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John Manuel

After mid-week losses, Triangle trio look to get back on track at home

Posted March 3

Head Coach Elliott Avent of N.C. State. NC State takes on #1 seed Miami on Thursday May 26, 2016 in Durham, N.C. in the ACC Championship series. Miami drove in 3 runs in the 9th to claim the victory by a score of 8 - 7. (Chris Baird / WRAL Contributor).

— Baseball America ranked NC State 14th in the preseason, and the Wolfpack’s two winning weekends to start the season moved it up to No. 10 in this week’s rankings.

Before, and especially after, Wednesday’s 6-5 loss to UNC Charlotte that dropped his team to 5-3, coach Elliott Avent wasn’t hearing any of it.

“That’s a good Charlotte team,” Avent said in the postgame, “but I thought we were terrible ... There are no silver linings to a loss like this.”

That’s probably too strong of an assessment, but Avent knows his club has yet to hit its stride. Part of that is due to injuries; two-third of the Wolfpack’s 2016 rotation, senior righthander Joe O’Donnell and junior lefthander Brian Brown, have yet to start a game in 2017. O’Donnell has thrown two relief outings this season, totaling three innings, and threw a bullpen Wednesday in preparation for an expected outing this weekend. Brown, who “says he feels fine,” Avent said, also is expected to pitch this weekend.

It will be all hands on deck as the Wolfpack continues a busy early-season schedule with four ages against four opponents from Friday through Monday as it plays host to teams that have come to the area for the Irish Classic. USA Baseball and Notre Dame play host to the event, with the struggling Fighting Irish (1-6) playing four games at USA Baseball’s National Training Complex.

NC State, which beat UNC Greensboro on Tuesday, will play Rhode Island and UMass-Lowell at Doak Field at Dail Park on Friday and Monday, squeezing in a Saturday game against former ACC rival Maryland on Saturday at the NTC. The five games in six days string ends Monday with a home game against defending Southern Conference champion Western Carolina. The Catamounts (4-3) are the only Pack opponent of the group with a winning record thus far.

“We’ve always played a tough non-conference schedule,” Avent said. “This year, we got to take a trip to Hawaii, which can really pitch, then Austin Peay can really hit, and this week we’ve got a lot of games, so we’re going to really find out a lot about our team.”

A couple of things are clear so far. Freshman Will Wilson, hitting .290 with four doubles and a team-high eight RBIs, will play a lot. He’s started all eight games and appears to have taken over the second base job from junior Stephen Pitarra (1-for-19). Junior outfielder Josh McLain, who has hit safely in all eight games, is capable of providing a spark at the top of the lineup, and righthander Austin Staley, who has yet to give up a run in eight innings, will be relief upon in the bullpen no matter who winds up starting in ACC play.

Avent and the Wolfpack have time to hit their stride, but they don’t have much time to start playing better until ACC play starts March 10 at Wake Forest.

Tar Heels, Blue Devils Stay Home

While North Carolina and Duke square off Saturday in basketball, the two baseball teams will be playing home series while coming off losses.

Duke continues to struggle during a 3-6 start, winning a series last weekend against Army but losing Monday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park against Southern California. The Trojans shut out the Blue Devils, who will try to get going against Princeton in a four-game set at DBAP. These games are the season-openers for the Tigers, who are coached by ex-big leaguer and UNC alumnus Scott Bradley.

Bradley enters his 20th season with Princeton coming off an Ivy League championship, its first since 2011. Former Princeton pitchers such as Chris Young, Matthew Bowman, Ross Ohlendorf, Danny Barnes and David Hale have all gone on to pitch in the major leagues after pitching under Bradley’s tutelage,while outfielder Will Venable also had a big league career. Previously, no Princeton player had reached the majors since 1983.

Bradley’s alma mater North Carolina is coming off its first loss of the season, having dropped a Wednesday decision 5-4 to St. John’s. At 9-0, the Johnnies are off to their best start since 1981, when their roster featured future big leaguers Frank Viola and John Franco.

North Carolina plays host to Long Beach State in a three-game set this weekend. Long Beach State’s other teams are known as the 49ers, but the baseball team is known as the Dirtbags. They opened the season ranked 20th but have gotten off to a 4-4 start, with three of the victories coming against Fordham. Long Beach State features righthander Darren McCaughan, the reigning Big West Conference pitcher of the year, who was a teammate of Tar Heels ace J.B. Bukauskas last summer on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team.

The Dirtbags are a pitching-and-defense program, but North Carolina has pitched and defended extremely well so far. UNC has made just two errors this season (with a .994 fielding percentage), while the all-righthanded rotation of Bukauskas, Jason Morgan and freshman Lucas Dalatri—coming off a 15-strikeout effort against Radford—has pitched very well through two weekends. Freshman Tyler Baum also dealt in a mid-week shutout of Winthrop, combining with two fellow freshmen (Austin Bergner and Bo Weiss) and sophomore Taylor Sugg on a four-hit shutout.

Still, the Tar Heel offense has yet to find its bearings, with St. John’s bullpen holding the Heels scoreless over the final five innings Wednesday. UNC has been carried by junior shortstop Logan Warmoth (.429), who has a team-best two home runs, but the Heels haven’t gotten senior outfielder Adam Pate going yet (1-for-15, tough with nine walks) and have not found a consistent power threat to complement Warmoth as yet.

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