Elliott Avent just had to get the last word. His team managed to carve out one last chance to save its season anyway, but it was without without him. And it will have to wait another day to finish it off without him.
The N.C. State coach's early ejection in Monday's first game for arguing balls and strikes – followed by a lengthy and fiery tirade that earned him an immediate two-game suspension and comical walk of shame from the visiting dugout the Wolfpack was using – cost him the opportunity to coach his team in the second game against Coastal Carolina, both with N.C. State's season on the line.
Without him, the Wolfpack won the first and was within two outs of winning the second before yet another rain delay – the third of the day and gazillionth of the regional – intervened at 12:05 a.m. Tuesday, delaying the conclusion until 2 p.m.
Avent seemed to inspire N.C. State to keep its season alive, if not nearly as much as a second straight career-best performance from one of his pitchers in the first game or some clutch hitting in the second that brought the Wolfpack to the brink of a super regional, leading 5-3 with one out in the top of the ninth, with two Chanticleers on base.
A day after Johnny Piedmonte somehow conjured up 8 2/3 innings to defeat Navy, Will Gilbert turned in an eight-inning relief performance that was equally impressive in an 8-1 win. And this after Ryan Williamson, who faces Tommy John surgery on his left, throwing arm, started the game but could only manage 16 pitches and 85 mph on the radar gun before giving way to Gilbert. Williamson sat out the ACC tournament but after Dr. James Andrews said he could do no more damage, tried to pitch Monday.
Gilbert’s the story of the game. He pitched a gem.
Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore
“I feel for that kid,” Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore said. “I would love to have guys like that on my team. But Gilbert's the story of the game. He pitched a gem.”
As impressive as Gilbert's performance was, in terms of sheer entertainment, Avent far exceeded him. After a low 3-2 pitch to Coastal's Anthony Marks was called a ball in the bottom of the third, Avent argued with home-plate umpire Scott Higgins from just outside the N.C. State dugout. After Higgins twice pointed Avent back to the dugout, Avent had one more comment. Higgins ejected him. And the show started.
Avent sprinted into Higgins' face, hat thrown behind them, screaming and pointing. When third-base umpire Fred Cannon intervened, Avent dodged him with a spin move Mario Williams would envy, and on a right ankle still badly injured from the copperhead bite he suffered last month. Finally, after Avent had his say with both Higgins and Cannon, he retrieved his briefcase from the visiting dugout where State was encamped and took a long, slow walk behind home plate to the N.C. State clubhouse.
His post-ejection actions earned him an immediate two-game suspension for “prolonged or continued arguing” and “excessive expressions directed at an umpire” after an ejection. That kept Avent out of the late game, and should N.C. State win, the first game of the super regional as well.
“I'm disappointed for my players that I wasn't able to lead them in tonight's game,” Avent said in a prepared statement. “I love my players and I couldn't be more proud of how they responded earlier today. They know I'll fight for them, and I regret not being in the dogout tunight.”
Avent has been tossed from an NCAA tournament game before, a season-ending loss to Stony Brook in 2010 – coincidentally enough, at a regional hosted by Coastal Carolina.
Our offense came to play today, especially in that next inning, and that was a big boost of momentum from Coach Avent to fire us up a little bit.
Will Gilbert, N.C. State pitcher
His players responded quickly, turning a double play to end the inning, then scoring six in the top of the fourth to blow the game open.
“Coastal was in line for what could have been a pretty big inning and I think the double play we got after that was a big momentum boost,” Gilbert said. “Our offense came to play today, especially in that next inning and that was a big boost of momentum from Coach Avent to fire us up a little bit.”
The momentum carried over to the second game, even after Coastal Carolina took an early lead on a two-run home run in the top of the first. The Wolfpack chipped away at the lead, finally going ahead 4-3 in the sixth and adding another run in the eighth. But neither the Wolfpack nor the Chanticleers could overcome the persistent rain.
The first pitch was delayed more than 90 minutes for no reason after a cloudburst between games. The NCAA officials on site were concerned about storms that never developed, and that pushed the game late enough that the midnight rain became a factor. (Another 40-minute rain delay in the fifth didn't help.)
N.C. State and Coastal Carolina had five outs to go Saturday night and had to come back to finish Sunday. They'll sleep on it again with even higher stakes. The regional that just wouldn't end will drag itself on for another day, and this time, there's even more on the line.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock