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NC State falls victim to homers, looks ahead to Monday’s elimination game

image_6483441 (3)by:Noah Fleischman06/15/24


OMAHA, Neb. — NC State coach Elliott Avent has stuck to what has worked the entire year in the postseason. That includes his starting pitching rotation and the bullpen sequence that allowed the Wolfpack to surge into the Men’s College World Series in Omaha. 

And in the Pack’s opening game at Charles Schwab Field, Avent didn’t sway from his bullpen usage. He turned to freshman reliever Jacob Dudan in the eighth, looking for what appeared to be a two-inning save. 

Dudan worked his way out of a jam in the eighth to keep the score level, and when he returned in the ninth, the Huntersville, N.C., native had a one-run lead to work with. But instead of getting three outs in the ninth, Kentucky tied the game on the second pitch of the frame via a Ryan Nicholson solo homer. 

After that, Avent turned to the Wolfpack’s sophomore closer Derrick Smith. He was able to work a clean ninth, but without any run support in the 10th. And Kentucky’s offense found a Jetstream to left field once again, despite the constant 19-mph wind in from center field to win via walk-off blast 5-4 on Saturday afternoon. 

“I think both teams played well today and obviously got that big run in the ninth,” Avent said. “[I] thought with the way Dudan had been throwing we were in good shape, especially on a day where the ball wasn’t carrying very well.”

In all, Kentucky’s hitters hit three homers in the game, one off each NC State pitcher that toed the rubber on baseball’s biggest stage. The Wolfpack, however, was able to launch a two-run shot of its own from graduate third baseman Alec Makarewicz in the seventh to knot the score. 

While the long ball didn’t go NC State’s way, Avent stuck behind the decision to leave his first-year reliever in the game despite having Smith, who has allowed just three earned runs with 16 strikeouts in his last eight appearances, at his disposal. 

“That’s what we’ve gone [with] all year,” Avent said, “Dudan first and Derrick Smith second.”

Now, after dropping its first game of the College World Series, the Wolfpack is in uncharted waters under Avent. In the team’s previous two trips to Omaha with the 28th-year coach at the helm, the Pack won its opener and played in the winner’s bracket for its second game. 

Instead, the Wolfpack will have its back against the wall for the rest of the pool play stage of the tournament. The team will see the loser of No. 4 Texas A&M and Florida on Monday afternoon at 1 p.m. 

The Pack, which has only played in one elimination game in the tournament, has its focus turned to one game at a time, even though it will have to win four games in as many days to make the championship series. 

“I trust all of our guys,” Makarewicz said. “It just means one more game. I wouldn’t change the mindset. We played a good game. They’re a really good team. Comes down to every pitch, every pitch matters.”

NC State, however, knows it is capable of doing that. It entered the College World Series with five wins in its last six games — its only loss being an 11-2 defeat in Game 2 of the Athens Super Regional. 

For now, NC State will look to put the walk-off defeat behind itself. Avent wanted his team to enjoy the night with their families before regrouping Monday for an off day practice. 

After that, the Wolfpack will lace up their cleats and play for the right to keep its season alive against yet another SEC foe. 

“I think a day off and practice tomorrow will help kind of clear the minds and refocus,” said NC State starting pitcher Sam Highfill, who tossed seven innings of three-run baseball. “And we’ve got to be ready for Monday. And like Coach said, it’s another game we’ve got to win.”

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