Photo courtesy of Razorback Athletics
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The Pen welcomes the Pack.
The Ruston Regional Champions stroll into Fayetteville with their heads held high after winning 12 of their last 15 ballgames. North Carolina State is led by Elliott Avent who has led the Wolfpack for longer than most of the people who are reading this article have been alive, 25 years. The 65-year-old is looking to lead NC State to its 3rd trip to the College World Series in program history. Arkansas, on the other hand, is gearing up to make its 11th trip to Omaha, Nebraska.
This matchup, in a sense, is David v Goliath. (2) NC State knocked off (3) Alabama once and (1) Louisiana Tech twice, including in the regional championship, to advance to the Sweet 16. Sputtering in the early going, the Wolfpack have finally found their footing and are prepared to do whatever it takes to knock off the consensus No. 1 team in the country in Arkansas.
If you take any stat from this article, make it this one. North Carolina State’s pitching staff holds a 4.91 Team ERA. Not too bad, right? Wrong. Out of the 16 Super Regional participants, 4.91 ranks 16th out of 16 squads. Dead last.
If you are a Wolfpack fan, your poor ERA does NOT bode well against the Swingin’ Swine. In fact, Arkansas has hit the most home runs out of the remaining 16 teams. The Friday starter, Reid Johnston, holds a solid 8-2 record with a 3.90 ERA. The righty also threw a complete game against in-state rival North Carolina back in March. Johnston has thrown 16 innings in the postseason while only giving up three earned runs. He will match up against Arkasnsas’ ace Patrick Wicklander (6-1, 2.17 ERA) for Game 1 of the Fayetteville Super Regional.
Sam Highfill, another righty, will line up against Lael Lockhart (3-3, 4.50 ERA) on Saturday. Highfill kept the heavy hitting Louisiana Tech Bulldogs in check by holding them to no runs in 5 1/3 innings last weekend. The freshman has led his ballclub to a win in each of his previous eight starts for the Wolfpack.
Matching the Razorbacks, NC State has five members of its lineup who have hit more than 10 home runs. As a team, they rank 14th in the country in dingers with 83. They are led by Jonny Butler, who leads the team in average, runs batted in, slugging percentage, and stolen base success percentage. The left fielder is the ultimate do-it-all for the Wolfpack. If NC State has any hopes of knocking off the best team in baseball then Butler and his crew will have to outslug the Hogs in their own park. Success rate? Astronomically low.
North Carolina State is comfortable playing outside of Raleigh, as they have won 85% of their true road games this season. With that being said, the atmosphere of Baum Stadium is arguably the most hostile environment in all of college baseball and will not be comforting to the red and black.
While any team playing at this stage in the NCAA Tournament would be considered “good”, we will not see a more lopsided matchup this weekend. Arkansas, according to NJIT baseball coach Robbie McClellan, is “maybe the best team who has ever suited it up.” In front of a sold-out Baum Stadium against a team who has not lost a series this year, it would be silly to pick anyone but the Hogs to advance to their 3rd straight College World Series.