RALEIGH, N.C.–It was a landmark night for North Carolina State, which played its first-ever regional game in Raleigh. If that wasn’t enough reason for jitters, the Wolfpack called upon a true freshman to start against James Madison, but Jake Buchanan pitched like a seasoned veteran, and North Carolina State got timely hitting late to pull out a 6-2 win.
"I know our players were extremely excited to be hosting a regional," N.C. State coach Elliot Avent said. "I know they weren’t nervous tonight, but I think they’re really proud of what they accomplished this year. Seeing such a large crown in red and white, our fans are quite vocal, so I don’t t think we were nervous, I think tried a little too much."
Buchanan said he was a little bit nervous early, "but after the first batter it pretty much went away." He spotted his mid-to-upper-80s fastball well and used an excellent curveball to hold a good-hitting JMU club to two runs on three hits over 5 2/3 innings, striking out five and walking just one.
The Wolfpack has plenty of veteran players who have a knack for coming up big in pressure situations, and they didn’t panic after James Madison tied the score against Buchanan with a run in the sixth inning. With the go-ahead run on third base, Avent summoned junior righty Joey Cutler out of the bullpen, and Cutler got the dangerous Brett Sellers to pop up and end the threat. Cutler went on to work three more perfect innings of relief to pick up the win and improve to 5-0.
N.C. State is built like a West Coast team, which helps explain why light-hitting defensive specialist Drew Martin mans the hot corner instead of a typical Atlantic Coast Conference slugger. Martin came up huge Friday, making a number of sparkling defensive plays and jumping on a hanging breaking ball for a solo homer in the third. But Martin’s not on the field for his power, and he said he considered his sacrifice bunt with runners on first and second in the seventh to be his most important at-bat of the night. That set the stage for Ryan Pond’s two-run double down the left-field line on a 3-and-2 hanging breaking ball that gave the Wolfpack a 4-2 lead it would not relinquish.
"I looked pretty bad my first three at-bats, it was pretty ugly–a strikeout, a lazy grounder to first and a pop-up." Pond said. "The guy (reliever Trevor Knight) made me look foolish the at-bat before, and I kind of had an idea what he was going to do to me. He didn’t make any mistakes the first couple of pitches, kept the ball away from me, there was nothing I could do with it. He worked me 3-2, and I figured he wouldn’t come with a fastball with a base open. He came with a breaking ball, and I just got a good swing on it and was fortunate to get it down the line."
Pond, clearly, is a heady senior, and that kind of mental approach to a key at-bat is commonplace in the Wolfpack lineup. Maybe they won’t bludgeon you to death, but they execute the little things and get big hits when it matters.
It will be a great contrast to South Carolina’s aggressive, power-hitting style in the winner’s bracket game tomorrow. And oh by the way, that game will pit South Carolina coach Ray Tanner against his old team. Think the fans will be fired up for that one?
"That was by far the best crowd we’ve had here," Pond said.
It was a special night in Raleigh, but Saturday night’s got a chance to be even more electric.
One final note: don’t count out the Dukes in tomorrow’s elimination game against heavy-hitting Charlotte. JMU coach Spanky McFarland was proud of his young team’s composure, and he kept the atmosphere light in the post-game press conference, opening his remarks by thanking "the academy for giving me this award," then later playing reporter and asking his players questions when the actual reporters ran out of questions. He’s having fun being at a regional, and that should help his players stay loose.
"I didn’t think we got much respect coming down here, but I think in the seventh inning, there were a lot of red people who were a little nervous," McFarland said. "I think that’s what we’re about this year: We’re young, but we’re not afraid."
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