More than any other game, baseball is evaluated by numbers – batting average, runs, on-base percentage. Whether it’s chasing a stolen base record or trying to finish off an undefeated season, the numbers always come to the forefront.
The numbers said that NC State had little chance of overcoming its Saturday-night meltdown. That losing with its ace on the mound, especially in that manner, was the kind of loss that should end the Wolfpack’s season. That winning three straight games, including two against a better-rested Vanderbilt squad, was simply not going to happen.
But then the Pack took the field and proved that sometimes heart and toughness matter more than the odds.
"I just go back to the resiliency and toughness of this ball club,” Elliott Avent told reporters on Sunday night. “They just find ways to get it done."
The odds were against Matt Bergquist, who started Sunday’s game with a batting average below .200. Then the junior went out and drove in seven runs over two games on Sunday, including the game-winner late in a tie game against Vanderbilt.
The odds were against Tarran Senay, who hadn’t recorded a base hit all weekend. Then he hit a 3-run bomb on Monday that got the Pack back into the game and followed that by driving in the go-ahead runs in the top of the 9th.
The odds were against the entire team, yet time and time again over the last few days the Pack managed to find ways to make plays, doing just enough to advance. It was the starting pitching from Ethan Ogburn and Anthony Tzamtzis on Sunday, who both worked deep into games to allow the bullpen to rest. It was the heroic performance out of the bullpen by Ryan Wilkins, who pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings over two days against Vanderbilt and was probably the MVP of the regionals for the Pack.
It was guys like Bergquist, Senay, Brett Austin and Ryan Mathews - who came through with clutch hits. It was everyone on the team, all of whom seemed to be able to shrug off the pressure of the situation and help the Pack win games.
“We fought and fought,” Senay said. “This team never gives up.”
Perhaps some of the credit for that fighting spirit should go to the man at the helm. Avent, even in the face of disaster, never stopped believing that his team would find a way to win. Saturday night, fresh off that crushing loss, Elliot Avent stepped up to the microphone and shrugged it all off.
“That's how this game goes," Avent said.
It seemed almost flippant coming from a coach who is usually as passionate as Avent, but he’s seen enough baseball through his years to know that’s it’s also very true. Sometimes weird things happen – a ball takes a bad bounce and an inning-ending strikeout becomes a five-run rally. That’s baseball, and those few horrendous innings were not going to be the way his team ended its season.
"We've been down a lot, and that's one thing about this team, we don't look too far ahead,” slugger Ryan Mathews said. “We're just trying to win each inning and win each pitch. Nobody is ever going to give up and we just kept fighting."
So now this team, full of resiliency and confidence, will face its toughest task yet. They’ll travel to Gainesville to face off with Florida, the top-seeded team in the entire tournament. Win two games down there and the Pack will advance to its first College World Series since 1968. But win or lose, one thing is certain – this team will go down swinging.
"These players refuse to quit,” Avent said. “If you always refuse to quit, it's one of the sayings that made us famous here. The one the great Coach Valvano said. And that was a different scenario, but it applies to everything in life."