RALEIGH, N.C.—The Raleigh Regional essentially boiled down to a three-game series between North Carolina State and Vanderbilt. But that was all it needed to be. If you were looking for emotion, drama and some unlikely heroes, it was all there.
The Wolfpack and Commodores played their third straight classic in the decisive seventh game of the regional on Monday, as the Wolfpack rallied from a 7-3 deficit with six runs in the last two innings to take a 9-7 win and earn a trip to Gainesville for a super regional with Florida. All three games saw a team overcome a deficit of at least four runs, and all three were decided in the winning team’s final at-bat.
“Every time you win a game like this, it makes you a little bit tougher,” N.C. State head coach Elliot Avent said. “It makes you believe you can do anything.”
Most of the Wolfpack‘s star power lies with its sensational freshman class, led by surefire all-American lefthander Carlos Rodon and blazing third baseman Trea Turner, but the signature moments of the regional were authored by unlikely sources. On Sunday, it was No. 9 hitter Matt Bergquist who had six RBIs in an elimination game with UNC Wilmington and then delivered the game-winning hit later that night against Vandy, forcing Monday’s game. In the finale, outfielder Tarran Senay and reliever Ryan Wilkins stepped into the spotlight.
Senay has been a regular in the Wolfpack’s lineup most of the season, but the lefthanded hitter sat out the first two games against Vanderbilt and didn’t start again on Monday as the Commodores rolled out a succession of lefty starting pitchers. Senay came into the night hitting just .213, but his five homers on the year gave the ‘Pack the potential for some thunder off the bench. And it would need it.
“I told (Senay) to be ready,” Avent said. “I told him he wouldn’t hit until I had guys on. He’s got tremendous power.”
That situation came in the top of the eighth. NCSU was trailing 7-3 but put its first two men on as Senay, who had entered as a defensive replacement in the seventh, went up to face lefty reliever Philip Pfeifer. After the count ran full, Senay crushed a Pfeifer fastball for a moonshot three-run homer to right field, cutting the deficit to 7-6 and igniting the Doak Field crowd.
“I didn’t think he was going to throw another slider,” Senay said. “So I sat on fastball. I took a swing, it went out, luckily.”
The Wolfpack still trailed entering the ninth, the Commodores just three outs from their own trip to Gainesville. But Wolfpack senior first baseman Andrew Ciencin started the inning with a single up the middle off Will Clinard, and NCSU went on to load the bases after an error and intentional walk with one out when Senay‘s turn came up again.
A base hit could give the Wolfpack the lead or a double play could end its season. Senay fell behind Clinard 1-2, but he was able to chip a ball up the middle that seemed for a moment like it might float in the air long enough for Vanderbilt second baseman Tony Kemp to track down but found the grass in center field. Two runs scored and N.C. State took its first lead since the third inning.
A subsequent Trea Turner RBI single added an insurance run to make it 9-7, but the Wolfpack still had to close the game out. Vanderbilt was the designated home team and had already beaten the Wolfpack in walk-off fashion on Saturday. Ryan Wilkins made sure it wouldn’t happen again.
Senay’s heroics never would have been possible without the righthander Wilkins. Wilkins, a junior college transfer in this first year in the program, carried a 5.65 ERA into the night but had a breakout weekend. He’d already appeared in both of the Wolfpack’s previous games with Vandy and had closed out the Commodores 24 hours earlier with two scoreless innings on Sunday.
He topped that performance Monday. Wilkins came out of the bullpen in the bottom of the fifth inning with the Wolfpack down 6-3 and allowed an inherited runner to score on a Connor Castellano double, but from then on he stymied the Commodores over 4 2/3 scoreless innings, his second-longest outing of the season, and recorded a season-high six strikeouts.
“When it gets right down to it, the most valuable player of that game is Ryan Wilkins,” Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said. “What he did was minimize our offense to the point where he changed the momentum of the game. And because he changed the momentum, their offense had a chance to catch up.”
Wilkins didn’t overpower the Commodores’ hitters, topping out at 88-89 mph, but he locked them up by pitching to both sides of the plate and effectively mixing in his slider and some changeups. With the Wolfpack carrying its two-run lead into the bottom of the ninth, Wilkins walked Conrad Gregor to lead off the inning but showed he’s got some ice water in his veins by striking out the next three hitters, two of them swinging, to finish the regional.
Before the Wolfpack’s comeback, it looked like the star of the night would be Vanderbilt freshman righthander Tyler Beede. Beede had struggled down the stretch of the regular season but was brilliant on Monday. Coming out of the bullpen in the second inning, Beede struggled with his command early, giving up two runs in his first full inning of work, the third, but got stronger as the game went along.
Beede’s fastball sat in the low 90s for much of his outing and touched 96 mph on the stadium radar gun, and his slider was devastating on the Wolfpack’s righthanded hitters. Beede struck out Ryan Mathews, the Wolfpack’s hottest hitter all weekend, three times and had eight whiffs in all over 5 1/3 innings. It was also fitting that on the night the major league draft got underway that Monday’s game in Raleigh featured the two highest drafted players from 2011 to go to college: Beede and Wolfpack catcher/outfielder Brett Austin. They faced off three times, with Austin reaching each time on a fielder’s choice, an error and a walk.
It was that walk Austin drew off Beede, in which he faked squaring around to bunt before several pitches, that started the Wolfpack’s rally in the eighth inning. Logan Ratledge followed Austin with a double, spelling the end of Beede’s night after 100 pitches. Senay’s homer off Pfeifer came next, and Beede ended up being charged with four runs (three earned).
“I thought Tyler Beede was very good,” Corbin said. “I thought for five innings he pitched very, very well. He probably got a little bit tired in the eighth. They went to a situation where (Austin) tried to fake the bunt to add some distraction to Tyler, to get him out of rhythm, and it probably worked because at that point he walked the hitter, but I can’t fault Tyler.”
The Wolfpack moves on to super regionals for the third time, seeking its first trip to the College World Series since 1968. It took an unlikely run to get there, coming back after a heart-breaking loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday in which it built an 8-3 lead with Rodon on the mound but let it slip away. But this is a team that hasn’t lost more than two consecutive games at any point all season, showing a remarkable ability to take a punch and keep coming back.
“These players did it,” Avent said. “They just refuse to quit.”