Image credit: NC State's Luca Tresh (Photo by Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)
RALEIGH, N.C. – North Carolina State has come on strong late this season. It has won each of its last three series and four of its last five on the way to forcing its way back into position to make a regional for the sixth consecutive season.
And in a 6-4 win over Florida State at home on Thursday night, it showed why it’s going to be a dangerous team no matter where it is placed in the bracket.
Righthander Reid Johnston was dealing from the start. He went nine up and nine down to begin the game with six strikeouts. He struck out two more in the fourth, working around a single by catcher Mat Nelson, and by the time he was done after 6.2 innings, he had collected a career-high 13 strikeouts, along the way striking out all but one batter in the Florida State starting lineup at least once.
“I told the locker room before I came out here (that) Reid Johnston was unbelievable,” NC State coach Elliott Avent said. “I can’t remember the manager who said it, but when I was a kid growing up and watching every game I could get a hold of, I remember, I think somebody said it about Bob Gibson or something (that) I couldn’t pull him because I fell in love with his heart, and Reid Johnston pitches with so much heart. His performance tonight was outstanding.”
Johnston’s outing was right in line with what the NC State pitching staff has done as a whole during its turnaround, with he and fellow righthanders Sam Highfill and Matt Willadsen forming a solid rotation that gets the Wolfpack deep into games fairly consistently. Right now, NC State very much knows who its guys are on the mound and that’s a great place to be as the postseason nears.
At the same time, the offense on Thursday also showed the kind of quick-strike ability that it has been known to have and that was a key in keeping NC State afloat earlier this season when it was still very much figuring things out on the pitching staff.
In the second inning, catcher Luca Tresh took the first pitch he saw from Florida State lefthander Bryce Hubbart and hit a no-doubt home run to left field to make it 1-0. Two innings later, Jose Torres singled with one out, was moved to third by a Terrell Tatum single two batters later and then scored on a passed ball to make it 2-0.
In the fifth, Hubbart looked poised for a quick inning. He got J.T. Jarrett to pop out to the catcher for the first out, and then after Austin Murr walked, Mat Nelson erased him on a caught stealing. But just six pitches after the Murr caught stealing, it was 4-0 Pack thanks to a Tyler McDonough double and a Jonny Butler two-run homer. It was effective, emphatic two-out hitting.
“That’s just a belief in each other,” Avent said. “They don’t try to do too much in the play, they know one through nine we can all do things that contribute to runs and so they don’t try to do too much. They just try to get it to the next guy.”
But while the first five innings of the game went very much to type for how NC State has won games over the second half of the season, it wasn’t smooth sailing from there by any stretch.
Johnston was indeed cruising going into the seventh inning, but at that point, his grip on the game started to slip. He alternated single, strikeout, single, strikeout to the first four batters of the FSU seventh, and because neither of the Seminoles’ hits in the inning were scalded, it looked like he was still poised to get out of the jam, and as Avent said, he was averse to pulling him at this point because he loved the heart with which he was pitching.
But then Tyler Martin worked a full count and walked on a borderline pitch, a backdoor slider that just didn’t quite bend all the way back into the strike zone. The next batter, Logan Lacey, made it hurt by crushing a grand slam to dead center field, tying the game 4-4. With how dominant Johnston had been to that point, Avent admitted his team was a bit taken aback in the moment.
“You could see a little silence, I think that stunned them a little bit, but credit to them, they rebounded and I thought we played great the last two innings,” Avent said.
Rebound they did, as NC State once again leaned on the things it has been able to lean on during this hot streak.
Lefthander Evan Justice, who has been extremely tough to hit since moving to the bullpen full time and has developed into a true stopper, came in for Johnston and got out of the seventh with a strikeout of Nelson. From there, he also threw scoreless eighth and ninth innings, which went a long way toward settling the game back down and keeping things from snowballing on the Wolfpack.
It also set the stage for the heroics of the ninth inning, which came thanks to a quick-strike score once again. Butler led off with a ringing double to left-center. After Torres flied out to left field, Tresh jumped on a pitch early in the count again, this time for a two-run shot to left-center. Like his first homer, there was no doubt about it off the bat.
“Honestly, I wasn’t trying to do too much, just trying to focus on my breathing and slow things down,” Tresh said. “I got what I was looking for and took advantage of it.”
NC State also got what it was looking for, a hard-fought win as it continues to work toward completing a season comeback from the ACC cellar through three weeks of conference play to being one of the most dangerous teams in the country heading toward the postseason.
More than anything else, this win shows again that NC State is a team willing to take some body shots and then get back up swinging. Not unlike the season as a whole, the Pack went into this game feeling pretty good, were stunned a bit by the way things played out at a critical juncture, but finished triumphant in the end.
“We were a little down, to be honest,” Tresh said of where the team was after a slow start to the season. “When we swept (North) Carolina, I think that’s right on the spot, you know, even Louisville I thought we played well, they just came out and I think they were just a better team than us that series. Right after North Carolina, we just kind of went from there and built it. We knew this squad could win all year.”