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John Manuel

High expectations loom for Triangle trio on the diamond

Posted February 16
Updated February 17

— The recent warm weather should have been a clue that baseball season was right around the corner. And while pitchers and catchers just started reporting to major league spring-training sites throughout Florida and Arizona, college baseball teams have been wrapping up their winter workouts and three-week “spring” training to prepare for the start of the season.

College baseball’s Opening Day even moved up a day for many teams playing on the West Coast, where forecast wet weather prompted the NCAA to give several schools waivers to open their schedules a day early. But the official first day of the season is Friday, when the Triangle’s college clubs all begin their 56-game schedule. NC State opens the year ranked No. 14 by Baseball America, with North Carolina checking in at No. 17. Duke, coming off its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1961, enters the season unranked. Only UNC opens the season at home with Kentucky visiting Boshamer Stadium for three games. NC State opens at Hawaii, while Duke opens with four games scheduled in Surprise, Ariz., in a tournament featuring Oregon State, Gonzaga and Indiana.

This year, for the first time in three seasons, that trio won’t finish their Atlantic Coast Conference season at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, as the ACC moved its baseball tournament out of North Carolina in response to the passage of House Bill 2 into law. HB2’s effect on college baseball includes the loss of the tournament, the departure of the Division II College World Series from Cary, and forcing NC State to open its season on the road.

The Wolfpack was slated to play host to Binghamton before the state of New York mandated for state employees and entities to avoid travel to North Carolina because of its passage of HB2. As a result, Binghamton—the reigning champion of and favorite in the America East Conference—scratched NC State off its schedule. Coach Elliott Avent caught a welcome break, though, when Liberty—with new head coach Scott Jackson, a former UNC assistant—decided to pull out of its season-opening series at Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors suddenly needed a visitor, and the Pack took advantage. Increased flexibility with its travel budget and academic schedules thanks to more online courses helped make it possible.

“I have always wanted to take (the team on) a big trip,” Avent said, “but it hasn’t always lined up financially or in terms of missing class. But we were able to work it out this year.”

Avent’s first 20 seasons at State have produced a .618 winning percentage, a 2013 College World Series trip and 15 NCAA tournament appearances, a level of consistency unmatched by other athletic programs in Raleigh.

However, the Pack has had heartbreaking losses in those NCAA regionals the last two seasons, with a 2015 meltdown the lose a late lead at Texas Christian, then watching another lead slip away last year at home against Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers went on to win the whole darn thing in Omaha, leaving the Pack to realize just how close it is as a program and yet also what it must do to get over the hump.

The Wolfpack has a deep pitching staff but would love to find consistency at the front and back of its pitching staff. Junior lefthander Brian Brown, the presumptive ace with a 14-6, 2.90 career mark in two seasons, lacks power stuff and saw his ERA jump from 2.03 as a freshman to 3.70 last season. Brown won’t pitching on opening weekend in Hawaii due to a bout of tendinitis, according to pitching coach Scott Foxhall. The Pack will rely on a mix of newcomers to the rotation, such as freshman righthander Dalton Feeney and former relievers Sean Adler and Cody Beckman, with holdovers such as Brown, former closer Tommy DeJuneas and senior Cory Wilder. Adler, Beckman and DeJuneas are expected to start against Hawaii, with 6-foot-8 righty Johnny Piedmont—who has started 20 of his 28 appearances on the mound—opening the season as the closer.

NC State’s lineup is more of a known commodity, with potential impact freshman Brad Debo replacing three-year starter Andrew Knizner at catcher. The rest of the lineup includes familiar faces such as speedy junior outfielders Brock Deatherage and Josh McLain, as well as juniors all around the infield in first baseman Shane Shepard, second baseman Stephen Pitarra, third baseman Evan Mendoza and shortstop Joe Dunand.

Can UNC Bounce Back?

Expectations for the Wolfpack are high, and they’re also high again in Chapel Hill even though the Tar Heels have failed to earn an NCAA tournament bid the last two seasons. That means juniors such as ace righthander J.B. Bukauskas, a preseason first-team All-American, and speedy center fielder Brian Miller, a second-team choice, have not played in the NCAA tournament.

Coach Mike Fox has welcomed Robert Woodward back to campus as pitching coach, shifting veteran assistant Scott Forbes from handling pitchers to the hitters. The Tar Heels struggled both defensively and to hit with runners in scoring position last season and have focused on defense in the preseason, in part Fox said because the pitching staff lacks strikeout pitchers behind Bukauskas.

He’ll open the season as the Friday starter for the first time after Zac Gallen, drafted and signed by the Cardinals, handled those duties the last two seasons. Junior Jason Morgan and freshman Lucas Dalatri round out the season-opening rotation, with sophomore Rodney Hutchison just missing on a spot.

Dalatri, a righthander out of New Jersey, is one of Carolina’s potential impact freshman in a class that includes infielder Ashton McGee, an early enrollee who joined the program in January out of C.B. Aycock High in Pikeville; righty Austin Bergner, who could be a late-inning bullpen factor along with Hutchison; and righty Bo Weiss, the son of former Tar Heels (and big league) shortstop Walt Weiss.

Next Step For Duke

Duke beat out the Tar Heels for a regional berth by finishing ahead of UNC in the ACC standings, and ending the regional drought gets one item out of the way for fifth-year coach Chris Pollard. Up next: build a consistent winner.

Duke has to replace its entire rotation of fifth-year seniors from a year ago and is expected to have more power in this year’s rotation, moving closer Jack Stallings to the No. 1 spot with 6-foot-10 lefty James Ziemba and hard-throwing freshman Adam Laskey both expected to start as well.

The club’s top returning players this year are bats, from junior third baseman/righthander Jack Labosky (who’s expected to close and bat third) and junior first baseman Justin Bellinger, who hit seven homers last season and energized the lineup with his power. Duke’s other strength should be speed, provided by sophomore middle infielders Zack Cone and Max Miller as well as left fielder Jimmy Herron and a new starter in center, sophomore Kennie Taylor.

“We can do some things as athletes that are very dynamic,” coach Pollard said in a team questionnaire. “Our hope is it continues to translate to the baseball field.”

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