Close games nothing new for NC State
RALEIGH, N.C. -- After firing the ball to first base for the final out of the championship game in the Raleigh Regional, NC State third baseman Drew Martin threw his glove down with an equal amount of gusto and bounded into a chest-bump with teammate Tommy Foschi.
The Wolfpack players piled on top of each other, creating a human pitcher's mound after holding off a heavy-hitting South Carolina team for the 2-1 win and the program's first trip to the super regional round since 2003.
Yes, regional top seed NC State (41-20) was the home team, playing in front of a raucous, sold-out, red-clad crowd whose seesaw chant of "Wolf! Pack!" echoed well beyond the outfield walls of Doak Field. And yes, the Pack were well-rested, unlike No. 2 seed South Carolina, which had to turn around and play a double-header that included both 90 degree heat and a 1 hour, 19-minute rain delay.
But make no mistake: NC State worked just as tirelessly for all three of its wins here and will have to play the same way against the winner of Georgia and Georgia Tech in Monday's Athens (Ga.) Regional final.
"It was just kind of fitting to win that ball game like that," said starting pitcher Eric Surkamp, who went four innings before the rain delay. "Being a one-run game and playing defense like that, we've done that all year. That's how we play. It was just fitting to win a game like that."
The Wolfpack are now 9-8 in one-run games and 4-4 in two-run games, so they've had some practice keeping things interesting and this weekend was no exception.
On Friday, NC State was stuck in a 2-2 tie with No. 4 seed James Madison but managed to avoid an embarrassing loss. Ryan Pond's two-run double got the Pack out of that jam, and Chris Schaeffer's two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning sealed the 6-2 win. On Saturday, in the team's first meeting with South Carolina, NC State scored a come-from-behind 5-4 win.
There's no question NC State's absurdly deep and multifaceted bullpen has been a secret to its success -- since the Pack's game against Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament, the nonstarters have allowed no runs and just one hit in 15½ innings. But there are also a few intangibles that have helped the Wolfpack win the close ones.
"We have a lot of confidence in our pitching staff and we play solid defense, but I've got to give a lot of credit to the leadership on this ballclub," NC State coach Elliott Avent said. "There are several seniors that committed themselves to four years to this program, invested a lot of time and energy and love this program, and they led the way. There's great chemistry on this ballclub. This club wants to win so bad.
"This team does have a lot of chemistry, it does have grit. That's going to help us next weekend."
It certainly helped Sunday.
South Carolina shortstop Reese Havens started the second game of the day the same way he ended the first -- with a home run. NC State trailed 1-0 until Jeremy Synan -- who had been ejected Saturday -- hit a home run in the top of the fifth inning to tie the game. Synan broke up Will Atwood's no-hitter with his seventh home run of the season.
It was just kind of fitting to win that ball game like that. Being a one-run game and playing defense like that, we've done that all year. That's how we play. It was just fitting to win a game like that.
The Wolfpack took the lead on Matt Payne's two-out, bases-loaded RBI single in the top of the seventh. NC State escaped a South Carolina rally in the bottom of the seventh, when home run-hitter Justin Smoak flied out to center field with runners on the corners, his team trailing 2-1.
"We may not have scored a lot of runs," Avent said, "but we did what championship teams have to do -- a lot of clutch hits, clutch plays and obviously clutch pitching from a lot of people."
South Carolina might have had the better bats, but the Gamecocks' bullpen hasn't been as strong this season, which might explain why they were 5-7 in one-run games this season.
"That's what happens sometimes," said South Carolina coach Ray Tanner. "We fought hard and had a group of outstanding young men. We faltered some in the second half of the season in the bullpen. We gave up some leads and weren't able to battle back in some close games. You're going to find that with a lot of teams that are not playing right now."
There are plenty of former NC State players who know all too well what that feels like. This is the program's sixth straight appearance in the NCAA tournament, but the Wolfpack have nothing to show for it. NC State has been to the College World Series just once in school history, and that was in 1968.
A few members of NC State's 1968 World Series team drove to Raleigh for Sunday's championship game. On Saturday night, Surkamp received a few text messages from former pitcher Gib Hobson and a few other players, congratulating this year's team on advancing to the championship game. About a half dozen alumni from NC State's 2003 team came to cheer the Wolfpack on.
"They feel like they should've been in Omaha and they're pulling like heck for this club to get to go," Avent said.
After Sunday's narrow win, the Wolfpack are just two wins away.
"They were the No. 1 seed in this region," Tanner said, "and they played like it."
Now they have to keep it up.
Heather Dinich covers college sports for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org.