Maryland baseball: # 11 NC State visits for a critical series

Both teams desperately need a series win over a top opponent. Will Maryland finally throw off the yoke and take a series from a quality ACC team?

A team that loves to play small ball, bunting at every opportunity, with a pitching staff that has control issues:  No, I'm not talking about Maryland but NC State. The natives are restless in Raleigh, especially after NC State got swept down in Tallahassee.

Things started off shakily for NC State in 2014, dropping their first game 3 - 0 to lowly Canisius.  After beating the likes of Appalachian State and Davidson, the Wolfpack lost at home (actually in Cary, NC which is the same as home) to UCLA 2 - 0. They did sweep lowly Notre Dame at home in their first ACC series of the year, but then last weekend occurred. The team's RPI stands at 47 (Maryland is at 16) with a SOS of 136 (Maryland is at 34). While NC State has a 14 - 5 record, against top 100 RPI teams they're 1 - 4 (the Terps are 6 - 6). In 2013 the Terps traveled to Raleigh and took one out of three games.

But despite NC State's early season difficulties they are still ranked in the top 15. Running on pre-season hype? Maybe. But this is a team that on paper looks dominant. Last year they started off slowly but won 24 of their final 27 regular season games and made it to the College World Series for the first time in 45 years. They return the presumed #1 pick in the 2014 MLB draft, LHP Carlos Rodon, as well as the possible third pick in SS Trea Turner. Also returning is highly-regarded RHP Logan Jernigan and catcher Brett Austin.

So NC State gets a mulligan for the first third of the season. After all, Carlos Rodon is 2 - 3 and Trea Turner is hitting "only" .316; both players' stats should improve during the remainder of the year. Brett Austin has shown measurable improvement this year, upping his batting average from .251 in 2013 to .391 currently. The biggest surprise has been freshman third baseman Andrew Knizner. All Knizner has done is lead the team in average (.448), rbi (15), slg% (.621), and obp (.484).

NC State likes to run almost as much as the Terps. They're 26 of 33 on the season, with Trea Turner's seven SB leading the team. While NC State's starting pitching is exceptional, once you get past them the bullpen has been inconsistent.

It's hard to say which NC State team will turn up: the pre-season top 5 team or the squad that has difficulty beating top-tier schools. But buckle up, as there's going to be plenty of speed from the mound and on the base paths this weekend.

Note: This might not be the final time the two teams meet, as a mid-week game against the Wolfpack next year is a possibility.

My projected pitching match-ups are:

Game 1 - LHP Carlos Rodon (2 - 3, 2.45 ERA) vs. RHP Jake Stinnett (2 - 3, 2.91)

Game 2 - RHP Logan Jernigan (3 - 1, 1.55 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Shawaryn (4 - 0, 1.26 ERA)

Game 3 - LHP Brad Stone (3 - 0, 3.09 ERA) vs. TBD

I want to thank OmegaWolf (intrepid writer for NC State's "Backing the Pack" who covers baseball among many other sports) for answering three questions that I sent him. OmegaWolf's very thoughtful responses are given below. (P.S. Gotta love how he got a dig in about UNC).

1. What's up with Andrew Knizner? He seems to be tearing apart opposing pitchers. Did you anticipate the freshman doing well this year?

I don't think anyone predicted Knizner OPS-ing 1.105 through the first 60 or so plate appearances of his college career. His hot start is very reminiscent of Trea Turner's unexpected instant stardom as a freshman. Turner, who also manned the hot corner as a freshman, was not exactly considered a blue chip recruit or future pro out of high school, but now he is projected as a top 10 pick in June. Wolfpack nation can dream on Knizner having a similar trajectory, as, like Turner, he will slide from third to short as a sophomore. Of course Knizner lacks one thing that Turner has, and that is speed. In some ways the fact that he is not legging out a bunch of infield hits makes his .448 average all the more impressive. He's yet to even attempt a steal. But that lack of speed and some troubling plate discipline-he's drawn just one walk all year-suggest that this start is not sustainable. But even when his OPS inevitably falls a 100 or 200 points by the end of the year, it's nice to know the Pack will have a solid bat to build around in the post Carlos Rodon and Turner era.

2. Everyone in college baseball knows about Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner. But NC State has other quality players that don't receive as much publicity. What are the 2014 draft prospects for Brett Austin and Logan Jernigan?

Austin's draft potential will never be as high as it was out of high school. He was taken in the supplemental first round by the Padres in 2011. You can't really put a price on a college education*, but in the end Austin likely cost himself hundreds of thousands of dollars by electing not to sign. As a switch-hitting catcher with on-base skills and the versatility to play a very good outfield and a serviceable second or third base, he has a shot to make it as a utility man someday, but the next time he hears his name called it will probably be somewhere in rounds 8-10 because his power has not developed. Austin has just two career home runs and is actually batting leadoff now after being miscast as a middle of the order bat last season. He has improved his receiving and throwing skills considerably since his freshman season; in fact, he's nailed six of 13 would-be thieves so far this year. Elliot Avent has made a concerted effort to get him some time off behind the dish after running him into the ground last year, and that should help his numbers (.391/.475/.449) stay solid.

Jernigan: If he throws strikes, and that's a huge if, he can be every bit as dominant as Rodon. That potential will probably make him a lot of money (and it might also cost a few pitching coaches their jobs-or at least their hair).

*Check that; you can put a value on an AFAM degree from UNC: $0.00.

3. On paper NC State looks awesome. The polls agree, previously placing the Wolfpack somewhere within the top 10 - 15. But it seems there have been some hiccups this season. How do followers of NC State baseball feel about the team's performance at this point?

Tough question. The Pack have outscored opponents by 68 runs and are averaging well over nine strikeouts per nine innings as a staff. But those stats are padded by a bunch of non-conference blowouts. Against teams that one would consider College World Series contenders-UCLA and Florida State-N.C. State is 0-4. The next 17 games will tell us a lot. The Pack play at Maryland, Clemson, and Duke during that stretch. Just brutal. If they can survive and win 10 or more of those games heading into a 15-game home stand, the team should be able to build momentum for another sustained postseason run. Remember that State was a pedestrian 18-10 and 4-7 in ACC play before winning on Sunday at home against Maryland to start a ridiculous run last season. The win over the Terps started a 15-game winning streak, and the Pack were on a 32-4 tear before bowing out in Omaha. This year's team, though lacking the experienced depth in the bullpen that was so integral to the 2013 success, has the potential to do the same.

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