Baseball can be cruel sometimes. Too cruel. All it takes is a bad half-inning from a starting pitcher, and you find yourself down 4-0. That’s what happened to N.C. State (39-13, 16-10 ACC) when Florida State (42-10, 18-9) got back-to-back home runs against starter Brad Stone in the top of the first. The Seminoles led 4-0 before Stone was pulled, and it was 8-1 Seminoles before the Wolfpack could find a pitcher that could settle things down (reliever Josh Easley, ultimately).
N.C. State is a confident bunch, though. And the Wolfpack, even with the early deficit, still thought they were going to win the rubber match of the series. But ultimately, it wasn’t to be and a few N.C. State rallies fell just short as the Wolfpack fell, 8-4.
“I got the feeling we were coming,” N.C. State head coach Elliott Avent said. “I got the feeling we were coming and I got the feeling (Florida State) thought maybe we were, too. I’m so proud of our team from like the fourth inning on, because I felt like even though we were down by a good margin, it was our ballgame.”
Two well-hit balls very nearly left the park, but both died somewhat inexplicably on the warning track, and the FSU outfielders were able to snag both for outs. The most puzzling one was hit by Tarran Senay, who hit the ball so hard that teammate Brett Williams was sure it was out. “Tarran Senay’s ball I thought was in the top of the trees,” Williams said with a shrug, “and it seemed like the wind just kicked it out of the sky.”
But despite the fact that N.C. State kept fighting back, the fact remains that their starting pitching — minus staff ace Carlos Rodon — has been putting the Wolfpack in far too many early holes. In N.C. State’s last three games against top 10 opponents that Rodon didn’t start (two against FSU and one against No. 3 UNC), the Wolfpack have trailed by a combined score of 15-1 after the first two innings of each game.
“We’ve kind of struggled out of the gate the past two games, and that can be tough for your confidence as a team,” Williams said. “We’ve battled from behind a lot this year and been successful coming back. … So we’re comfortable in that position, but we just didn’t get all the way back this time. We still feel confident.”
Avent and his team have been able to adapt to almost anything all season long. When the bottom of the order wasn’t getting it done, they made changes and now that’s better. When Trea Turner went out with an injury, the team made things work. But the lack of starting pitching beyond Rodon is something that has been a problem all year.
“It’s a big concern. It’s been a concern all year,” Avent said. “Things have had to change all year, and we’ve made some changes. … But the one catch this year is the starting pitching just hasn’t done what we thought it was going to do.”
A lot of things would have to happen for N.C. State to win the Atlantic Division, but it’s not impossible. All teams will play their final ACC series this weekend, and N.C. State would have to sweep Duke in Durham (the Blue Devils are 25-26, 9-18 ACC). Florida State will host Clemson, and the Tigers are surging with a 37-15 record (17-10 in the ACC).
The problem is that both Clemson and Florida State hold the tiebreaker in the Atlantic Division over N.C. State now, both having taken series wins over the Wolfpack. But despite all that, if N.C. State sweeps Duke and Clemson takes two of three games (but no more than that) off of Florida State, the Wolfpack will win the Division.
That’s not something the team is worried about right now, though. The Wolfpack are used to playing from behind. They did it last year, and they got to a Super Regional against Florida. Sure, winning the Division was a goal. But in the ACC Tournament, it’s wide open and N.C. State still has a chance to get a national seed.
“It’s the same place we were last year and we went to a Super Regional and were two wins away from (the College World Series in) Omaha,” shortstop Turner said. “I think we’re just as good a team as we were three days ago when everybody thought we might win this series. I don’t think it should matter that much. I think we’re going to bounce back and be fine.”