Thursday, March 29, 2012

series preview: NC State

Date/Time: Fri-Sun, 3/30 - 4/1/12; 6:30, 6:30, 1:00


Record against the Pack: 68-120-1

Last matchup: UVA won 2-1 (12-1, 2-6, 3-1); 4/23-4/24/11; Charlottesville

Last game: UVA 19, Towson 5 (3/28); NCSt. 4, ECU 3 (3/28)

Last weekend: UVA 3-0 over Clemson; UNC 2-1 over NCSt.

National rankings:

Baseball America: UVA unranked; NC State #20
Collegiate Baseball: UVA unranked; NC State #9
NCBWA: UVA #26, NC State #27
Perfect Game: UVA #47; NC State #19
Coaches: UVA unranked; NC State #22
Composite: UVA unranked; NC State #18

Opposing blogs: none really where you'll find any baseball info

NC State lineup:

C: Brett Austin (.318-0-16)
1B: Andrew Ciencin (.238-4-18)
2B: Matt Bergquist (.222-0-10)
3B: Trea Turner (.292-1-14)
SS: Chris Diaz (.372-1-26)
LF: Tarran Senay (.310-0-10)
CF: Jake Fincher (.236-0-9)
RF: Ryan Mathews (.329-4-16)
DH: Danny Canela (.282-1-12)

Pitching probables:

Friday: LHP Scott Silverstein (2-2, 2.10, 31 Ks) vs. RHP Ethan Ogburn (2-1, 1.73, 26 Ks)
Saturday: RHP Branden Kline (4-2, 3.10, 35 Ks) vs. LHP Carlos Rodon (4-0, 1.30, 47 Ks)
Sunday: RHP Artie Lewicki (1-1, 4.50, 21 Ks) vs. RHP Logan Jernigan (3-1, 4.03, 28 Ks)

We're pretty sure that teams like FSU, UNC, and Miami will finish ahead of the Hoos in the ACC standings.  And we're pretty sure that teams like Wake Forest and Clemson, and maybe even GT, will finish behind.  NC State is another story.  There are better teams in the conference, but there aren't any bigger series than this one; the Wolfpack, fueled by a stellar recruiting class, are no longer a pest hovering in the bottom ranges of the ACC tournament.  They were once capable of delivering the occasional surprise and little more; now they're a legit threat to win the whole thing.  There is nothing better that UVA can do for its ACC tournament positioning than to go down to Raleigh and steal a series.

-- UVA at the plate

In the season preview I suggested (OK, more than suggested - outright averred) that NC State didn't have the pitching to be a threat in the ACC.  Whoops.  The Pack have an excellent Friday-Saturday combo in Ethan Ogburn - whose hurling is leaps and bounds ahead of previous years - and superfrosh Carlos Rodon.  Rodon was a 16th-round pick last summer and would've gone higher but for signability issues, as he was well set on college.  He was the prize of NC State's freshman class, and could very well be the staff ace by the end of the year; Rodon is allowing a .216 BA and striking out more than 10 per nine innings.

Ogburn's been no slouch either this year; his 1.73 ERA is almost four runs better than it was last year.  There's a question about Sunday, where Logan Jernigan will get the ball, but doesn't have a strong grip on the job.  Jernigan was knocked around last week by the Tar Heels and pulled in the 3rd inning.  That said, Jernigan's allowed all of seven hits this year, in 22 1/3 innings, for an opponents' BA of .092.  It's his walks - 18 of them - that have gotten him in trouble.

State's bullpen is pretty much outstanding too; it's very deep, and altogether, this staff leads the conference in a few pitching categories, notably opponents' BA, which is .213 overall.  Are you gathering a theme here?  That it's kind of tough to get a hit off these guys?  They give up fewer than seven per game.

So it's the top-hitting team in the conference (UVA is hitting .324) vs. the stingiest pitching staff.  In particular, Derek Fisher and Keith Werman have been on a tear lately.  UVA will also have Reed Gragnani back after he missed last weekend with a minor leg injury, but Mitchell Shifflett is hitting well enough that Gragnani may have to fight Colin Harrington for a left field gig.  (Not to mention, having Shifflett's wheels in the 8th spot ahead of Werman in the 9 hole makes for some interesting possibilities to make a defense sweat.)  Gragnani, as a switch-hitter, might also end up in a super-sub role going forward.  Guess we'll see.

At any rate, this is a weekend where we'll have to make every opportunity count.  If UVA can string a few hits together in one inning, things might look good; NC State, however, is equally likely to scatter them and leave us with not much to work with.  Could be interesting.

-- UVA in the field

Whit Mayberry didn't pitch at all against Towson this week, so I'm guessing he won't be available, even out of the pen, this weekend.  Artie Lewicki is listed as the Sunday starter, of course.  I don't expect Mayberry to be available on any weekend until he gets a little test drive in on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

So that thins out the pen a little, again.  It'll be the same order as last weekend.  They'll go against a respectable, if not quite fearsome, Wolfpack lineup.  NC State starts three freshmen, beginning with leadoff hitter Trea Turner, a speed demon who's a perfect 25-for-25 on stolen base attempts.  In other words, if he gets to first base, chances are about 2 in 3 that he'll get to second on his own.  (It wouldn't surprise me if the only reason he doesn't go for second is because it's occupied.  It's basically safe to assume that he will steal.)

So you've really got to keep Turner off the basepaths.  The guaranteed steal puts a lot of pressure on the defense.  NC State used to be something of a swing-for-the-fences kind of team, but they don't hit a lot of homers these days, and neither do they walk or strike out much.  They'll make your fielders work, though they're not all that big on sacrifice bunting - at least not at Brian O'Connor levels.

There isn't a one-man-show in the lineup that hits for power and average, but they do have hitters.  Chris Diaz is batting .372, generally from fifth in the order; Diaz only has one homer but does have good doubles power.  If they could get Andrew Ciencin to hit better than .238, they might have a monster on their hands, but Ciencin - who hits from the three-hole thanks to his home-run power - has never been a guy to hit for average.  Ryan Mathews is a solid all-around hitter, but almost never walks.  Freshman catcher Brett Austin is the lineup's only switch-hitter.  The bottom of the order will generally not be frightening, as Jake Fincher and Matt Bergquist are in for their defense.  (Fincher, though, is the second-best base-stealing threat, on the rare occasion that he does get on base.)

Let's get back to base-stealing for a second.  Turner is 25-for-25, but the rest of the team, minus his efforts, is also excellent.  NC State minus Turner is 22-for-28, still a better percentage than UVA's 42-for-59 as a team.  This will be a real test for Nate Irving, especially on Friday because Scott Silverstein has the worst lefty pickoff move ever.

Ultimately this is a good, not great, team at the plate.  NC State doesn't have championship-level hitting, but they're solid.  Keep Trea Turner the hell off the basepaths and you've taken the most important step.  I don't worry too much about the bottom of the lineup, and the fact that they insist on batting a .238 hitter in the three spot is a bonus for opposing pitchers (and a waste of Turner's talents.)  But by and large there aren't many slouches either, so the UVA pitching staff needs to pitch well, and it'd be impressive to limit the Pack the way they did Clemson last weekend.

-- Outlook

This is a huge series.  So I wish I were more confident for it.  If we can pull off a series win here it would be huge for the rest of the season, because the Pack are probably going to play right at our level or better all spring.  Being on the road sucks, though, and State's pitching staff worries me.  A sweep by either team would be a big surprise, but it would be the only surprise.  A 2-1 series either way is almost guaranteed here, the teams are so closely matched.  If you held a gun to my head, I'd pick NC State to take two, but I wouldn't have any confidence in the pick, either.  I expect all three games to hinge on just a couple plays here and there and be almighty close.

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