Friedlander: Wolfpack stating its case for an NCAA baseball bid ... the hard way, of course
DURHAM, N.C. – Say this about NC State. It never does anything the easy way.
It doesn’t matter what the sport or the stakes involved. The Wolfpack will inevitably find a way to subject their long-suffering fans to maximum anxiety.
Even on those occasions when they somehow manage to avoid the dreaded #NCStatestuff and come away with a victory.
Case in point, Tuesday night against Duke in the opening round of pool play at the ACC baseball tournament.
State jumped out to an early lead just 5 pitches into the game on a mammoth homer by Gino Groover off the roof of the sports bar high above the left centerfield wall of Durham Bulls Athletic Park. And by the end of the 3rd inning, it held a commanding 7-1 lead.
But even then, it took a dramatic hit by freshman Cannon Peebles in the top of the 11th for the Wolfpack to come away with an 8-7 victory that not only kept their conference title hopes alive, but also enhanced their chances of earning a bid into next week’s NCAA Tournament.
Not that coach Elliott Avent is taking anything for granted.
He learned that lesson the hard way after getting left out of the NCAA field a year ago with a similar resume. Even after making it to the ACC Tournament final.
While his Wolfpack was once bitten, the veteran coach isn’t shy about stating their case for redemption this time around.
“Everybody asks me: Are we in? Are we in? That’s the big question,” he said. “If we’re not in, I just don’t understand the whole concept.
“You’ve got the SEC and the ACC, 2 of the best conferences in the country. RPI is always 1-2. They’ll say ‘you were 13-16 in this league.’ Well, Ole Miss was 14-16 in the SEC last year and won the national championship.”
That could just as easily have been State 2 years ago.
The Wolfpack didn’t just make it to Omaha, but found themselves just 1 win from advancing to the championship round of the College World Series when they were sent home because of a COVID outbreak.
That last season’s snub all the more painful.
And here they are again.
At 35-18 overall, as the No. 9 seed in the conference tournament, State is teetering on the NCAA bubble hoping that the law of averages evens out.
To that end, Avent couldn’t have hand-picked a better scenario for this week in Durham. Playing in a 3-team pool that also includes 5th-seeded Duke and No. 4 Miami – both of which came into the week ranked in the top 20 of college baseball’s RPI rankings – the Wolfpack are afforded 2 opportunities to strengthen their NCAA credentials.
Beating the Blue Devils was a huge first hurdle.
So huge that Avent brought his regular Friday night starter Logan Whitaker out of the bullpen to pitch the 2 extra innings after Duke tied the game off Dominic Fritton with a dramatic 2-run homer by MJ Metz.
It will be more of the same on Thursday, when State takes on Miami with a trip to the ACC semifinals on the line.
“If you’re already in the postseason, you’re trying to get your pitching rotation ready for next weekend when you go to a regional,” Avent said. “We decided tonight it was going to be all hands on deck.
“We thought we were in the postseason, but we knew 1 more win would rubber stamp it. Of course, I said that same thing last year. So it will be all hands on deck Thursday as well.”
That game figures to be something of a house-money proposition for the Wolfpack. While a win would likely punch their ticket to an NCAA regional, but with the Hurricanes currently sitting at No. 18 in the RPI, a loss won’t do much damage to their chances, either.
But when you have a history like NC State’s, the last thing you want to do is leave the decision in the hands of a committee.
The only way to take the guesswork out of the equation is to win this tournament and earn the ACC’s automatic bid.
The only problem with that strategy is that it’s been going on 3 decades since the Wolfpack last took home the title. But they’re getting close, having made it to the final in each of the past 2 seasons – including last year as a No. 10 seed.
As the old saying goes, you have to keep banging on the door until you knock it down.
And the Wolfpack are still banging.
“For me, this game is all about commitment, especially this time of year,” Avent said. “(It’s) how bad you want to win and how long you want to keep playing. This is the time of year when you’ve got to be at your best.
“I’m just proud of this team for how they’ve stuck together when everything wasn’t always easy.”
It’s a quality the Wolfpack come by naturally.
At NC State, it’s never easy.