RALEIGH, N.C.–In our NCAA tournament preview podcast last week, I said North Carolina State’s pitching was very good, but not great. John Manuel disagreed.
I was wrong, and John was right.
The Wolfpack has a solid starting rotation, but what makes its staff truly great is its deep, versatile bullpen. The strength of that pen was on full display at the Raleigh regional this weekend, and it came up huge again in Sunday’s regional-clinching 2-1 win against South Carolina.
"The thing that I really liked about N.C. State is their bullpen," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. "They are able to go to that bullpen and use different guys. I know they miss (inactive closer Jimmy) Gillheeney, but they have other guys. (Wolfpack pitching coach) Tom Holliday does a tremendous job of being able to mix and match. Those guys have to be able to make pitches, they have to perform, and they did that."
A rain delay in the fifth inning cut short N.C. State starter Eric Surkamp’s outing with the score tied 1-1. When play resumed, the ‘Pack called upon sophomore righthander Sam Brown, who delivered 2 1/3 innings of scoreless, one-hit relief. From there, Holliday played the matchups, first summoning lefthander Drew Taylor to face the lefthanded-hitting Reese Havens with a runner on second base in the seventh. Taylor got the dangerous Havens to ground out to shortstop, and after walking Whit Merrifield, Taylor had to face Justin Smoak with runners on the corners and two outs. The Wolfpack elected to keep the switch-hitting Smoak batting from the right side, and Taylor pounded the outer half with sliders before finally getting Smoak to get underneath a fastball for a high fly out to center. That was South Carolina’s best scoring chance in the late innings, and Taylor got its best hitter to fly out harmlessly.
N.C. State went back to a righthander (Kyle Rutter) to get the first two outs in the eighth, then went back to a lefthander for the final four outs of the game. With Gillheeney, who has been the Wolfpack’s best reliever all season, unavailable while dealing with academic issues, power lefty Alex Sogard got the call. Sogard, a redshirt sophomore transfer from Oregon State, struck out hot-hitting outfielder DeAngelo Mack on a 92 mph fastball to end the eighth, then got Harley Lail flailing at a breaking ball away for the first out of the ninth. He got the next two hitters to pop out and ground out to end it. With Gillheeney out of action for the rest of the NCAA tournament, Sogard looks like a fine option at the back of the bullpen.
"Sogard was going to stay in until a runner got to second base (then I was going to go to senior righty Eryk McConnell), but Alex didn’t let that happen," Holliday said. "When the starter leaves that early, the bullpen has to do it. Taylor was critical; so was Rutter. And Sogard looked like B.J. Ryan out there. So put it this way: I won’t be afraid to use him in that role next weekend."
Each of N.C. State’s relievers has different strengths. Brown is a sinker/slider guy with deception who works down in the zone with an 89-91 mph fastball. Righthander Joey Cutler, who worked 3 1/3 scoreless innings of relief in Friday’s win against James Madison, can run his fastball into the low 90s for about 45 pitches in a given outing. Taylor has a good, hard, late slider and gets lots of ground balls against lefthanded hitters. Rutter is a sidearmer who is effective against righthanded power hitters like Phil Disher and James Darnell, who take big hacks. Sogard can blow hitters away with his fastball and has an outstanding straight changeup and very good curveball. And McConnell attacks hitters with a sinking 94 mph fastball and good slider, and he also gets plenty of ground balls.
The lot of them combined to give up just one hit in 11 shutout innings during the regional.
"To have Sogard, Taylor, Brown, Cutler–guys in the middle that get you to the end–I’ve never had (a bullpen) deeper than this," said Holliday, who has helped guide 16 teams to Omaha during his sterling career as a pitching coach and head coach at Arizona State, Oklahoma State, Texas and North Carolina State. "And sometimes you look forward to getting your bullpen in there after the fifth. Our starters have been good–(Jake) Buchanan’s been good, (Clayton) Shunick’s been outstanding, All-American year. Surkamp’s been pretty good, up and down, but we can cover him–when that down starts to happen we can get him out. So I guess that means that you like your bullpen, and I do like mine."
That bullpen is a huge reason the Wolfpack is heading to its second-ever super-regional, and first since 2003. Six members of that 2003 team were on hand this weekend, as were several members of N.C. State’s 1968 College World Series team. N.C. State coach Elliot Avent said winning this regional was just as important to former Wolfpack players as to the current group.
"They’re just as much a part of it as we are," outfielder Matt Payne said. "I know last night, after the game, I had text messages from former players that I still talk to just congratulating us. It means a lot to everybody in the Wolfpack community."
It will mean even more if N.C. State is finally able to break through to Omaha. I know I won’t be underestimating the ‘Pack again, because that pitching staff is, indeed, great.
"Somebody’s going to walk away from here saying, ‘Wow, I’m shocked. I don’t know, did the best team win?’" Holliday said. "Well, we were the best team–by a little bit. But we were the best team."
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