Luke DeCock

Wolfpack exits early, but this time will have no lingering doubts

'It has been an honor to wear this uniform'

NC State baseball seniors including Stephen Pitarra, Brock Deatherage, Shane Shepard, Josh McLain and others talk about their careers with the Wolfpack after the loss to Auburn in the Raleigh Regional at Doak Field Sunday, June 3, 2018.
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NC State baseball seniors including Stephen Pitarra, Brock Deatherage, Shane Shepard, Josh McLain and others talk about their careers with the Wolfpack after the loss to Auburn in the Raleigh Regional at Doak Field Sunday, June 3, 2018.

It never rained, not a drop on Sunday. There wasn't a controversial call or a critical error. Nary a conspiracy theory was spawned. N.C. State's season ended, and for no reason other than the Wolfpack got flat-out beat.

After all the painful NCAA tournament exits of recent years – TCU and Coastal Carolina atop the list – N.C. State lost in the regional it hosted simply because it ran out of pitching and its bats went cold at the wrong time.

Does that make it any easier for the Wolfpack to digest than losing thanks to an endless string of self-inflicted wounds or coming within a single pitch (in the pouring rain) of advancing?

Probably not.

But if N.C. State was destined to lose – and Auburn certainly looked like a more powerful team, winning its three games here by a combined score of 40-12 after Sunday's 15-7 win – there's something to be said for losing so convincingly that the team and its fans can turn the page without a whole lot of what-ifs.

NC State coach Elliott Avent talks about his seniors after the Wolfpack were eliminated by Auburn in the Raleigh Regional at Doak Field in Raleigh, N.C., Sunday, June 3, 2018.

On May 13, after a sweep of Wake Forest, N.C. State was 38-12. The Wolfpack finished the season 3-6.

That looks a lot like this team's epitaph: Good enough to host a regional, not good enough to actually win it.

There wasn't a lot of doubt about that Sunday night.

"You just kind of got to tip your hat to them," N.C. State's Brock Deatherage said, with a shrug.

After a reasonably comprehensive win over Army earlier in the day to stay alive, the Wolfpack was behind from the start in the late game. Auburn scored in each of the first four innings to take a 7-0 lead, and three early N.C. State errors – on the way to five on the night – didn't help, but they weren't the reason.

By the time the Wolfpack got on the board with a three-run fourth, it was on its third pitcher and faced a monumental challenge to close the gap, assuming N.C. State could slow down the Auburn offense. (It could not.)

So when Auburn's shortstop fluffed a ground ball but deflected it right to the second baseman at the bag to trigger an inning-ending double play in the fifth, it wasn't the soul-crushing bad break it would have been if N.C. State had been down a run in the ninth at that point. Same goes for Brett Kinneman leaving the bat on his shoulder and looking at a third strike with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth.

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N.C. State's Elliott Avent hugs Josh McLain (15) as he comes off the field in the ninth inning during Auburn's 15-7 victory over N.C. State in the Raleigh Regional at Doak Field in Raleigh, N.C., Sunday, June 3, 2018. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

N.C. State would have been up against it anyway if it advanced to face No. 1 national seed Florida in the super regional, but it would have been playing with house money at that point. And N.C. State ended up fitting in with its ACC peers, with Florida State and Clemson also failing to advance out of regionals they hosted.

At least there's that.

Because it's no easier to watch Josh McLain walk off second base for a pinch-runner in the bottom of the ninth, greeted by a cordon of his teammates from first base to the dugout, representative of the seven seniors who have meant so much to this program but end their careers, essentially, unfulfilled. N.C. State coach Elliott Avent brought all seven to the postgame podium, crammed into a space meant for half that many.

"We'll be hard-pressed at N.C. State to ever have a group of seniors as classy," Avent said.

They had two of their four seasons end in some of the most painful ways imaginable. Their final season ended more quietly, but ended too early just the same.

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

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