Brian Brown may not look like a prototypical strikeout pitcher, with his 6-foot, 170-pound frame and fastball that doesn’t touch 90 mph, but he had Notre Dame’s bats waving at air all afternoon Thursday. N.C. State, the No. 6 seed in the ACC tournament, opened up pool play with a 3-0 win over No. 3 Notre Dame.
Brown, a freshman, posted a career-high 10 strikeouts in six innings, limiting the Fighting Irish (35-20) to two hits and two walks. The key to his success was twofold: mixing pitch speeds effectively with his fastball, change-up and breaking ball, and then getting ahead of the Notre Dame hitters early in the count.
The change-up was especially effective for Brown. That pitch had the Fighting Irish out on their front feet, way too far ahead. Then when Brown came back with his fastball in the high 80s, Notre Dame couldn’t catch up.
“Really, the hitters have no shot when they get behind and have to hit his change-up,” N.C. State catcher Andrew Knizner said of Brown.
Offense wasn’t in abundance for either team, but the N.C. State (32-20) was able to find a few timely hits. All nine of the Wolfpack hits were singles, and none were bigger than the ones that came with two outs.
Once the game finally got going – a 92-minute rain delay pushed back the start time – N.C. State began the game with runners on first and second and two outs in the first inning. Joe Dunand took a 1-0 pitch through the left side of the infield, scoring Preston Palmeiro. Ryne Willard followed with a single to center field, scoring Knizner to make it a 2-0 lead.
“Timely hitting is everything,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “If you get two-out hits, it’s not only a pick-me-up for you, but it’s a heartbreaker for the other ball club. So, that was huge.”
Fighting Irish pitcher Scott Kerrigan helped out the Wolfpack in the second inning with a walk to Jake Fincher and a hit by pitch on a 1-2 count to Palmeiro, again giving N.C. State a runner in scoring position with two outs. It was Knizner that came through with the timely knock this time, singling to left field for a 3-0 Wolfpack lead.
That was it, as far as offense goes. Notre Dame’s best chance came in the bottom of the second, with the bases loaded and just one out. But Brown recorded two straight strikeouts – Ricky Sanchez went down on three pitches, the last an 87-mph fastball, and No. 9 hitter Kyle Richardson swung and missed on a 72-mph breaking ball. That ended the inning.
While Brown said he normally has better control of his fastball than he had Thursday, the stuff he had was still too much for Notre Dame. Brown’s line: six innings, two hits, no runs, two walks and 10 strikeouts on 105 pitches (66 strikes).
“I know the team loves this guy,” Avent said of Brown. “They usually love guys who pound the zone and throw strikes.”
While this N.C. State team lacks the star power of last year’s squad – pitcher Carlos Rodon, who is already pitching in the major leagues for the Chicago White Sox, and shortstop Trea Turner were taken in the first 13 picks of last year’s draft, and catcher Brett Austin went in the fourth round – this year’s team should advance further in postseason play. After missing the NCAA tournament last year, the Wolfpack helped solidify its spot with the win against Notre Dame. The Wolfpack is playing its best baseball at the right time of the year, winning 11 of its past 13 games.
N.C. State resumes ACC tournament play Friday against Miami at 7 p.m.