Off The Bat: NC State Rolls, New Mexico State Wins Wild WAC

Image credit: NC State's Luca Tresh (Photo by Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

Teddy Cahill runs through the biggest storylines that emerged from the weekend. To see the updated Top 25, click here.

NC State Finishes Strong With Rivalry Win

North Carolina State won its first 19 games of the season and even after taking its first loss of the year in its series finale against Florida State, won 10 of its next 12 games to run its record to 29-3. More than halfway through the season, the Wolfpack looked like the best team in the ACC.

But just then, the Wolfpack went into a funk. They lost five straight games, including getting swept at home by Louisville, and then went on to lose their next two series, at Wake Forest and at Notre Dame. By the time April ended, NC State was 33-12 and 14-10 in the ACC.

NC State’s season of runs wasn’t over yet, however. As the calendar flipped to May, it got a breather with a non-conference series against Radford on its ACC bye week. It swept that, then won its series against Clemson and, all of a sudden, going into this weekend’s rivalry series at North Carolina, had rebuilt its momentum and could again think about hosting a regional—if it could beat the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill.

UNC won the opener, 5-3, coming back late for its fourth straight victory against its rival. But over the next two days, NC State left no doubt, routing UNC, 11-2, on Friday and finishing the series with an emphatic 11-0 victory Saturday. The Wolfpack (41-15, 18-12), which ranks No. 13 in this week’s Top 25, finished the season third in the ACC and are in prime position heading into this week’s ACC Tournament in Durham to host a regional.

After going through an April swoon, NC State is back to playing the kind of baseball it did early in the season—crisp defense with a suffocating bullpen and potent offense—that has coach Elliott Avent encouraged going into the postseason.

“I’ve been here 23 years and, except for one season, we play our best baseball at the end,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re playing our best baseball, but I think we’re getting there. I’m really proud of this club.”

Some of NC State’s midseason struggles can be attributed to injuries, chief among them to shortstop Will Wilson, who missed six games coinciding with the slide. But the Wolfpack pitching staff also briefly dipped, with its starters not working as deep into games and its relievers not pitching as crisply. For a team that relies more on its pitching depth than on premium starters, that was a bad combination.

At the same time, with Wilson out, NC State’s defense suffered. The Wolfpack are fielding .981 as a team and are one of just 15 teams that came into the weekend with a fielding percentage of at least .980. But for that stretch in April, they weren’t a premium defensive team.

In short, after a charmed first half of the season, just about everything broke down at once.

“Nobody’s 29-3, so that’s a mirage,” Avent said. “But when we were where we were, the bullpen was lights out, coming in strike one, strike two. The starters were getting to about the fourth or fifth inning. Then the starters didn’t get us quite as far and when the bullpen came in, they weren’t strike one, strike two. Everything kind of got depleted at the same time. Then, when the injuries hit, it all fizzled for a little bit.

“You’ve got to give the players credit for sticking with it and coming back and the bullpen’s pitching much, much better right now and we’re playing better defense.”

The players can feel the turnaround, too. NC State is 7-3 in May and the three losses have been by a combined five runs.

“We’re definitely getting that spark back,” senior first baseman Evan Edwards said. “You can tell by the energy in the dugout at the start of the game. Even (Saturday) on a hot day like it was, throughout the whole game we kept the energy up.”

And NC State is back to scoring runs in bunches. Its averaging 6.6 runs per game in May, a little off its season pace of 7.68. Wilson, a likely first-round pick next month, is hitting .356/.446/.698 with 16 home runs. Edwards (.335/.455/.609, 13 HR), sophomore catcher Patrick Bailey (.297/.398/.516, 9 HR) and freshman outfielder Tyler McDonough (.333/.399/.474, 10 SB) give the lineup a strong heart of the order behind Wilson, and NC State has plenty of supporting pieces around them.

In its wins against UNC, NC State’s offense was opportunistic, taking advantage of several defensive miscues to score nine unearned runs in two games. That, in addition to the Wolfpack’s patient approach that led to 13 walks, was the sign of a locked in offense.

“When we’re aggressive in the zone and stay in the zone, I think we can put up some good numbers,” Bailey said. “We were taking advantage of some mistakes and we always have to do that. That’s something I think we were missing when we were scuffling. Teams made mistakes and we just weren’t able to take advantage of it.”

NC State has relocated its mojo at just the right time. It won a series in Chapel Hill for the first time since 2004 and its 41 regular-season wins are its most since 2013, when it won 42 and went on to advance to the College World Series.

Now, NC State must turn its attention to the ACC Tournament, where it faces a tricky ACC Tournament pool, grouped with Florida State and Wake Forest. It’s been a strong run to get back to this position after a shaky April, but the Wolfpack aren’t done yet.

“You just want to keep playing good baseball,” Avent said. “Mostly, you just want to keep moving the needle and playing good baseball. It’s nice to finish third in a league like the ACC. Really proud of these guys, 41 wins, proud of the effort.”

New Mexico State Wins Wild WAC

It’s a little off the beaten path in baseball, but the Western Athletic Conference served up the best title race in the country this season. Five teams went into the weekend within two games of first-place New Mexico State. They came out of it even tighter, with those five teams finishing the regular season separated by just one game and three teams tied for first place.

When the dust settled, California Baptist’s 9-4 victory Saturday at New Mexico State created a three-way tie for first place at 19-8 between Cal Baptist, New Mexico State and Texas-Rio Grande Valley. Grand Canyon and Sacramento State were a game off the pace at 18-9.

The biggest spoils go to New Mexico State, which will be the No. 1 seed in the WAC Tournament at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa, Ariz., in addition to getting to raise a WAC regular season title for just the second time in program history and the first time since 2012.

But Cal Baptist and UTRGV deserve their props as well, however. Cal Baptist is ineligible for the postseason as it is in its first season reclassifying from Division II and went 35-20 and showed it can compete at the top of the WAC. The Lancers, upon returning home from New Mexico State, reenacted the final out of their win Saturday that gave them a part of the title and dogpiled at Totman Stadium.

UTRGV completely flipped the script in coach Derek Matlock’s second season, improving from 23-31 to 34-19, the program’s most wins since 1991 (37). This was the Vaqueros first conference title as a Division I program and their first since 1955, when they were a part of the Big State Conference.

New Mexico State coach Brian Green said the wild finish to the regular season illustrated the conference’s strength, which he has been impressed with all season.

“It’s a pretty good league, competitive,” he said. “That became apparent in week three that there were four, five six teams competing for the title. I felt it would go down to the end. I think all of us knew that and we grinded hard.”

While New Mexico State made the NCAA Tournament last year after finishing third in the regular season and winning the WAC Tournament, it wasn’t that long ago that it was undergoing its own rebuild. Green brought in 35 new players in the 2015 recruiting class after winning just 11 games in his first season in Las Cruces.

Since that overhaul, the Aggies have been building toward this point. And while much of that class was junior college players, a few players remain, including outfielder Tristen Carranza. He has been a crucial part of New Mexico State’s offense and is hitting .380/.506/.745 with 18 home runs. He is the first four-year player from that seminal class to complete his career, a few more players who redshirted will join him in that distinction next season, and Green got emotional when it came time to recognize Carranza on Saturday as a part of the senior day celebrations.

“We do it after the game, I pull the mic out and start crying,” Green said. “That one was tough. To see him grow up in front of our eyes was special. It’s cool that we still have some more of those guys. It was a special group they bought into a vision.”

That vision has borne fruit, and New Mexico State is now a consistent contender in the WAC. Much of its success has been built on its offensive prowess. The Aggies are averaging 11.5 runs per game, the most in the nation, and hitting .360/.475/.584 as a team. They have three regulars hitting above .400, led by sophomore second baseman Nick Gonzales (.438/.537/.781, 15 HR), and eight regulars are hitting at least .300.

It’s easy to attribute New Mexico State’s high-powered offense to elevation (Las Cruces is about three-quarters of a mile above sea level) and its offensive home stadium, Askew Field. But that’s only a part of the story. Green is a respected hitting coach, and this year he said the Aggies have made it a point to develop a better two-strike approach. As a team, they have walked more than they struck out (325 walks, 305 strikeouts) and have cut their strikeout rate from about 16 percent to about 13 percent.

Green said that change in approach has been the key to making the offense even more dangerous this season.

“It really enabled us to be patient early in the count and confident hitting with two strikes,” he said. “They didn’t chase, they waited to get their pitch. As baseball goes, it started going and the next thing you know, you look up and one through nine, we’re having competitive at-bats all year.”

New Mexico State now goes to Mesa, Ariz., for the WAC Tournament as the top seed, but that designation hasn’t meant much the last few years. The No. 1 seed has not won the tournament since 2014, when Sacramento State had to come out of the losers’ bracket to secure its NCAA Tournament berth. It does give the Aggies a first-round bye, however, meaning their first WAC Tournament game won’t be until Thursday.

Green is expecting a competitive tournament after a very competitive regular season. Beyond playing good, fundamental baseball, he said the key to success will be the Aggies’ mentality.

“You have to put ball in play, keep walks down, all the normal, generic stuff,” he said. “But the biggest thing is we have to find another gear of competitiveness.”

If the Aggies are able to do that, they should be able to make another NCAA Tournament trip and reach the 40-win milestone in back-to-back years for the first time in program history. But after a wild regular season finish, nothing can be taken for granted this week at Hohokam Stadium.

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Georgia, Louisville, Mississippi State, Stanford, Texas Tech, UCLA, Vanderbilt

Another week of no changes and me wondering if I ought to be finding a spot for East Carolina or UC Santa Barbara. But I’ll stick with this group again. These are probably the most complete, battle-tested teams in the country. And while, let’s face it, there will be upsets along the Road to Omaha, I’m not ready to predict which Cinderella will join the party.

Weekend Standouts

Six players or programs who put together big weekends

Army: The Black Knights defeated Navy, 4-3, Sunday in the decisive Game 3 of the championship series to win the Patriot League Tournament for the second year in a row. Army on Friday became the first team all year to beat Navy ace Noah Song, who had twice beaten the Black Knights during the regular season, and then won a tight game Sunday when Jeremiah Adams singled home Anthony Giachin in the top of the ninth inning for the go-ahead run. The Black Knights are in regionals for the second year in a row and become the first team to win the Patriot League Tournament in back-to-back seasons since they did so in 2012-13.

Florida A&M: The Rattlers (27-32) on Saturday became the first team to punch their ticket to the 2019 NCAA Tournament, as they beat Norfolk State to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament. Florida A&M came out of the losers’ bracket to win the tournament after losing Thursday to Norfolk State, the Northern Division champion. The Rattlers, who won four straight elimination games, are going to regionals for the first time since 2015.

Harvard: The Crimson are going back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005 after sweeping the Ivy League Playoff Series against Columbia. Harvard (27-13), which won the regular season title, clinched the tournament title with an 8-6 victory in 11 innings Sunday, snapping the longest NCAA Tournament drought in program history. Senior first baseman Patrick McColl came up big as he has all season, hitting a three-run home run to tie the game in the sixth and then delivering a two-run double in the 11th inning. He is hitting .396/.463/.740 with 12 home runs.

Southern: The Jaguars on Sunday routed Alabama State, 15-0, to win the Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament in a matchup of the conference’s two division winners. Southern (32-22) advances to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009. The Jaguars have undergone a remarkable turnaround under second-year coach Kerrick Jackson and posted a winning record for the first time since 2012.

Kevin Strohschein, OF, Tennessee Tech: Strohschein last year was an All-American and in 2016 was a Freshman All-American, but he’s flown under the radar this season because Tennessee Tech isn’t having the kind of season it did the last two years. But the senior this weekend concluded a remarkable career by moving into 10th on the NCAA all-time hits list with a Friday-night double. Strohschein finishes his career with 362 hits and a .359/.418/.636 batting line while starting all 236 of Tennessee Tech’s games over the last four years.

Matt Wallner, OF, Southern Mississippi: Wallner homered four times on the weekend against Alabama-Birmingham, including twice Saturday, to become Southern Miss’ all-time home run king. He has now hit 54 home runs in his career, breaking Marc Maddox’s record, which has stood since 2006. Wallner, the 2017 Freshman of the Year, is hitting .315/.431/.665 with 19 home runs this season.

Looking Ahead

Three conference tournaments we’re most excited for

American Athletic in Clearwater, Fla.: The American typically has as much parity as any conference in the country. This year, East Carolina ran away with the title, clinching it with five games to play. While that makes the Pirates the prohibitive favorite, there’s still a lot to watch in Clearwater. First, ECU is aiming for a top-eight overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and can lock it up with a conference tournament title. Second, there’s still plenty of parity in the conference, it just starts after ECU. The half of the bracket with Central Florida, Cincinnati, Memphis and Tulane is nearly impossible to handicap. And third, there are teams fighting for postseason bids, chiefly Houston (32-22, 12-12) and UCF (34-20, 11-13).

Big 12 in Oklahoma City: This tournament often seems to deliver the most drama among the power conferences, and it feels ripe for a Cinderella run again. Whether that’s Oklahoma (33-21, 11-13) or Texas Christian (29-24, 11-13) making a run or just West Virginia (34-18, 13-11) getting hot and winning its first conference tournament title since 1996, when it was a member of the Big East. For added fun, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are on the same side of the bracket, increasing the likelihood of an extra Bedlam Game in Oklahoma City.

SEC in Hoover, Ala.: What’s not to love? It’s the best conference tournament in terms of atmosphere and talent, and this year looks like another dandy in Hoover. It’ll start with a bang Tuesday, as the single-elimination games will impact both the hosting and NCAA Tournament bubble races. And once the top four seeds (Vanderbilt, Georgia, Arkansas and Mississippi State) join the fray Wednesday for the double-elimination portion of the tournament, the sheer volume of talent on the field will be even more compelling.

Two weekend series to watch

Cal Poly at No. 12 UC Santa Barbara: The Gauchos (44-7, 18-3) have won 13 straight games and hold a three-game lead on Cal Poly and UC Irvine in the Big West standings. That deficit will be very difficult to overcome, but the Mustangs (26-27, 15-6) do control their own destiny and would win the conference and its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with a sweep. UCSB is one win away from its first Big West title since 1986 and probably just two wins away from getting to host a regional.

California at Washington: The air was taken out of the Pac-12 finish this weekend by UCLA’s sweep and Oregon State and Stanford splitting a rain-shortened series, which combined to give the Bruins a 1.5-game edge going into the final weekend. But a couple teams are still playing for regional bids. Cal (30-18, 15-11) is likely safe, but Washington (28-22, 12-15) is again trying to complete a second-half surge into the NCAA Tournament. Also, Arizona (29-24, 12-14) is trying to finish a torrid close of its own at Washington State (11-39-1, 3-23-1), where a sweep would likely see the Wildcats push into regionals.

One game to keep an eye on

North Carolina A&T vs. Southern in Chicago, HBCU World Series, Friday, 2 p.m. ET: Guaranteed Rate Field, the home of the White Sox, will on Friday host the inaugural HBCU World Series. The event will pit Southern (32-22), the Southwest Athletic Conference Tournament champion, against North Carolina A&T (29-24), which won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Southern Division, in a game that will highlight baseball in Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

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