DURHAM, N.C. — N.C. State (43-13) beat Clemson (39-18) by a 6-3 score on the strength of the one thing the Wolfpack has been doing well all season — getting timely hits.
Clemson starting pitcher Daniel Gossett was dominant through six innings, but in the seventh, things fell apart. The first three batters he faced at the bottom of N.C. State’s order reached base (one on a fielder’s choice), and then he walked the leadoff man to the load the bases.
And that’s what set everything up for a big inning. Just two swings later, N.C. State’s Jake Fincher and and Brett Austin turned a tie game into a 6-2 Wolfpack lead, and Gossett was out of the game. Reliever Patrick Andrews got the next two N.C. State batters out, but it was too late.
There’s no real secret to timely hitting, according to Fincher. “Just going up there knowing you’ve got guys in scoring position, try to stay in the zone and find holes,” he said.
Of course, if there’s a secret, Clemson would like to know it. The Tigers, who outhit N.C. State 8-6 have struggled to get timely hits all year. Garrett Boulware went 3-for-4 and nearly hit for the cycle, and he was up in the top of the sixth with the bases loaded and no outs, and he grounded into a double play. Clemson scored on that play to tie the game at 2-2, but it changed the momentum of the inning and ultimately, the game.
“Approach-wise, you can’t really change it. You’ve just got to keep hitting. Hopefully, things just kind of fall for you eventually,” Boulware said. “Really, the only thing that’s killing us right now is situational hitting. There’s not really an approach or any mindset that you can have that changes. You’ve just got to execute when it matters and keep hitting because eventually it’ll fall.”
“It doesn’t matter how many hits you’ve get, you’ve got to get them at the right time,” Clemson manager Jack Leggett said.
N.C. State’s starter was not its staff ace — it was freshman Brad Stone, who has been erratic this season. He gave the Wolfpack five innings of work and retired 15 of the 21 batters he faced.
Then in the top of the sixth, Stone got into a bases-loaded jam and reliever Josh Easley came in. He got the double play on Boulware’s grounder, then struck out the next batter he faced for the third out.
“This is the opening game of the ACC Tournament, one of the premier events in the entire country,” N.C. State manager Elliott Avent said. “Last year at this time, he was pitching at Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte, watching this thing thinking about, wow, this is kind of cool. Now, he’s out there in front of a huge crowd.”
And of course, the N.C. State defense made plays as well. The grounder was a tough one, and first baseman Trea Turner had to make a barehanded grab to get the out.
“For us, Brad Stone kept (Clemson’s hitters) at bay but we also played tremendous defense,” Avent said. “We’ve played pretty solid defense the second half of the season. We didn’t start out that way but we played very good defense tonight, I’ll tell you that.”
N.C. State moves to 1-0 in pool play and Clemson drops to 0-1. Both teams will have Thursday off. North Carolina and Miami, the other two teams in the pool, face off tomorrow. N.C. State faces Miami on Friday and Clemson will play North Carolina.
As Leggett said after the game, though, in this tournament, you’re going to inevitably face a team that’s good. All eight ACC teams in the field are in the top 20 of the RPI, and all it takes is a few plays here or there to make the difference.
“It was a good college baseball game. It was two good teams battling it out,” Leggett said. “They’re playing well. We’re playing well. They just happened to have a couple more key hits than we did.”