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Need to Know: NC State makes way to Athens for Super Regional

Palmber-Thombsby:Palmer Thombs06/06/24

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Georgia Baseball: Wes Johnson, UGA stars recap exciting regional clinching win

ATHENS, Ga. — We previewed Georgia for your this morning, and now, it’s time to turn the attention to the Bulldogs’ opponent this weekend. UGA takes on NC State at Foley Field with a spot in the College World Series on the line. Omaha awaits for the winner of the best-of-three Super Regional, and both teams are hungry to get back.

For Georgia, it’s been since 2008 – and it might seem like that season with UGA’s path to this point, playing Georgia Tech in the regional final and NC State in the Super Regional. As for NC State, the Wolfpack went in 2021 but were sent home earlier than they should’ve been as a COVID outbreak forced them to forfeit versus Vanderbilt, one game away from the final series.

We’re fortunate to have an NC State On3 site to do a crossover conversation with this week. Noah Fleischman does an incredible job up in Raleigh and will be in the Classic City this weekend. Here’s what he had to say to preview the series.

OVERVIEW

It feels like 2008. That’s the last time NC State made the trip to Georgia for a Super Regional, and the Wolfpack took a similar path to get to Athens yet again with a home regional this past weekend. 

NC State cruised through the Raleigh Regional, winning all three of its games with ease, before heading south to face off with Georgia. Now, the Pack is looking for its second Men’s College World Series appearance in the last four seasons, just two wins shy of another trip to Omaha.

Here’s a look at the Wolfpack heading into Super Regionals…

LINEUP PREVIEW

NC State leans on its offense, averaging 7.64 runs per game. It had to in the early part of the season when the pitching was inconsistent at times, but now the Wolfpack can depend on its  hot-hitting lineup to jump on teams early in games. 

The Pack is led by graduate third baseman Alec Makarewicz, who transferred from East Carolina last summer. The slugger paces the team with a .379 batting average, 24 doubles, 20 home runs and 76 RBI. Makarewicz is also leading the Wolfpack with a .736 slugging percentage and a .442 on-base percentage.

While Makarewicz is the headliner, he is not the only big bat in the Wolfpack’s lineup. Graduate first baseman Garrett Pennington, who hits behind Makarewicz in the three hole, has a .347 average with 25 doubles, 16 homers and 62 RBI this season. 

Those two are the Wolfpack’s run producers, while junior catcher Jacob Cozart, who bats fourth, and sophomore outfielder Eli Serrano III, the leadoff hitter, are NC State’s other marquee hitters. 

Cozart, a likely early-round MLB draft pick this summer, has 16 home runs and 49 RBI, while he is arguably the best defensive catcher in college baseball. 

Serrano, meanwhile, is a 6-foot-5 center fielder that has flourished since moving into the leadoff spot. He has hit in that role for the last 22 games with a .319 average paired with 27 runs scored, 13 walks, three triples and two home runs. Overall, he’s hitting .288 with seven doubles, seven home runs and 36 RBI this spring. 

In addition to the quartet of key bats in NC State’s lineup, the Wolfpack has a few speedsters in the back half of the order. Graduate outfielder Noah Soles missed a month with an ankle injury, but clubbed two homers in the regional, while junior shortstop Brandon Butterworth has sneaky pull-side power and elite defense in the middle infield. 

Freshman second baseman/outfielder Luke Nixon has been an everyday stalwart, hitting .232 with four doubles, four home runs, 31 RBI and a team-best 13 stolen bases.

PITCHING PREVIEW

As mentioned earlier, NC State’s pitching staff had a rocky start to the season. But over the last month and a half, the arms have been dominant. That allowed the Wolfpack to win five ranked ACC weekend series, while splitting a pair at Florida State.

NC State does own a solid three-man starting rotation on the weekend, the trio that led the Wolfpack to the consistent series wins. Graduate right-hander Sam Highfill is the Pack’s Friday night guy, while sophomore lefty Dominic Fritton is the Saturday starter. Sunday go-to Logan Whitaker missed six starts with an illness that caused him to lose 30 pounds in April, but he is back in full form as well. 

Highfill owns a 6-2 mark with a 5.35 ERA in 15 starts this spring. He leads the team with 74 innings pitched where he has fanned 73 opposing batters with 38 walks. Highfill went six innings in the regional opener against Bryant, allowing two runs on four hits with four strikeouts and a pair of walks.

Fritton, meanwhile, has been up and down the most. But recently, he has been firing on all cylinders. The southpaw allowed two runs on three hits in five innings against South Carolina on Saturday afternoon. He walked four, but struck out three batters and earned the win. 

Whitaker, a right-hander that was looking to get back to his old ways, did just that in the Raleigh Regional final on Sunday evening. He went six innings against James Madison, allowing two runs on four hits with six strikeouts and two walks in his longest outing since March 2. 

The starting rotation has found its stride going into the Athens Regional as the trio will be the likely probable starters for the weekend. 

NC State’s bullpen has also found its groove down the stretch, even though the Wolfpack mainly utilizes a trio of freshmen and a sophomore in relief. 

Freshmen left-handers Cooper Consiglio and Ryan Marohn both have starting experience this season, but have been highly effective as long relievers. Freshman righty Jacob Dudan is the Wolfpack’s high-leverage reliever that can top out at 99 mph and is able to pitch three innings at a lights out clip. 

While the first-year arms are highly efficient and effective, so is sophomore Derrick Smith — NC State’s closer. Smith appeared in three innings a year ago, but now is a dependable closer. He has 39 strikeouts to just seven walks and Smith has conceded just one earned run in his last 16 outings. 

NC State’s pitching has not been a concern as of late, and it is a key reason why the Wolfpack is in the Athens Super Regional as the No. 10 national seed.

THREE QUESTIONS FOR NC STATE ENTERING THIS WEEKEND

*** How will the Wolfpack approach Charlie Condon?

This is an interesting question. Condon is obviously one of the best players in college baseball, leading the nation in batting average, slugging percentage and home runs this spring. NC State coach Elliott Avent is in his 28th season and he has an old-school approach on the bench. When the Pack played James Madison in the regional final, Dukes second baseman Mike Mancini had hit two homers in the early game against South Carolina. NC State didn’t pitch around him and he hit two more blasts and a double. I’d expect the Wolfpack to pitch to Condon at first, attempting to get him out, before pitching around him if he gets rolling early in game one. 

*** What is NC State’s approach in the bullpen?

If the starting pitcher can get the Wolfpack five to six innings of clean baseball, NC State will feel comfortable handing the game off to its bullpen. Usually, the Pack will turn to Consiglio or Marohn first, looking for two innings or more out of them — both have been able to finish games with four innings of work if things are going well. If they pull one of them, Dudan is the next to come in and he has the ability to give NC State length while firing his flame-throwing fastball and power slider with ease. Then, if needed, the Wolfpack will bring in Smith for a one or two-inning save opportunity and he has the ability to strikeout the side — just as he did against Wake Forest to close the regular season and against JMU in the regional final. 

*** Who is one player to watch that isn’t a star?

That’s an easy one: Butterworth, NC State’s starting shortstop. The Wolfpack has had a line of great shortstops, including current MLB superstar Trea Turner, and Avent believes Butterworth’s defense is just as good. The former Western Carolina transfer can turn a double play with ease and has been ultra-reliable with a .953 fielding percentage this spring. He can also hit, too, mostly to the pull side and owns 12 doubles with seven homers and 30 RBIs this season.

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