RALEIGH, N.C.–Friday’s win was big for North Carolina State. Saturday’s was huge. And a win Sunday would be monumental, because it would propel the Wolfpack to a super-regional.
N.C. State won a terrific, competitive, back-and-forth affair against South Carolina by a 5-4 score Saturday night to improve to 2-0 in the Raleigh regional. As expected, it was a matchup between two teams with contrasting styles, and the Wolfpack executed its game plan better.
Junior righthander Clayton Shunick was outstanding, limiting the heavy-hitting Gamecocks to four runs–two earned–on eight hits over 6 1/3 innings, striking out eight and walking two. Shunick struck out South Carolina slugger James Darnell swinging three times using his plus 78-80 mph split-finger. He made big pitches to get out of jams with runners on base, and most importantly, he competed hard and kept N.C. State in the game.
"(Shunick is) one of the best competitors I’ve ever had the pleasure of being around," Wolfpack coach Elliot Avent said.
Shunick said he used a lot of first-pitch splitters against a South Carolina offense that likes to takes its hacks early in the count. He was still able to throw the pitch for strikes, allowing him to get ahead in the count without giving the Gamecocks fastballs to jump on. Then, he worked his 90-91 mph fastball around in the zone and mixed in a decent mid-to-upper-70s breaking ball. But the splitter was his out-pitch, as usual.
It was a terrific game plan, but in order to execute that kind of plan against South Carolina’s heavy artillery, you’ve got to have good stuff and great command. Shunick has both.
"They’re one of the nation’s best offenses, so it was a challenge to go after them, but I was up to it," Shunick said. "I just wanted to keep us in the game as long as I could, and our offense did a great job tonight. I kind of gave the runs back every time we scored some, but I tried to just keep us in the game the best I could."
From there, the Wolfpack was able to grind it out. South Carolina took a 4-3 lead with a pair of unearned runs in the sixth after shortstop Tommy Foschi booted a routine ground ball with two outs. But Gamecocks starter Nick Godwin started the bottom of the inning by hitting Marcus Jones in the back. He scored the tying run later in the inning on a wild pitch, but he reached third after a perfect sacrifice bunt by Chris Schaeffer.
The ‘Pack went ahead for good in the seventh, stringing together four straight hits, including an RBI single by Marcus Jones off Gamecocks reliever Brandon Todd.
"I knew going in that he was throwing a little bit harder than the guy that started, so I went in with a two-strike approach and tried to get something over the plate, and just drive it, try to hit it hard, stay on top of it," Jones said. "He threw a ball that stayed up, and I was able to hit it up the middle."
It was just one more example of the way the Wolfpack has ground out at-bats and runs in two games this weekend. This is a tough team that gets contributions from all over the roster. Outfielder Devon Cartwright, for instance, entered in the sixth inning after left fielder Jeremy Synan was ejected. Cartwright came through immediately in the bottom of the inning, making a beautiful throw to gun down Parker Bangs at home plate in the bottom of the sixth. In his only plate appearance, Cartwright singled up the middle in the critical seventh inning.
"We talked about this in the locker room a few minutes ago: It’s just about guys being prepared to make plays when they enter the game," Avent said.
"I just found it very impressive. I think that’s the hardest thing to do, to come off the bench and be able to perform with the emotions of the game. Devon’s been a clutch player all year . . . Lately he hasn’t been in the lineup, but he’s a pretty special player, and I think he proved that tonight."
The Wolfpack continues to prove that it is a pretty special team.
"This team shows a lot of heart every night," said second baseman Dallas Poulk, who made a nice diving catch on Reese Haven’s line drive to end the game. "This team knows how to battle back, we know how to deal with adversity. Taking the lead and holding it at the end is pretty special."
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