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Wolfpack rely on pitching, defense to advance in NCAA tournament

6/4/2008

RALEIGH, N.C. -- NC State pitching coach Tom Holliday walked out of the Dail baseball complex Sunday night wearing a Hawaiian button-down shirt with a gold cross dangling from his neck, his dark hair slicked back.

He looked more like Tony Soprano on vacation than a coach who just sweat out a 2-1 win over South Carolina in the Raleigh Regional championship game.

There are three good reasons for Holliday's relaxed demeanor during college baseball's most intense stretch of the season -- one being his incredibly deep and versatile bullpen, and another being a head coach who gives him free reign with it.

The third? NC State is still playing, and the bullpen is a major reason why.

The Wolfpack's nonstarters went 11 innings in the Raleigh Regional, giving up just one hit and no runs -- an impressive feat considering South Carolina entered the weekend ranked third in the country with 103 home runs. NC State held South Carolina's sluggers to just three hits in Sunday night's win.

Holliday, who has been to the College World Series 16 times, knows what it takes to get to Omaha. He is convinced that even without star closer Jimmy Gillheeney -- who hasn't been on the roster since prior to the ACC tournament for an undisclosed reason -- he's got the bullpen to get them there.

So far, Holliday has been right.

"The saddest thing is we're talking about a bullpen without our best," he said. "The best guy out of the whole group was Jimmy Gillheeney. And in a short period of time, to try to readjust and get people's minds focused on this … I've never had one deeper than this."

That's a huge compliment, considering Holliday spent three years at Texas, where he coached nine pitchers from his first two teams who went on to play professional baseball and three more who were drafted in 2006.

"There's a couple guys in our bullpen that probably could be starters in a lot of places in this country," he said. "Sometimes you fall into a pitching staff as deep as this one and you gotta figure out a way to use them and keep them happy. You can't keep guys happy if they never get big innings. When you do what we did in this tournament, the big innings have been plentiful."

NC State's nonstarters boast a combined 2.49 ERA, and seven different players have saves and 10 have won games. They all have something unique to contribute.

"There's a variety," Holliday said, "but matching up is important. My job is to study the other ball club and play the matchups. These kids don't have to worry about that. They could go do whatever they want. I get paid to make sure we're ready for the other ballclub."

So far, NC State has gotten its money worth.

Holliday was hired last season as associate head coach/recruiting coordinator, and added title of pitching coach this season. At the end of the regular season, the Wolfpack ranked fourth in the country in ERA. The players' roles have been defined as the season has progressed, and Holliday calls all of the pitches. There's an immense amount of trust in him by both coach Elliott Avent and his players. For the first time in his career, Avent has not made one trip to the mound this season.

"He does all the pitching," Avent said. "I have nothing to do with the pitching. I have no idea. He's the best pitching coach in the country, has been for a long time. What he's taught our players -- he's incredible for studying film for six to eight hours to figure out how to get the opposing hitters out with our staff. He instills confidence in them that he's going to put them in a situation to make them successful."

They're also good enough, though, to create their own success.

Two redshirt juniors -- Joey Cutler and Kyle Rutter -- earned two wins in the Raleigh Regional. Against South Carolina on Sunday, Drew Taylor retired both Reese Havens and Justin Smoak, who combined for four home runs in the regional. Alex Sogard was the seventh Wolfpack reliever to record a save this season, as he retired all four South Carolina batters he faced Sunday night for his first career save. Holliday said he won't be afraid to use Sogard as his closer in the super regional, but could also use Eryk McConnell on Friday and Sunday.

"We played some good teams," said sophomore Sam Brown, who earned his first relief win Sunday. "South Carolina is probably one of the best hitting teams in the country. We just got out there and got ahead of them. When you get ahead of batters, you get outs. Props to our guys."

If anyone knows what the group is capable of, it's South Carolina coach Ray Tanner, who lost two one-run games to the Wolfpack this past weekend.

"The thing that I really liked about NC State and makes them as good as they are right now is their bullpen," Tanner said. "Not to take anything away from [starting pitcher] Clayton Shunick, because he's about as good as it gets, but they are able to go to that bullpen and use different guys. I know they miss Gillheeney, but they have other guys down there who are quality pitchers in their bullpen. Coach Holliday does a tremendous job of being able to mix and match. Those guys that he puts in have to be able to make pitches and perform, and they did that."

Heather Dinich covers college sports for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at espn.hd@hotmail.com.