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DeCock: N.C. State baseball team plays catch up against UNC

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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RALEIGH Every seat has been sold this weekend at Doak Field. If you want to see N.C. State host North Carolina in the biggest baseball series between the two rivals in a long, long time, you’ll have to watch online Friday and Saturday or on ESPNU Sunday.

“It’s going to be sold out, it’s going to be crazy, but once the first pitch is thrown, we’ll just treat it like any other game,” N.C. State’s Grant Clyde said.

That’s going to be nearly impossible. There’s too much on the line. The Wolfpack may be talking a good game about taking it one game at a time, not worrying about the opponent, but deep down, there’s no ignoring the opponent and the stakes. If the N.C. State players forget for a moment, that sure-to-be wild crowd will remind them quickly.

North Carolina has been the alpha dog in baseball around these parts for a while now, and though N.C. State hasn’t been far behind, the Wolfpack hasn’t been able to close the gap, not head-to-head, certainly not in terms of postseason success, where the Tar Heels have made frequent visits to Omaha and the Wolfpack has stumbled.

Last year, the Tar Heels took two of three from N.C. State in Chapel Hill during the regular season, then spoiled the Wolfpack’s chances of playing in the ACC championship game with a lame-duck win over N.C. State to close out pool play.

This year, both teams lead their respective ACC divisions. North Carolina (40-3) is No. 1 in Baseball America’s top-25 poll, while N.C. State (33-10) is No. 6. The Tar Heels’ 14-game winning streak ended Tuesday when they were upset by UNC Wilmington; the Wolfpack ran its streak to 15 with a win over Davidson on Tuesday.

“Last year’s was pretty big, going into their place,” Clyde said. “This year, coming here, it’s pretty hyped up. So yeah, it’s pretty big.”

This is their best chance to prove something to their rivals down the road, to demonstrate that the gap between the two programs is as small as it has been in a long time – if there is one at all.

“I would hope that we’re always going to be at the top, both of us, Carolina and us,” speedy shortstop Trea Turner said. “It would give us a little bit more confidence if we can, not leapfrog them, because they’ve been No. 1 all season, but be right up there with them.”

Chances like this don’t come along often. Usually, it’s because the dominant program is slipping, but that isn’t the case with the Tar Heels this season. On the contrary, N.C. State coach Elliott Avent acknowledged people whose opinion he respects have told him North Carolina may be the “the best team they’ve ever seen in college baseball.”

And it’s different than two years ago, when the Wolfpack, in the midst of a disappointing season, swept the College World Series-bound Tar Heels at the Doak. There was no question about which was the better team, despite the results. That’s a question the Wolfpack is qualified to pose this weekend.

It’s N.C. State’s progress that has made this possible, with talented, veteran players like Turner and ace Carlos Rodon. Even as the Tar Heels have pulled away from the pack nationally, the Wolfpack has kept pace.

“If you ask me, it looks like things are pretty even,” N.C. State weekend starter Ryan Wilkins said.

Just how even, N.C. State has a chance to prove this weekend.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, 919-812-7195, Twitter: @LukeDeCock
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