RALEIGH, N.C.—The pressure cooker that is postseason baseball can be too much for some players to handle. Tarran Senay just shrugs it off.
The North Carolina State senior first baseman hit a three-run homer in the first inning and a two-run single in the eighth to power the Wolfpack to a clinching 9-2 win against William & Mary in the final game of the Raleigh Regional. This comes a year after Senay had a similarly heroic night in the Wolfpack's 2012 regional final against Vanderbilt, when he hit a three-run homer in the eighth inning and the game winning single in the ninth.
Big deal, right?
"It's a new year," Senay said matter-of-factly after the game, "but it was nice to come out and get that regional win."
Senay certainly wasn't ready to bask in any glory, and that's an attitude that's reflective of how this Wolfpack team went about its business in sweeping through the regional. Turning the page after being denied a national seed on Selection Monday, the Wolfpack never trailed at any point in its three victories this weekend and played error-free defense for the first two games plus seven innings—then committed three errors in the eighth to briefly give the Tribe a glimmer of hope.
That one-inning letdown aside, it was a workmanlike three days for the Wolfpack, which refrained from dogpiling after the final out. This team has won a regional before, and it has its sights set on a bigger goal.
"It felt like we made a big step forward as a school and as a team," Wolfpack shortstop Trea Turner said. "It feels like we're starting to get a winning mentality and knowing that just making a regional isn't good enough—that we can do more."
Senay's homer set the tone quickly on Sunday. William & Mary started senior lefthander Matt Wainman, who's normally the Tribe's closer but had made a handful of starts during the season and was pressed into duty with his team needing a fourth starter. Wainman tried to be aggressive early, but the Wolfpack hitters were ready.
Turner led off the bottom of the first with a single, and Senay came up three hitters later with men on the corners. Wainman fell behind 2-1 before leaving an 86 mph fastball over the plate, and Senay crushed it well into the trees beyond the right-field wall at Doak Field, giving N.C. State a 3-0 lead right out of the gate. Wainman eventually settled down once he started relying more on his secondary pitches and kept the game within reach at 3-0 until the sixth, but that hole was already too deep.
One beneficiary of Senay's long ball was Wolfpack freshman starter Brad Stone, who was able to settle in with the early cushion. The Wolfpack had its choice of starters for Sunday night and elected to go with Stone, a lefthander who was a 35th-round pick of the Texas Rangers a year ago and the lone drafted member of the Wolfpack's 2012 recruiting class to make it to campus. He earned a spot in the Wolfpack's weekend rotation but, like most of its starters, battled inconsistency.
Stone failed to make it out of the first inning in a crucial late-season start against Florida State, but he bounced back to pitch well against Clemson in the ACC tournament, and the Wolfpack coaches saw the confidence there to send him to the mound for a potential regional clincher.
"We just felt very comfortable in giving him the baseball tonight, and boy was he ecstatic," N.C. State coach Elliot Avent said. "He wanted the ball."
For a team that's longed for consistent starting pitching after Carlos Rodon, Stone's outing was a potential breakthrough. The freshman cooly retired 10 of the first 11 Tribe hitters he faced, liberally mixing in his slider with his upper 80s fastball on the way to tossing 5 1/3 scoreless innings, his longest outing since April 14. Going 5 1/3 may not sound like a lot, but then this was also the longest outing by a non-Rodon Wolfpack stater in almost a month—since Ethan Ogburn went eight innings against Presbyterian on May 3.
"I've just been trying to go out there with more focus and effort, especially throughout this time of the year," Stone said. "Coming off the game against Florida State, I knew I had to make some adjustments and get better, and that's what I try to do out there each time."
Wainman finally ran out of steam in the sixth, when the Wolfpack scored three more runs to double its lead to 6-0. The ‘Pack’s defensive miscues briefly allowed the Tribe to make things interesting, narrowing the gap to 6-2 in the eighth, but senior reliever Grant Sasser picked up his teammates with back-to-back strikeouts to strand two runners, and NCSU put the game out of reach with three more in the bottom half of the inning, highlighted by Senay's two-run single.
Senay earned the regional’s Most Outstanding Player honors for his efforts, which also included a two-run homer against Binghamton on Friday. Just three home runs were hit in the entire six-games—all by NCSU, two of them Senay's.
The Wolfpack moves on to a super regional for the third time in six years and fourth time overall, trying to break through to Omaha for the first time since 1968. Where that super regional will be played remains to be determined, as the Wolfpack will await the outcome of Monday's winner-takes-all game between Rice and Oregon. The Wolfpack may yet get to host a super if Rice wins, but otherwise it'll have to travel to Eugene.
Asked after the game if he'd be rooting for the Owls on Monday, Turner played it down the middle.
"I'm sure I'll watch it just because I like watching baseball, period . . . We know we have to go through a good team to get to Omaha, and we're ready to take on that challenge. I'm not really rooting for anybody, but I'll definitely be watching."