With the uniform start date in place, many teams have lost the luxury of easing into conference play by warming up with a month of nonconference action. It's Week 3, and already league play is beginning for the Atlantic Coast, Atlantic Sun, Southland and Sun Belt conferences. It actually started last week for the Southwestern Conference.
Of the power conferences, the ACC is the only one kicking off the conference schedule this weekend. The full slate of ACC games is highlighted by Clemson's visit to North Carolina, Virginia's trip to Wake Forest (a set featuring two teams with a combined 15-1 record, but against soft competition) and North Carolina State's series at Miami.
The Wolfpack and Hurricanes each began the season on the periphery of the Top 25, and Miami has since vaulted to No. 15 in the rankings after sweeping a three-game series at then-No. 24 Florida. NC State was stunned in its season-opening tournament in Raleigh, dropping its first two games against Rhode Island (which later upset Miami in midweek action) and Xavier. But the Pack has rebounded with seven straight wins to match Miami's 7-2 record heading into this weekend.
"We felt good about our club all fall and all spring; we know we're kind of young," NC State coach Elliott Avent said. "We were probably more shocked than anything after the first couple of games. To open it up at home, we were a little shocked the way we played. I think it's going to be a growing experience all spring. We have a lot of guys who haven't played before. Once we get some at-bats, hopefully we'll be fine."
The Wolfpack was a pitching-dominated team last year, and it rode its standout staff all the way to the super regionals despite an offense that ranked 109th in the nation in scoring. The Pack still have one of the ACC's best pitching staffs, but the coaches are hopeful their offense will be stronger this year, thanks in part to some newcomers. Junior college transfers Drew Poulk and Kyle Wilson give the lineup some punch out of the right field and shortstop spots, respectively, though Poulk is questionable for this weekend after rolling his ankle Wednesday against Akron.
Freshman first baseman Harold Riggins is off to a 7-for-16 start (.438) and has flashed huge raw power in practices. But the biggest surprise has been freshman DH and backup catcher Pratt Maynard, an unheralded member of the recruiting class from tiny Franklinton, N.C., who leads all NC State regulars in batting (.367), slugging (.700) and homers (3).
"He is flying under the radar," Avent said of Maynard. "[Assistant coach] Chris Hart saw him a few times and said he's going to be a good player. His heart and makeup's off the chart. Plus, where he was from, maybe he didn't go to some of the showcases but he's going to be a great player. We've got some young guys that will contribute in this league right off the bat -- that doesn't happen every day."
NC State has gotten used to being able to rely on its arms, and its starters will have to be efficient this weekend to take some of the burden off a pitching staff that worked 27 innings Wednesday. The Pack bludgeoned Villanova 15-0, then played a recently added game against Akron that turned into an 18-inning marathon; NC State used 11 pitchers in the game and struck out an NCAA-record 31 in a 5-4 win. Closer Joey Cutler led the team with four innings of work, throwing 51 pitches. In his place Friday, junior righty Sam Brown will fill in as the late-innings go-to guy.
Fortunately, ace junior lefthander Jimmy Gillheeney has become an innings-eater with a four-pitch mix and gives the Wolfpack a real chance against Miami ace lefty Chris Hernandez in the conference opener.
"You can go ahead and dodge Hernandez because he's so good, or you can go out and beat him, and we're going to go right after him," NC State pitching coach Tom Holliday said. "Let the best man win. I've never been one to cower away; I don't like that juggling. [Hernandez] will have to be on top of his game because we'll go at him with our best.
"Gillheeney has been outstanding. He's a year older, a year stronger, and he's as good a four-pitch pitcher as I've had in a long, long time. He's not the guy you're going to write about throwing 95 mph that can't beat anybody, he's the other way around. He's a pitcher's pitcher: He's got a major league changeup and a major league cutter."
Sophomore righty Jake Buchanan will start Saturday against Miami junior righthander David Gutierrez, and Holliday said lefty Alex Sogard will get the nod Sunday. Holliday said his pitchers will have to be sharp to win -- but maybe not as sharp as they had to be last year against the Hurricanes.
"Last year, you could not make a mistake. If you did, they banged you," Holliday said. "I don't know if they'll be as offensive as they were last year, although they scored some runs against Florida."
The Hurricanes lost All-Americans Yonder Alonso, Jemile Weeks and Blake Tekotte, plus top-two-rounds draft picks Dennis Raben and Mark Sobolewski from a lineup that ranked 11th in the nation in scoring last year. Junior shortstop Ryan Jackson, who has improved as a hitter but stands out most for his stellar defense, now hits in the No. 3 hole, and so far he's responded, batting .333/.447/.467. The lineup around him features plenty of newcomers, starting with freshman center fielder Nathan Melendres (.353) out of the leadoff spot and junior college transfer Scott Lawson (.348) hitting second. Melendres is a converted third baseman who's still adjusting to center field, but Miami coach Jim Morris said he's encouraged by what he's seen so far from the freshman.
"He's a really good athlete, he can run and throw, and the ball jumps off his bat," Morris said of Melendres. "He may steal second, he may get picked off. With that said, he'll be a pretty good player for us."
Miami's most touted freshman, corner infielder Harold Martinez (.375 with a team-best 10 RBIs) gives Morris some punch in the middle of the lineup, along with junior college transfer Chris Herrmann (.321). So far, Miami has also gotten strong production from returning players such as senior outfielder Dave DiNatale (a team-best .414) and catcher Yasmani Grandal (.292), both of whom seem to be tapping into their considerable talent now that they have regular playing time.
The weekend rotation features two new faces after Hernandez, as last year's Saturday starter, Eric Erickson, was lost to Tommy John surgery before the season and Sunday starter Enrique Garcia graduated. Gutierrez, whose older brother Carlos was a first-round pick after serving as Miami's closer last year, doesn't have the hard sink his brother had -- almost no one does. But he throws strikes with a high-80s fastball, a curveball and a changeup, and so far he's been Miami's best starter, going 1-0, 0.75. Sophomore lefthander Iden Nazario (2-0, 4.09) has been effectively wild on Sundays and has racked up a team-best 15 strikeouts in 11 innings. With a quality fastball-slider-changeup mix, Nazario can be dominant when he throws strikes and gets ahead of hitters.
The bullpen has a veteran stalwart in sidewinding closer Kyle Bellamy (0.00 ERA through 4 1/3 innings), and newcomer Taylor Wulf (0.00 in four innings) has emerged as a reliable setup man. Wulf, a junior righthander who transferred from Alvin (Texas) CC, gives hitters a different look, throwing a 90 mph fastball and a downer curve from a considerably higher arm slot than Bellamy.
So there are some older players to provide stability, but the Canes will rely on a host of players who will get their first taste of ACC play this weekend.
"I don't know what to expect right now from our guys," Morris said. "We're a talented group, but we're young, and we're going to make some mistakes and have some mental lapses, too. Our club will be better in May and June come tournament time than right now.
"We'd better get after it this weekend. NC State to me is always a club that, under Avent and [former coach] Ray Tanner, that plays hard. It's a blue-collar team that plays hard. When you play State, they're going to play hard for nine innings and get after it."
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