N.C. State Baseball: Previewing Tennessee Tech & 5 Observations

RALEIGH, NC - APRIL 26: Head Coach Elliott Avent of the North Carolina State Wolfpack points up prior to a game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Doak Field on April 26, 2013 in Raleigh, North Carolina. North Carolina defeated NC State 7-1. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
RALEIGH, NC - APRIL 26: Head Coach Elliott Avent of the North Carolina State Wolfpack points up prior to a game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Doak Field on April 26, 2013 in Raleigh, North Carolina. North Carolina defeated NC State 7-1. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images) /

The Wolfpack look to stay perfect against one of the top hitting teams in the country.

The joys of college baseball season starting in February include occasionally having to deal with a little bit of snow. With a winter storm hitting the local area, the Wolfpack faces a red hot Tennessee Tech offense that has a chance to steal an early-season series. The Wolfpack faced the Golden Eagles once in 2019, jumping ahead on a clutch home run by Luca Tresh to earn a come-from-behind 10-6 win at home. This year’s squad is expected to be much improved and this weekend’s series should see an onslaught of runs as two of the nation’s best offenses collide.

Previewing Tennessee Tech

After a lackluster 2019 season, the Golden Eagles decided to hit the reboot button, firing Justin Holmes and hiring Steve Smith to take over the program after the 2019 edition of the team finished 10 games under .500 and in the basement of the Ohio Valley Conference. The most egregious issue with the Golden Eagles was the pitching staff, as Tech pitchers posted a ghastly 6.62 ERA on the season.

To combat this issue, Smith called in reinforcements. His weekend starters include a freshman and a senior returning from medical redshirt, as well as a transfer reliever making the transition to weekend rotation piece. Alex Hursey takes the ball on Friday night after missing most of last season. He was fairly decent in 2018, pitching to a 4.81 ERA. Saturday starter Connor Adams is a Louisville transfer that had a 12.15 ERA in 2019 and is now carrying a 6.23 ERA into this weekend’s series. Finally, there is freshman Christian Herberholz, a righthander with the best stuff of all three. His fastball touches the upper 80s and he’ll be the most talented pitcher State faces all weekend.

Smith is leaning on this trio to turn the team’s rotation around, although the early results are not promising, with the team ranked 193rd in the nation with a 5.67 ERA.

Even though the pitching staff is in shambles, the Golden Eagles are carried by their offense, which has the potential to be one of the best in college baseball when all is said and done. Tennessee Tech is second in the nation in home runs and needs to win in shootout fashion to have any sort of chance.

Jason Hinchman is a name you should get to know. Hinchman is hitting a ridiculous .692 with five home runs after the opening series. An All-OVC preseason selection, Hinchman was named by the NCAA the front runner in college baseball to win the home run crown and he is not someone that the Wolfpack pitching staff should take lightly.

Junior leftfielder Paul Steffenson (.273, one home run) and infielder John Dyer (.100, 0 home runs) also pose threats in the Tennessee Tech batting order. Dyer, a sophomore, led all OVC freshmen in doubles, home runs, RBI and slugging percentage last season, while hitting .330 and blasting 10 home runs.

The Wolfpack will meet a buzzsaw on offense this weekend but must take advantage of a soft Golden Eagle pitching staff to earn a series win. I like the Wolfpack to win two of three, with the Golden Eagles nabbing a high-scoring affair on Saturday or Sunday. The Wolfpack will give the ball to LHP Nick Swiney on Friday night, RHP Reid Johnston on Saturday, and likely either Chris Villaman or Matt Willadsen on Sunday.

Five Observations

  1. Every year there is a breakout player for the Wolfpack and with the losses of Will Wilson and Evan Edwards, it’s fantastic for the team that it appears Devonte Brown is 2020’s breakout player. Brown hit .500 in the opening series, including roping three doubles and a mammoth home run to centerfield. It was Brown’s first career home run but with the way he is swinging the bat, it probably won’t be his last this season. If Patrick Bailey can get his bat heated up, then the Wolfpack could have a formidable heart of the order.
  2. If you are Elliott Avent, you have to be thrilled with the performance of David Harrison against Longwood on Tuesday. The lefty gave up just one run over six innings while striking out seven hitters. Harrison has always had the stuff to be a weekend starter but has struggled mightily with command in his freshman year, walking an average of five batters per game. There is a big difference between facing Longwood and Florida State in an ACC series, but getting full potential Harrison would be a massive boon for the Wolfpack, especially in situations like the ACC Tournament, where your pitching depth is tested.
  3. Led by Tyler McDonough and Terrell Tatum, the Wolfpack is tied for second in the nation in stolen bases, only trailing Wofford. Without the home run power that was present in the Wolfpack’s lineup last season, the team will likely have to rely on small ball to generate offense this season. If the team wants to play that style, it will need to cut down on its strikeouts, which have ballooned to nine per game.
  4. Due to college baseball having less fanfare around recruiting, Jose Torres came to N.C. State with little fanfare. Ranked as the No. 1 player in the state of Maryland and the No. 151 player in the nation by Perfect Game, he was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 24th round of the MLB Draft. It’s been documented that star alumnus Trea Turner convinced Torres to honor his commitment to the Wolfpack, potentially solving the shortstop position for years to come. The team has had a number of high-profile players at the position in the last decade, from Turner and Wilson to Joe Dunand, and Torres is oozing with the potential to also eventually work his way into the upper rounds of the MLB Draft. In the first four games of the season, however, Torres has struggled mightily at the plate, with just two hits in 13 plate appearances and six strikeouts. Torres is already 20 years old and it’s safe to assume there will be a timeline in Avent’s head of when he will need to start seeing production. The Wolfpack still has junior David Vazquez on the roster, who appeared in 44 games last season, albeit while hitting only .231. It will be interesting to monitor that situation if Torres continues to struggle.
  5. The Wolfpack started 19-0 last season, vaulting up to No. 1 in the nation before finally losing on March 17th. How far could the team go this season without losing? The schedule doesn’t exactly lend itself to a long winning streak. Tennessee Tech presents a unique challenge, as the hot bats could easily steal one game at a minimum. The team then travels to Minneapolis for three games against Big Ten foes before a three-game road trip to Virginia. It’s just hard to envision the Wolfpack pulling off another crazy start to the season.