Luke DeCock

Meaningless loss for N.C. State leads to three that matter

NC State’s Avent: ‘It is just tough when it ends’

NC State coach Elliott Avent talks about the loss to ECU in the Greenville Regional Sunday, June 2, 2019, ending the Wolfpack's season.
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NC State coach Elliott Avent talks about the loss to ECU in the Greenville Regional Sunday, June 2, 2019, ending the Wolfpack's season.

Let it never be said again that the exhibition games played at the ACC tournament – too many of them, thanks to a format that satisfies everyone and pleases no one – are meaningless. They may not have any bearing on who wins the conference title, but they can still ruin a season.

N.C. State went from steamrolling North Carolina in Chapel Hill and winning the games it actually needed to win in the conference tournament to crashing out of the postseason with four straight losses, a once-promising season derailed when the games finally started to matter.

In the space of two weeks, the Wolfpack lost its chance to play for the ACC title and any shot at hosting a regional before crashing out of the NCAA tournament with a pair of losses to Campbell and East Carolina, the latter a 9-2 pasting on Sunday in Greenville.

The turning point, if there was one, was the third game of the ACC tournament: A pointless contest that had no bearing on events in Durham, with N.C. State already having secured its spot in the semifinals with a win over Wake Forest, N.C. State’s ninth in 12 games. The Wolfpack lost its edge in that 11-0 mercy-rule loss to Florida State and could never get it back, going four up, four down, and out.

After NC State's season ending loss to ECU in the Greenville Regional Sunday, June 2, 2019, the Wolfpack's Patrick Bailey reflects on the season.

“The Florida State game was a hard game to play,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “It didn’t mean anything. I think they sensed that. We pitched a lot of people all year, so you can’t say we pitched the back of our bullpen.”

Avent grumbled about the regionalized nature of the NCAA tournament, with geography playing a heavy role on which teams are sent where as opposed to seeding 1-64, a concept for which Avent argued. But even if the Wolfpack drew tougher opponents this weekend than it might have in a fully seeded tournament, there’s no point where losing to in-state would-be rivals like East Carolina and Campbell would ever be considered acceptable at N.C. State. (Meanwhile, unlikely ACC champion North Carolina and Duke were cruising through the NCAA tournament.)

All of which only made the victory sweeter for the Pirates, so often sent up highway 264 at this time of year to play at N.C. State or North Carolina, in this case benefiting from the role reversal as Jake Agnos threw eight nearly flawless innings to the home crowd’s eternal gratitude, saving the Pirates’ bullpen for a potential run through the elimination bracket.

“Every time we play an in-state team, it’s awesome it’s postseason, but you love beating teams like that,” Agnos said.

East Carolina's Jake Agnos says the Pirates didn't come into the tournament to go 1-1 after ECU's victory over NC State in the Greenville Regional Sunday, June 2, 2019.

The Wolfpack, meanwhile, lost the game in the third thanks to a pitching change that flopped worse than Dylan going electric. Once Avent decided to pull starter Jason Parker for a lefty, N.C. State needed three pitchers to get through the next six batters, six runs later. Which isn’t to put the blame on Avent – the quick hook was out of character neither for N.C. State nor college baseball in general – only to note where the ground underneath the Wolfpack cracked. The failure to turn a tough double play that would have gotten N.C. State out of the inning unscathed was as much a contributing factor.

“Anything could have happened right there,” Parker said. “He could have tagged him and gotten him out. But that’s just baseball.”

Only one of these teams was ever going to advance anyway. It was the timing that was so jarring: the elimination coming in the third game of the regional instead of the fifth or sixth (although it was still on a Sunday, thanks to the weather), and the Wolfpack being the first of the four to exit, its season undone by a meaningless game that turned out to be anything but.

East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin talks about what fan support means to him after the Pirates defeated NC State in the Greenville Regional Sunday, June 2, 2019.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.