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'Jonny Barrels' Arrives: Butler Leads NC State To College World Series Opening Win

OMAHAIn a 10-4 win on Saturday against Stanford to kick off the College World Series, the North Carolina State offense looked like it so often has this season, which is to say that the Wolfpack got contributions up and down the lineup from a number of different guys and left fielder Jonny Butler was right in the middle of everything.

Just a matter of minutes into the ballgame, he got the scoring started with a two-run home run with one out in the first, scoring Austin Murr, who led off with a single. Two innings later, he blooped a single into right field to bring home two more runs and make it 6-0. After reaching on a walk in the seventh, he helped add insurance late with an RBI single in the ninth, giving him a 3-for-4 showing with five RBI.

“He's just a tremendous player,” NC State coach Elliott Avent said. “I've said it all year. He's that guy that when you coach him every day and you see him in practice every day, and you see how consistent he is, he's the model of consistency in everything that he does—base running, outfield play—everything he does. And guys like that sometimes fly under the radar, but I think it's hard for Jonny Butler to fly under the radar. I think people started taking notice of him midway through the season. And he's just a tremendous player, who continues to play better and better.”

For those who haven't taken notice -- and the man NC State fans call 'Johnny Barrels' has absolutely gone under the radar entering the College World Series despite being a third-team All-American -- he's impossible to ignore now.

Some of that likely has to do with the fact that the NC State lineup is good enough on the whole that it can overshadow the individual performance of any one player, but whatever the reason, it’s long past time to appreciate what Butler is doing.

He’s hitting .385 with 14 home runs and 53 RBI, and his batting average has been hovering close to the .400 mark for more than a month as he stayed hot at the most important time of year.

You also can’t discount how much he’s come through in big moments for the Wolfpack. He had four combined hits and five RBI in the two wins over host Louisiana Tech in the regional. He had a two-run homer in game 3 of the super regional against Arkansas. And Saturday was just the latest chapter in the story he’s spent this season writing.

“I had a lot of confidence coming in here,” Butler said. “I thought I played really, really well the last game against Arkansas. Also, I mean, there's a lot of pressure on the pitchers all game because every time I was up I think there was runners in scoring position. And I'm always comfortable in those situations knowing that the pressure is on the pitcher; he has to come to me.”

Even beyond what Butler and the rest of the lineup did against Stanford, which included a home run from Devonte Brown and two-hit days for Murr, Tyler McDonough and Vojtech Mensik, this win felt very familiar for NC State.

Righthander Reid Johnston did his job. He hit a wall in the seventh, but still finished his day with six hits and four runs (three earned) allowed in six innings after cruising through the first six frames with two hits and one run allowed.

As has been the case with the entire rotation the second half of the season, it wasn’t perfect, but it was enough. And once Johnston slowed down in the seventh, Evan Justice came on and shut the door, as always.

An error allowed a Stanford run to score after Justice came on, but he otherwise got out of a bases-loaded jam to keep it a 6-4 NC State lead. He went three up and three down in the eighth with two strikeouts and then worked around a leadoff single in the ninth.

“Reid Johnston was Reid Johnston. Evan Justice was Evan Justice. And I thought some of the guys at the top of the lineup had big, big days,” Avent said.

It goes without saying that NC State is sitting pretty now having won its first game of the CWS, and while there is much work still to be done for the Wolfpack to achieve their ultimate goal here, it’s worth hammering home just how good its position is right now.

Going back to 1999, the eventual national champion has won its first game of the CWS in 19 of 21 years, and in 18 of 21 years, both the champion and the runner-up have started off with wins.

And if that’s not compelling enough, you can look at it from the opposite standpoint, which is that it’s nearly impossible to win a national title after dropping your first game. Just 2006 Oregon State and 2010 South Carolina have done so since 1999. So while CWS history is littered with teams that won opening games but were eliminated quickly thereafter, it sure beats the dire alternative.

“It feels great. You want to be on this side of the bracket after the first game,” Justice said.

On Saturday, NC State repeated a formula that it has used to great success late this season. It got plenty of offense, steady starting pitching that was good enough to get the job done and great work out of the bullpen.

The CWS schedule, with its built-in days off early in the tournament and bigger breaks down the line for the team that stays in the winner’s bracket, should serve the Pack well, with the days off helping a fairly thin bullpen get its rest between games.

But if it plays as well as it did on Saturday and sticks to the formula for the rest of the tournament, those in NC State’s bracket would argue that it doesn’t need the help.

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