Wolfpack Opens Baseball Season With High Hopes

Brett Friedlander

The calendar might say that Friday is Valentine’s Day. But to NC State baseball coach Elliott Avent, it feels more like a different holiday as his Wolfpack prepares for the opening game of a new season.

“We’ve all been through Christmas as a kid,” Avent said. “You thought it would never get here, but as a parent you wish it was way down the road a little bit.

“We’ve all been shopping on December 24. These guys have been ready to open for a week and I just want to keep practicing. But I’m excited about the games, too. The games are fun for everybody whether you’re a player or a coach. The games are what you live for.”

Ready or not, the games will begin at 3 p.m. this afternoon when the Wolfpack plays the first of a three-game weekend series against James Madison.

State is ranked among the nation’s top 25 in all the preseason polls and returns one of the nation’s best players in junior catcher Patrick Bailey, along with last year’s breakout star Tyler McDonough.

But it also has some holes to fill in a lineup that averaged better than seven runs per game and ranked 23rd nationally in scoring a year ago.

By far the biggest of them are those left by the departure of shortstop Will Wilson and first baseman Evan Edwards. 

Between them, the team's two leading hitters last year accounted for 30 home runs and 117 RBI while both hitting better than .330. Not only was Wilson valuable at the plate, but he was also the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year before being selected with the 15th overall pick of the Major League Baseball draft.

The job of replacing him will go to prized freshman Jose Torres, who passed up an opportunity to sign with the Milwaukee Brewers out of high school with the Wolfpack. Edwards' spot at first will be filled by Austin Murr Jr., who hit a healthy .403 with six homers, 12 doubles and 54 RBI last season at Des Moines Area Junior College in Iowa.

Though both are still unproven at this level -- as well, to some degree, as sophomores Luca Tresh in the outfield and Vojtech Menski at third -- Bailey is confident that State will once again field a formidable lineup.

"We've got so many freshmen and JUCOs coming in and, shoot, the returning guys ... everybody's gotten so much better," Bailey said. "It will be a lot of fun to see this year.

"Lineup-wise, I thing we should be pretty consistent one through nine. I think we've got a lot of depth. We've got so many pitchers that can throw, so many position players that can play different positions. There's just a lot of versatility."

The most verstile of State's players is McDonough.

The freshman All-America, who led ACC rookies with 80 hits while batting .320 with five homers and 47 RBI in 2019, played infield and catcher in high school before being switched to center field for his first college season.

This year, the plan is for him to switch to second base while still being available to play center when called upon.

"I'll play wherever the team needs me," he said. "I'm comfortable wherever. Right now I'm at second, but I might be bouncing back and forth. I just want to help the team out."

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McDonough helped State get off to a flying start last season, an opening stretch that saw the team win its first 19 games and 27 of its first 29 before leveling off and finishing at 42-19 (18-12 in the ACC).

As important as his and the rest of the Wolfpack's bats will be in fashioning another successful season, the strength of this year's team figures to be its deep, veteran pitching staff.

Although there doesn't appear to be a defined ace in the mold of a Carlos Rodon or Brian Brown, there is an abundance of available arms -- led by junior starters Nick Swinney and Reid Johnson, along with junior closer Kent Klyman.

Illustrating the depth and talent of the staff is the fact that two freshmen -- Matt Willadsen and Chris Villaman -- will draw two of the first three starting assignments behind Swinney in this weekend's opening series.

"Pitching is always your concern and that's where you start," Avent said. "The game hasn't changed in 100 years. You've got to play good defense, you've got to be opportunistic when you get a chance to score runs. But I like the makeup of this team. 

"Obviously your biggest concern is that you lost two big weapons last year in Evan Edwards and Will Wilson. You don't trade two players like those and expect to not have some concerns."

Concerns or not, Bailey and his teammates are as anxious as children on Christmas morning to get the season underway.

"It's awesome, man," Bailey said. "Just the last 6-7 months of us working and putting the effort in, this is what it comes down to. I can't wait to get started."

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