RALEIGH, N.C.—Senior righthander Josh Easley tossed 4 1/3 innings of sterling relief, and host North Carolina State survived a scare from fourth-seeded Binghamton with a 4-1 win in the opening round of the Raleigh Regional.
No one's going to argue that starting pitching isn't important, but N.C. State has gotten this far on the strength of its deep, experienced bullpen. Outside of ace Carlos Rodon, who's had his own ups and downs, the Wolfpack has struggled to get consistent innings out of its starters, and Friday was no different.
The Wolfpack turned to senior righthander Ethan Ogburn, who's been in and out of its weekend rotation, for the start Friday. Ogburn navigated 3 2/3 bumpy innings, allowing leadoff hits in three of the four frames he started but getting enough groundballs to limit the Bearcats to one run while he was out there. But the Wolfpack offense wasn't generating much against strike-throwing Bearcats starter Jack Rogalla, and when the Bearcats had the tying run in scoring position in the fourth, N.C. State coach Elliot Avent felt it was time to turn matters over his pitching staff's strength.
"It looked like the kind of game that was going to be a one-run game," Avent said. "And if that's the case, anything could decide that ballgame. I just didn't think Ethan had as good a stuff as he normally has. I thought he had the ball up a little bit. He wasn't commanding any one pitch, really, and he's a command guy."
Besides its bullpen, N.C State has another strength that sets apart from most opponents: speed and athleticism. Those assets were put on full display later in the fourth, when, with two on in a 2-1 game, Binghamton's Nick Pancerella hit a fly ball down the right field line that could've gone for extra bases and given the Bearcats the lead. But right fielder Jake Fincher laid out and made a spectacular diving catch, nearly crashing head-first into the wall.
Before the ball was hit, Binghamton coach Tom Sinicki noticed from the third base dugout that Fincher had started shading Pancerella a few steps toward the line. Those few steps turned out to be the difference between a 3-2 Binghamton lead and the end of the inning.
"That's potentially a game changer," Sinicki said. "We go from being down 2-1 to probably up 3-2 at that point. I watched (Fincher) the whole way. I really thought he had a bead on the ball. I felt like he was going to get to it. I thought maybe our only chance was as he extended, maybe the ball would tip off his glove or, just being in the air, maybe lose track of it."
Righthander Andrew Woeck, who was on the mound for Fincher's catch, allowed two more men on base in the fifth when Avent summoned Easley. The senior promptly did the last thing any reliever wants to do: issue a four-pitch walk to his first hitter. But Easley bounced back from that inauspicious beginning by getting a fly to left to end the inning, and the Bearcats wouldn't get another sniff.
Easley lived in the bottom half of the zone, inducing six groundouts to go with four strikeouts over his 4 1/3 innings of work, which was his longest outing of the season. The Bearcats had piled up seven hits against Ogburn and Woeck, but Easley, pitching aggressively with his upper-80 fastball that peaked at 91, limited them to only one more hit the rest of the way. That free pass to his first hitter was also his only walk of the night.
"The kid went out there and competed. He came after our guys and I give him a lot of credit for that approach," Sinicki said. "He was very aggressive with us and I thought he did a good job getting ahead of our guys."
Tarran Senay led the Wolfpack's offense, hitting a two-run homer in the bottom of the first to stake NCSU to a 2-0 lead and then adding a double in the fourth. Rogalla held the Wolfpack in check until Trea Turner, the 'Pack's offensive catalyst who'd been in a funk lately, led off the sixth with a homer of his own to make it a 3-1 game. Not typically a power-hitting team, it was the first time NCSU hit multiple homers in a game since March 15.
Now the Wolfpack gets to give the ball to Rodon for Saturday's winners' bracket matchup with No.3 seed William & Mary, which upset Mississippi in the afternoon game. The Wolfpack can usually count on the big lefthander to give its bullpen a break. But that pen isn't a bad fallback option.