setting ace delivers again

N.C. State pitcher Brian Brown (38) celebrates after the Wolfpack's 9-3 victory over Northeastern in the Raleigh Regional at Doak Field Saturday, June 2, 2018.
N.C. State pitcher Brian Brown (38) celebrates after the Wolfpack's 9-3 victory over Northeastern in the Raleigh Regional at Doak Field Saturday, June 2, 2018. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Brian Brown went to sleep thinking about it, the grim reality that his school-record 61st start on Saturday might not only be the last of his long N.C. State career but potentially the last of the Wolfpack's season.

The former remains out of his control – N.C. State will need to win three more games to emerge from the NCAA tournament regional it's hosting – but he did everything he could to avoid the latter, throwing a 131-pitch complete game, the last 19 of them in a torrential downpour, to keep N.C. State's season alive with a 9-3 win over third-seeded Northeastern.

“It was on my mind probably last night,” Brown said, “but as far as today, you can't think about anything out there but getting people out.”

After everything Brown has seen, everything he has been through over the past four years as the perennial workhorse of the Wolfpack staff, it didn't seem right that his career should end not only with his disappointing two-inning start against Florida State in the ACC tournament loss that cost the Wolfpack its place in the semifinals but a quick two-game exit from its own regional as the No. 16 national seed.

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N.C. State pitcher Brian Brown (38) throws in the rain in the ninth inning during the Wolfpack's 9-3 victory over Northeastern in the Raleigh Regional Saturday, June 2, 2018. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Friday night's loss to fourth-seeded Army opened the door to that dismal scenario, but Brown shut it Saturday, delivering the kind of marathon performance he so often has in his N.C. State career, fighting through the rain in the ninth to save the bullpen for these next games the Wolfpack will need to win to advance.

Brown broke the N.C. State record for games started held by two-sport star Terry Harvey, and he did it without the exploding slider of Carlos Rodon or, to be honest, the kind of wizardly stuff that the ACC pitcher of the year usually has. If Brown ever hits 95 on the radar gun, it'll be in the hand of a state trooper.

“He doesn't really overpower you,” Northeastern shortstop Max Burt said, and he meant it in the most complimentary way, noting Brown's command and control of three pitches.

NC State coach Elliott Avent talks about the Wolfpack's victory over Northeastern in the losers’ bracket in the Raleigh Regional of the NCAA tournament Saturday, June 2, 2018.

But Brown has been, above everything else, reliable – almost metronomic in his consistency, which made his amputated outing in the ACC tournament all the more jarring. He left nothing to doubt Saturday, scattering four hits over the first seven innings and giving the Wolfpack's bats time to get into gear.

“I told him, you need to give us not only what you've given us for four years but you need a little more,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “And he did. He went the distance and even finished the game in a rain that made it really hard to throw a baseball.”

On a team with seven senior contributors – four in the lineup, plus the No. 1 starters – there's little this team hasn't seen, endured or experienced. Even finishing in a rain where Brown could barely grip the ball had echoes of the 2016 debacle against Coastal Carolina, when the NCAA mismanaged an attempt to avoid the rain and instead forced N.C. State to try to close out the Chanticleers in a monsoon.

That ended … poorly.

This time, Brown had a seven-run cushion and the freedom to use a three-finger grip instead of his usual two and try to fling the ball over the plate, rushing through his routine. Catcher Patrick Bailey tracked down a few that went high and outside and Northeastern's Jeff Costello popped one out to left-center, but he struck out the other three batters he faced and shared a very wet hug with Bailey in front of the mound.

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N.C. State pitcher Brian Brown, center left, celebrates with teammates after the Wolfpack's 9-3 victory over Northeastern in the Raleigh Regional Saturday, June 2, 2018. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Brown's work for this regional is done. It's up to his teammates to find a way back through the losers' bracket, starting Sunday afternoon against the Auburn-Army loser, assuming the schedule holds up in the rain. If they do, he'll get another shot in the super-regional. If not, he finished his record-setting N.C. State career with a start that represented the best of it.

If that thought kept Brown up Friday night, he'll sleep well Saturday night.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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