Wolfpack’s ACC tourney hopes remain intact despite loss to Virginia

NC State can still advance to the semifinals with a victory against Florida State on Friday

Virginia's Caleb Knight dives for the plate as NC State catcher Patrick Bailey reaches for the ball during Thursday's ACC tournament game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park (Sara D. Davis/theACC.com)

  Virginia’s loss to Florida State on the opening day of the ACC baseball tournament Tuesday rendered NC State’s game against the Cavaliers on Thursday meaningless in terms of the Wolfpack’s chances of advancing to the single-elimination semifinals later this week.

  That doesn’t mean coach Elliott Avent and his team didn’t try their best to win.

  They did.

  It’s just that they approached the matchup differently than if their championship hopes were hanging in the balance.

  Avent admitted as much in the aftermath of his third-seeded team’s 4-2 loss to the 10th-seeded Cavaliers at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

  “It would have been different, yeah,” the veteran coach said of his approach to the game, while making sure to praise UVa. for its winning effort.  “Did I do some things different? (I) may have tweaked the lineup a little bit because I’m still trying to search some things for next week to see what’s our best lineup on the field right now against a righty, what’s our best lineup against a lefty.

  “I probably did a couple things differently, trying to figure out some stuff had this been an elimination game, but not with coming out to play. Not with the starter we used. Maybe with the bullpen we used, possibly.”

  Because of the tournament format, in which the top seeded team in each pool advances to the semifinals if all three teams in the group finish with 1-1 records, the Wolfpack will make it through if it beats Florida State on Friday.

  It still would have needed a win even if it hadn’t run into a hot pitcher in its postseason debut Thursday.

  UVa.’s Derek Casey struck out nine while allowing only six hits through 7⅔ strong innings to effectively shut down the ACC’s best-hitting team. Reliever Bennett Sousa then came on to finish the job in which will be the Cavaliers’ final game.

  “They had a good staff tonight,” said centerfielder Josh McLain, whose third inning single off Casey’s foot drove in State second run. “Those guys threw their best when they needed to and it’s tough when you’re hitting against good pitching. The hits will come. They’re here and there. It was good pitching tonight. Tomorrow night might be a different scenario.”

  The Wolfpack (40-15) struck first on a home run by ACC Rookie of the Year Patrick Bailey in the top of the second. It expanded the lead to 2-0 an inning later when McLain drove in DH Shane Shepard, who likely won’t be in the lineup for Friday’s elimination game against the Seminoles.

   UVa. (29-25) answered right back in the bottom of the third by scoring twice to tie the game and bring State starter Reid Johnston’s day to an early end. The Cavaliers then took the lead in the fourth off reliever Nate Eikhoff on a double, a ground out and a throwing error by second baseman J.T. Jarrett.

  State’s best chance to pull the game out came in the eighth, when a walk to McLain and a double by Will Wilson put runners on second third with two outs. But Sousa came out of the bullpen to end the threat by striking out cleanup hitter Brett Kinneman on three pitches.

  He then retired the side in order in the ninth to close out the game after the Cavaliers scored an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth.

  “I thought we played good tonight,” Avent said. “I just thought we ran into a Virginia team that played very well.”

  Avent said that his team will have to play even better Friday to beat a Florida State team that took two of three from it in Tallahassee last weekend. Both losses, however, came on walkoff hits by the sixth-seeded Seminoles.

  The Wolfpack will pitch ace Brian Brown, the ACC’s Pitcher of the Year, for the winner-take-all contest.

  “It’s going to be a big game,” McLain said. “It’s like the third game of the Super Regional. You’ve got to win this game to advance, so we’ve got to figure things out, go off what we did last week and get better and be ready to go tomorrow.”