Walkoff wins bolster N.C. State Wolfpack’s postseason baseball hopes

N.C. State baseball coach Elliott Avent said semester exams couldn’t have come at a better time for his ball club.

“We’re tired, really tired,” Avent said Sunday.

The Wolfpack hasn’t played any two games quite like Sunday’s two against Virginia at Doak Field. They proved to be exhausting and, in the end, exhilarating for the Wolfpack – senior Bubby Riley winning the first 4-3 with a walkoff homer in the ninth, then freshman Joe Dunand smacking a two-run, walkoff shot in the 10th inning for a 5-3 victory.

Avent, in his 19th year at N.C. State, said he’d never been a part of anything like it. Longtime Wolfpack baseball observers said it might have been a Doak Field first.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever experienced a walkoff home run,” sophomore catcher Andrew Knizner said. “To have two in one day, I don’t know how many times that’s happened, even in professional baseball.”

The Wolfpack badly needed them, and the ACC doubleheader sweep. After an 8-3 loss to Virginia on Friday, N.C. State was 9-12 in the ACC and had lost nine of 12 games overall, the stress building as the Wolfpack’s NCAA chances appeared to be slipping away.

But Riley’s solo homer, a blast to straightaway center, had the Wolfpack players bouncing around home plate, wildly celebrating. Things were really crazy after Dunand provided a bit of Doak deja vu with a shot over the left-field fence.

Avent said it was just the kind of energy and morale boost his team needed before the break this week.

“When you play this many freshmen and young guys who are used to playing 20 high-school games in a season, and we’ve played 41, some of these guys are not only tired physically but mentally exhausted,” he said. “How they have hung through this streak I have no idea. We had lost nine of 12 and (five) were one-run games, and that can be devastating.”

Like most teams, the Wolfpack has had a few players dealing with injuries. Center fielder Jake Fincher has had a shoulder problem, and it didn’t help when the senior crashed into the fence in Sunday’s first game. Knizner, who caught both games, has had a calf injury.

Avent made some fielding tweaks Sunday, moving senior Logan Ratledge from second base to shortstop. He had Fincher in left field to begin the first game, but quickly shifted him back to center.

Avent pinch hit Riley in the ninth for second baseman Evan Mendoza – the lefty hitting Riley facing Virginia righthander Tommy Doyle with two outs. Riley drove a 2-0 fastball deep to center for his first homer of the season.

“Extremely happy for Bubby Riley,” Avent said. “He’s hung through so much this year, and he’s battled through it and wants it so bad. That’s one of the best home runs I remember in this ball park. That ball was a bomb.”

Riley was more interested in talking about the two wins, and what they could mean for the Wolfpack heading into its final two ACC series against Wake Forest and Louisville.

“Oh, man, it means everything and especially the way we did it,” Riley said. “We just battled. Two walkoff home runs in one day? It doesn’t get much better than that.

“We’d told ourselves we’ve got to win every (ACC) series from here on out. We did our job by winning this doubleheader, and we need to stay focused.”

The focus this week is on exams, on finishing up their academic demands. The Wolfpack next plays Friday when N.C. State hosts Longwood.

“There has been a sense of urgency in every game,” Avent said, “and for the guys to play with this kind of pressure, I’m proud of this ball club.”

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ACC tournament race

Ten teams make the ACC tournament. N.C. State is 11-12, currently seventh place, with two ACC series remaining. UNC is 13-10, currently fourth, with two series remaining.

Wolfpack: at Wake Forest (May 8-9, 11); vs. Louisville (May 14-16).

Toughest out: Louisville, which reached the College World Series the past two years, has dominated the ACC out of the gate. The Cards are ranked No. 4 in Baseball America’s poll and are led by ace Kyle Funkhouser, a likely top 10 pick in the June draft.

Tar Heels: at Notre Dame (May 8-10); vs. Virginia (May 14-16).

Toughest out: Virginia, which lost the CWS final last year to Vanderbilt, would be the 10th seed in the ACC tournament if the season ended today. The Cavaliers could enter Chapel Hill playing for a spot in the postseason.