Leading up to the college baseball season, we will preview each of the Atlantic Coast Conference baseball teams. You can view all of our team previews to date here. This preview features the NC State Wolfpack.
Recently, NC State has been a good baseball program in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but not often a great one. That could change this year, as the Wolfpack received national attention and the ACC coaches’ vote for preseason favorites thanks to a Super Regional appearance last season and a strong core of returnees.
NC State’s next win will be head coach Elliott Avent’s 600th as the Wolfpack’s head coach. Since taking over in 1997, Avent has established the program as a consistent NCAA Tournament team. However, they have had limited success in those tournament appearances. Only three times under Avent has NC State reached Super Regional play, and in two of those appearances they were swept (Miami in 2003 and Florida last year).
There’s no shame in having the success NC State has had. Their neighbors in Chapel Hill have made a habit of taking trips to the College World Series, though, while NC State hasn’t been to Omaha since its lone appearance in 1968. This year could be the one that a different team in the Triangle gets a trip to TD Ameritrade Park, with a roster that boasts two preseason first-team All-Americans.
The Wolfpack do lose three of their top four hitters from last year’s team. Catcher Danny Canela led the team in batting average (.348) and on-base percentage (.457) but transferred to Lee University. Ryan Mathews tied for the ACC lead with 17 home runs and finished second in the conference in slugging percentage (.628). Shortstop Chris Diaz batted .346 with 91 hits and 56 RBI. However, there is plenty of talent available to fill those gaps.
A group of super sophomores will lead the way for NC State. The most decorated of the sophomores is left-handed pitcher Carlos Rodon. Rodon was a consensus first-team All-American player as a freshman last season, earning Louisville Slugger’s Freshman Pitcher of the Year award. Rodon’s 135 strikeouts and 1.57 ERA placed him third and fourth in the nation, respectively, topping the ACC in both. Rodon was also a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award in 2012, and figures to be on the short list to receive the honor of the best amateur baseball player in the United States this year.
Offensively, the Wolfpack landed Trea Turner on the All-American first teams. Turner started at third base last season, but will transition to shortstop in 2013 following Diaz’s graduation. He batted .336, with a .432 on-base percentage that was good for seventh in the ACC. His greatest weapon is his blazing speed. Turner stole 57 bases in 2012, 16 more than anyone else in the nation. Sure, doubles are nice (Turner had 13 of those last year), but when you can just steal second, why bother?
One sophomore expected to have a greater impact in 2013 is Brett Austin. Austin was a regular starter last season, bouncing between catcher, designated hitter, and right field. He will take on more responsibility this year, thanks to Canela’s transfer. Austin batted .284 with 17 doubles last season, but scouts love his power potential and expect him to produce more this season.
Jake Fincher is another sophomore looking to improve on a strong 2012 showing. The outfielder batted an even .300 as a freshman, including six triples, and stole 16 bases. The Wolfpack would like to see a more disciplined Fincher in 2013, as he drew only 18 walks to 37 strikeouts last year. His speed and arm strength also make him a strong defensive player in the outfield.
Joining Rodon in the rotation will be two of three pitchers with starters’ experience last year in Logan Jernigan, Ethan Ogburn, and Anthony Tzamtzis. Ogburn was the most reliable of the three last year, striking out 71 batters while walking only 19 and recording a 3.38 ERA. Tzamtzis and Jernigan boast better “stuff,” but struggled at times with control. If either Tzamtzis or Jernigan can improve on their consistency, then the Wolfpack weekenders will be among the best in the nation.
NC State’s bullpen, like North Carolina’s, returns several key contributors who can be relied upon to get the tough late-inning outs. Senior left-hander Grant Sasser returns from Tommy John surgery, joining fellow seniors Chris Overman and Danny Healey, junior DJ Thomas, and sophomores Travis Orwig and Dillon Frye
Overman will return to the closer’s role. Overman put together an 18 2/3 inning scoreless streak at one point during the 2012 season, ultimately posting a 2.91 ERA. In 34 innings, Overman fanned 43 batters.
NC State likely could have appeared in the College World Series last season if it weren’t for the misfortune of drawing the powerful Florida Gators for their Super Regional. With a year of experience under Rodon’s and Turner’s belts and an offseason to improve, the Wolfpack has reason to shoot for Omaha in 2013.