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Wolfpack faces Tar Heels at remodeled Doak
By John Manuel
The most important series in the country this weekend might be the one being played on a construction site.
That's essentially what North Carolina State has in Doak Field, which was razed after last season and is in the midst of a total reconstruction. When completed, it's going to join the long list of pro-style ballparks on Division I campuses.
Its current state, though, has left the Wolfpack playing 40 of 44 games on the road heading into this first home weekend series of the year at the Doak. The 10th-ranked Pack saved one of the best opponents for the occasion--No. 21 North Carolina, its biggest rival.
"This is a great North Carolina team, and they come to town playing extremely well," Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent said. "They've been on a roll lately. It's only fitting that this is the first ACC series in Doak Field since they started the renovations."
The Tar Heels have had the better program of late, making regional appearances every year since 1998 except for one. Over that same stretch, the Wolfpack has made two trips and none since 1999. But the Pack goes into this set at 34-8, 11-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and tied for second place in the league with second-ranked Florida State.
The Tar Heels, coming off a midweek split with Elon (loss) and East Carolina (win), are 32-12, 10-5 and have won six straight in the league, against cellar-dwellers Maryland and Duke. The Tar Heels lead the all-time series 138-109-1 and swept three games in Chapel Hill last year.
The Wolfpack has many of the same players this season, especially in the field, but with three major changes on the mound. Righthander Michael Rogers took a medical redshirt last year after having a line drive fracture his right fibula as a freshman, when he was off to a 3-2, 3.63 start in 39 2/3 innings. Fellow starter Vern Sterry, also a righty, went 3-4, 5.50 last year with Cypress (Calif.) Junior College, while righty Joey Devine was finishing his high school career in Junction City, Kansas.
Now, they form the ACC's best pitching trio. Rogers, the No. 1 starter, is 9-1, 2.16 and sports one of the league's best curveballs. Sterry has tied a school record by winning all 10 of his decisions, has a 2.61 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 79 innings, using a changeup as an out pitch. Devine has the triumvirate's best stuff--he dominates with a 92-94 mph fastball, wicked slider and deceptive delivery and has 11 saves to go with a 4-1, 1.80 record. He's fanned 54 in 45 innings while giving up just 32 hits.
"Basically with Joey, he's a freshman and a special player," Avent said in an online chat. "His whole life he's been a position player. When Joey first came here, we were thinking about making him a position player, but then we made him our closer after we lost Brad Blackwell (in an eligibility snafu).
" You look at some of the guys we have this year--(especially) Vern Sterry and Joey Devine--they are extremely competitive."
They have made the Pack more than just competitive. NCSU has won every series it has played in the league, including those against ranked teams like Florida State (the Seminoles' only series loss), Clemson and Wake Forest. The Tar Heels' gaudy record has one flaw--a 4-8 record against Top 25 foes with series losses at home to Georgia Tech and Auburn as well as a series defeat at Florida State.
Both teams rely on power for their offense--State has out-homered opponents 57-33 led by junior catcher Colt Morton (.272-14-34), junior outfielder Joe Gaetti (.278-13-41) and senior first baseman Justin Riley (.305-13-36). Morton is the best prospect of the group, with some teams considering his athletic 6-foot-6, 227-pound frame, sound receiving skills and excellent raw power worthy of second-round consideration.
The Tar Heels can mash, too, with a 54-29 home run advantage. Junior Jeremy Cleveland, who has settled in as the right fielder after stints at third and first base, has carried with Heels with a season worthy of ACC player of the year consideration. A veteran of two solid Cape Cod League campaigns, Cleveland has put quick hands and power potential together with better pitch recognition.
His .454-15-53 season includes a .547 on-base percentage (23 walks, 13 HBPs) and .828 slugging percentage, and he was leading the league in batting. He was tied with Wake Forest's Jamie D'Antona for home runs and trails the Demon Deacons' slugger by a good margin in RBIs, thanks in part to the Deacs' knack for obliterating weak non-conference foes.
"I don't think any coach sees a player having this kind of year," Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said. "He's been so consistent. I keep waiting for him to have a bad game or a bad week and it hasn't happened. He's seeing it really well and he's not getting fooled."
A No. 1 seed and possible regional host site could be at stake. As Doak Field won't be ready enough for a regional (it can't handle the media or crowds required), the Wolfpack is negotiating to have a regional at Wilson, N.C., where it has played some home games this year and where East Carolina held a regional in 2001 to positive reviews. The Tar Heels haven't been a regional host since 1983; the Wolfpack has never been a host site.
Of course, that's why Doak Field is being rebuilt in the first place. The park's 1,150 or so seats that are open this weekend figure to be full for the series.
"It probably is the biggest series we've had (with N.C. State) since I've been here," said Fox, in his fifth season as the Tar Heels coach. "Both teams are ranked and both are playing well. I'm just tickled for the players on both teams that college baseball is getting some attention around here. Hopefully there are a lot of fans there and they get to see some good baseball."
Around The Nation
Let's focus again on some non-Top 25 league races to start off our schedule peek, in alphabetical order by conference.
Stony Brook leads the America East race at 9-3 in the league but lost three of four last weekend to Vermont, which is off to an 18-6, 3-1 start thanks to one of the nation's most effective pitching staffs. The team ERA is 2.53, third in the country behind Virginia Commonwealth (2.38) and third-ranked Rice (2.42). Senior righthander Jamie Merchant (4-0, 0.95) has dominated, giving up just 24 hits and six walks while striking out 41 in 38 innings. Another senior righty, Jeff Dixon, was leading the league with six wins, while sophomore lefthander Derek Miller (3-1, 1.71) already has a pair of shutouts. The Catamounts play league foe Albany this weekend. Maine, which is in second in the league at 6-2, plays host to Binghamton.
Winthrop (10-1 in the league) took control of the Big South last weekend by sweeping a pair from Elon, while Coastal Carolina fell to 6-4 by splitting a pair with High Point. The Chanticleers, the league's preseason favorite, visit the Eagles this weekend in a crucial matchup that should decide the regular-season championship.
The Colonial Athletic Association is still up for grabs, with UNC Wilmington leading the American division by a game at 10-5 while James Madison is 7-4 in the league; Towson sits two back at 6-5 and plays host to the Seahawks this weekend. UNCW has taken advantage of pitcher-friendly Brooks Field with a trio of effective senior righthanders, led by Jake Mullis' 7-4, 2.51 season. Mullis has given up just 58 hits and 14 walks in 82 innings while striking out 81 to lead a staff that also includes Chris Coughlin (6-3, 3.16) and Brad Overton (5-2, 2.85) to go with sophomore righty Ronald Hill (7-1, 4.61), who could be a good draft in 2004. Closer Blake Cross (1-3, 1.93, 10 saves), a junior righthander and freshman righty Will Hunt (0.46 ERA in 20 IP) head an effective bullpen.
Pitching also has Virginia Commonwealth leading George Mason and William & Mary (both 8-3) by three games in the win column in the Colonial division. The Rams visit struggling Delaware (14-25 overall, 4-7 CAA) while George Mason goes to JMU, and William & Mary visits Hofstra (7-27, 2-10).
Illinois-Chicago no longer has outfielder Curtis Granderson, but the Flames have improved is season and lead the Horizon League at 9-3, two games up on Youngstown State and Butler. The second-place teams meet at Youngstown State while the Flames play IUPU-FW in a non-league series.
Princeton won three of four at Pennsylvania and has a two-game lead on the Quakers (four in the loss column) heading into a home series with Columbia. Harvard leads the Rolfe Division by a game over Dartmouth and plays at Brown while Dartmouth is at Yale. Brown has one of the league's top prospects in outfielder Matt Kutler, who hit .301-2-15 and had the game-winning hit for Wareham in the Cape Cod League playoffs last year. Kutler is hitting .364-5-36, while sophomore third baseman Jeff Nichols forms a potent tandem at .357-4-18 with 18 doubles.
Le Moyne remains undefeated in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference at 13-0, two games up on preseason favorite Marist (23-12, 12-3). The Dolphins, led by junior shortstop Anthony Aquilino (.353, 1 SB, .464 OBP), play host to Fairfield (6-23, 4-10) this weekend while last-place Canisius visits the Red Foxes, while third-place Manhattan (18-16, 9-4) goes to Iona (11-16, 7-7).
Bradley's three wins against Wichita State last weekend, coupled with resurgent play by preseason favorite Southwest Missouri State, has muddied the Missouri Valley waters. The Shockers (11-5 league) and Bears (12-6) are tied for the conference lead with Southern Illinois (12-7 league) a half-game back. Indiana State has slumped to 8-8 in the league after a hot start.
SMS, which swept its season series with No. 23 Missouri, has rallied behind righthanders Brad Ziegler (7-1, 4.35), a senior who is now the school's career wins leader, and 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior righthander Chad Mulholland (5-2, 3.02), who has upstaged Team USA alumnus Bob Zimmermann with a team-high 65 strikeouts in 60 innings. The Bears haven't been particularly potent on offense, though catcher Tony Piazza ranks among the league leaders with eight homers.
Indiana State visits the Bears this weekend while Southern Illinois is at Evansville and Creighton goes to Wichita State.
The Southland Conference continues to be one of the nation's most rugged. Lamar, coming off another midweek win against Rice, trails UT-Arlington by a half-game in the conference standings, with Southwest Texas State 1.5 games back despite a 21-22 overall record.
The Bobcats have played a brutal non-conference schedule including 16 games against either former Southwest Conference members or current Big 12 or Pac-10 teams. Yet they entertain fourth-place Northwestern State this weekend as perhaps the league's hottest team behind starters Brandon Hankins (5-1, 1.96) and Tom Robbins (5-2, 1.94), who rank atop the league in ERA. Robbins had 13 strikeouts in a win against UT-Arlington last weekend.
The Mavericks, who lost that series to Southwest Texas, have Louisiana-Monroe coming to town for what should be an emotional weekend. They're dedicating their newly remodeled stadium as Clay Gould Ballpark in honor of late coach Clay Gould, who died in June 2001, the same year his team made its last regional appearance.
UTA's top player has been Ryan Roberts (.418-12-55), a senior third baseman who was leading the league in the triple crown categories and who already has surpassed his 2002 home run total, when he led the team in batting. Lamar plays host to Nicholls State, whose shortstop, senior Chuck Hickman, is tied with Roberts at .418.
Finally, the Sun Belt race is too close to call. South Alabama beat Auburn 10-1 on Tuesday and has out-scored the Tigers 27-4 in a pair of victories, but the Jaguars are just a half-game up on Billy Becher and New Mexico State and one up on Florida International and Arkansas State. Resurgent Louisiana-Lafayette, just 9-18 out of league play, is 1.5 games back.
Becher's season continues to be off the hook. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior has the Aggies at 32-11 and in second place (9-6) in the conference thanks to a torrid 16-game hitting streak that has included nine homers and 30 RBIs. Becher was chasing the Division I triple crown--he ranked first in home runs and RBIs while ranking fourth in batting at .466-26-95. His home runs broke the school record set last year by Ryan Kenning, and he was one short of Kenning's RBIs mark. His slugging percentage stood at 1.006; Pete Incaviglia's record of 1.140, set in 1985 at Oklahoma State, seems safe.
The Jaguars play host to last-place Arkansas-Little Rock this weekend, but the best matchup has New Mexico State going to Florida International, where the league's best offense will face its best pitching staff--and best pitcher in junior righthander Josh Banks (8-1, 2.83, 97 K's, 20 BB in 86 IP). UL Lafayette plays at New Orleans, tied with UALR for last place in the league at 4-8, which is just four games back of first.
Around The Top 25
Top-ranked Cal State Fullerton is in the midst of a seven-game road swing, which started Tuesday with an 11-1 thrashing of UCLA. This weekend, the Titans will be at Cal Poly. One feature of the Titans' current hot streak is the roll closer Chad Cordero is on; the junior righthander hasn't allowed a run in his last 15.2 innings over his last 12 games, including Tuesday's effort when he struck out the side in his only inning of work.
Elsewhere in the Big West, fifth-ranked Long Beach State is similarly on a long road trip--eight games away from home. Of course, neither team will have to leave California for their road trips, but the state provides more than enough top-level competition. The Dirtbags have scored 10 or more runs in consecutive games for the first time this season and go to UC Santa Barbara this weekend.
UC Riverside trails Fullerton by two games and Long Beach State by one in the league standings. The Highlanders continued to make their case for a regional bid and Top 25 ranking with a midweek win at UNLV and play host to Pacific (23-18, 3-6) this weekend while UC Irvine plays host to Cal State Northridge.
No. 2 Florida State plays part two of its home-and-home series with 16th-ranked Miami. The Seminoles have lost one series all year, at North Carolina State, but could be without freshman third baseman Eddy Martinez-Esteve, who strained his hamstring last Sunday and is listed as questionable for this series.
Elsewhere in the ACC, Duke plays Maryland in the league's TV game of the week. Go figure. The rest of the league schedule is full of important series, starting with Wake Forest at home against Virginia. If the Cavaliers (7-7 in the league) want to make a regional, they're going to have to do more than just play a competitive series against the league's traditional powers--they're going to have to win the series. The struggling Demon Deacons (25-15, 7-10) provide them the opportunity. Junior righthander Kyle Sleeth is 0-2 in his last three starts, though the Deacs have been in every one of those and won one of them.
Speaking of traditional powers, seventh-ranked Georgia Tech leads the league at 11-1 and plays at Clemson, which fell out of the Top 25 after losing a pair of games at Maryland last weekend. Both teams lost midweek games to Georgia this week, and the Tigers needed extra innings to beat East Tennessee State on Wednesday. Their 28-13 record is more than solid, but a 5-7 league mark leaves them some ground to cover in the second half of the conference schedule.
Third-ranked Rice had lost two straight before opening its weekend series against Louisiana Tech with a 2-1 victory. Sophomore righthander Philip Humber, in perhaps his best outing of the year, threw a complete-game three-hitter, striking out 13 in the home victory, with two games remaining in the series.
Fourth-ranked Stanford plays the Pacific-10 Conference's key series of the weekend, at home against second-place Arizona, which was shut out Tuesday by Grand Canyon. The Wildcats trail the Cardinal by two games in the league thanks to Stanford's resurgent offense (8.7 runs per game over its last 22 games), led by junior right fielder Carlos Quentin.
This guy's hot streak demands extra attention. His current 26-game hitting streak has pushed his season average to .434, and he's 51-for-103 (a Rickie Weeks-esque .495) over the course of the streak. Stanford hasn't had a .400 hitter since David McCarty in 1991.
"Carlos Quentin is having a great season and been a really tough out," Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. "Anytime you have a player hitting over .400 he is having a phenomenal year."
The rest of the Pac-10 slate includes Washington State at 11th-ranked Arizona State, which got a crucial start from senior righthander Ben Thurmond last weekend to avoid a sweep against UCLA. Coach Pat Murphy says Thurmond's fastball isn't the low-90s model he flashed during his time at Winthrop, but that Thurmond (4-0, 2.68) has helped solidify the rotation.
The Sun Devils build their staff from the back forward anyway, with their best arm, junior righthander Ryan Schroyer, manning the closer spot (4-2, 1.10, seven saves) with Beau Vaughan (6-3, 4.71) the key setup man. Vaughan has 75 strikeouts and just 20 walks in 63 innings, and has pitched better out of the bullpen, so why move him?
Southern California goes to Oregon State with a 21-19 record after rallying from a 10-0 deficit on Tuesday to beat UC Santa Barbara. The Trojans took out their starters, but the reserves rallied for the win behind freshman Ryan Broderick, who hit his first career homer, a game-tying shot in the eighth. Perhaps that kind of win will help propel USC back to a regional, because if it's going to happen, it has to happen soon.
California visits Washington in a matchup of two bubble regional clubs. It's unlikely both teams will get a bid; perhaps the winner of this series will get the nod.
Sixth-ranked Nebraska hits the road in Big 12 play at Texas Tech, where the Red Raiders will be turning back the clock and wearing 1927 uniforms for a game this weekend. However, Tech can only play spoiler at this point, having lost five of its last six in the league to fall to 6-11.
The most intriguing series involves No. 15 Texas A&M at No. 23 Missouri. The Tigers have lost a few midweek games lately but have been stout in the league and trail the third-place Aggies by a half-game in the Big 12. Also in the Top 25, No. 24 Baylor tries to find its pitching groove at Kansas, where the Jayhawks are 31-16, 6-9 and still within range of a regional bid. Kansas State, which got off the schneid last weekend by beating Texas Tech, at ninth-ranked Texas. Anyone else see Huston Street in the latest National Geographic? Neat stuff.
Of course, the best attended Big 12 series of the weekend will be the Bedlam Series, with Oklahoma State and Oklahoma playing Friday in Tulsa before Saturday and Sunday games in Oklahoma City. The series history is so even--through 262 games, Oklahoma State has a 133-129 edge, though the Sooners won three of four games between the rivals last year. OU is tied with K-State for last in the league and is in danger of missing the conference tournament for the first time since 1990.
Hard to believe it's been 3,300 words and nary a mention of the Southeastern Conference. But really, there are no scintillating series in the league this weekend on paper. Eighth-ranked Auburn visits Vanderbilt, while Tennessee visits 13th-ranked LSU, No. 18 Arkansas goes to Alabama, and No. 12 Mississippi State goes to Florida; the Gators have been tough at home and won their first road series at Georgia last weekend.
The Bulldogs, as mentioned, got a pair of impressive midweek victories and go to Kentucky to try to keep the roll going. Early names bandied about for the Wildcats' head job, which will be vacant at season's end, include Mississippi State assistant (and former Kentucky aide) Daron Schoenrock and Georgia Tech assistant Bobby Moranda, an Eastern Kentucky graduate.
Fourteenth-ranked Florida Atlantic plays host to Troy State with a three-game lead on Stetson and 3.5 games on the Trojans in Atlantic Sun play.
No. 17 Notre Dame took a midweek loss to Ball State--we really need to look at the MAC next week. The Fighting Irish are currently tied with West Virginia atop a crowded Big East race that includes Rutgers a half-game back at 10-3 and Virginia Tech one back at 10-4. The Irish play host to Connecticut for a three-game series this weekend, with Tech at Rutgers and the Mountaineers at St. John's, which is just three games back.
No. 19 Richmond plays host to Xavier; at 12-2, the Spiders are three games in front of the Musketeers in the Atlantic-10 Conference's Western Division.
Nevada-Las Vegas coach Jim Schlossnagle says his team doesn't excel in any one phase, but has good balance. Hence its four-game lead in the Mountain West Conference, which stretched to five with a 15-8 win in the series opener Thursday at Brigham Young. San Diego State started the weekend four back as well, and the Rebels still have to play SDSU and fourth-place New Mexico (five back) before the regular season ends.
Finally, the Conference USA race, which is still muddled but still led by Southern Mississippi. We've written a lot about the Golden Eagles' homer-powered offense, but don't forget junior righthander Bob McCrory, an 11th-round pick of the Astros in 2000. He got off to a rough start but has rallied lately; despite his 6-2, 5.13 mark, he has 51 strikeouts in 47 innings and one of CUSA's best arms. The Golden Eagles, who split a midweek pair with Mississippi State, play at UAB this weekend. The Blazers have lost 12 straight since their 21-5 start.
No. 25 Tulane, which plays at Saint Louis, trails USM by two games in the league, as does Houston, which visits South Florida. Second-place Texas Christian goes to Cincinnati.
John Manuel will be in the BA chat room at 4 p.m. ET on Monday.