Depleted NC State team suffers first CWS loss

The Wolfpack, who had just 13 players available in Friday's loss due to COVID-19 contact tracing, will play Vanderbilt again Saturday for a spot in the national championship series

North Carolina State players meet on the mound around starting pitcher Garrett Payne (36) in the fourth inning against Vanderbilt during a baseball game in the College World Series, Friday, June 25, 2021, at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)

OMAHA, Neb. — A season that has been improbable and unlikely finally jumped the shark for NC State in a Friday afternoon game at the College World Series that pushed the bounds of credulity.

The Wolfpack has battled back from adversity and disadvantage all year, but things went further sideways in Omaha as the team stood like Monty Python’s Black Knight, more missing than whole, and squared off with the defending champions, claiming it was merely a flesh wound.

With just 13 players available due to COVID testing and tracing protocols, the Wolfpack sent a freshman with 8 2/3 career innings to the mound, put Monday’s starting pitcher on first base for the first time and set out to face one of the top pitchers in college baseball in Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker.

It all almost worked, too, as the Pack put a scare into Vanderbilt before falling, 3-1. With the loss, the Pack and Commodores will play an elimination game rematch on Saturday afternoon with the winner going to the CWS Championship Series.

Details are still sketchy and coach Elliott Avent was reluctant to share much, but at least one Wolfpack player had a positive COVID test, and a number of other players who had been in close contact were forced to quarantine.

“I kept getting not much said,” Avent said of his dealings with the NCAA, whose protocols forced the players to miss Friday’s game. “First, they kept us out of our locker room. Then some of the players had to go back into a holding room. Then they delayed infield (practice pregame). Finally, we were told these are our options.”

They weren’t good: State could forfeit Friday’s game and go straight to Saturday’s elimination game, presumably with some of the contact-traced players back after negative tests, or they could try to make a go of it with a three-man bench.

“I didn’t know what was going on, so I couldn’t tell them,” Avent said of his conversation with his team. “When you have guys committed to the program, I don’t think you do things from the top.  The decision should be made by people who did the work, the people on the ground. I told them, ‘My vote is to play. Let me know what you want to do.’

“It took probably about six seconds,” he said of the team’s response.

Play ball.

After a one-hour delay while everything was sorted out, the teams took the field.

Freshman Garrett Payne got the start, a veteran of six appearances, all in relief, for 8 2/3 innings all season. He exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, pitching into the sixth inning and giving up just two hits and one earned run.

“I told him at about 1 or maybe later — 1:30 that he’s got the ball at 2:07 to throw against the defending national champions,” Avent said. “I couldn’t be more proud of him and his effort. He was very tired at the end. He gave us actually one more inning that we asked him to give to make this thing work.”

He wasn’t the only hero for the ragtag Pack.

Sam Highfill, who beat Jack Leiter on Monday night to put State into Friday’s game, played first base so that the Wolfpack could have a backup catcher Danny Carnazzo available on the bench in case of emergency. It was his first time playing the field in college, and his first at-bat came against Rocker, a surefire first-round draft pick.

“Found out at around 1 there was a chance I was going to play first base today,” Highfill said. “I wanted to. I looked at it as more of an opportunity than a problem. Wanted to be a guy who stepped up.”

He did his first time against Rocker. The Vanderbilt hurler dominated his first time through the order, striking out eight of the first nine batters he faced. The exception: Highfill, who lined a single past first base. He would go on to get hits off of Rocker his next two times up as well.

“He’s had zero work as a hitter,” Avent said. “He’s just a baseball player. Baseball players do things in baseball games, and Sam Highfill is a baseball player. If we’d taken the lead, he was going to close (on the mound). If it went to extra innings, he’d have been at third base.”

With Terrell Tatum, Tyler McDonough, Jose Torres and J.T. Jarrett among the starters not available, the final four batters in the NC State lineup, including Highfill, combined for three hits in 27 at-bats this season. They had four of State’s eight hits in Friday’s game and scored and drove in the Pack’s only run.

As good as the replacements played, the margin of error was just too slim. Vanderbilt broke through in the fourth. Vojtech Mensik was charged with an error when Highfill couldn’t handle his throw in the dirt. That led to two unearned runs.

Vandy added another run in the sixth to force a third matchup between the two teams – and likely a rematch with Leiter, who was dominant on Monday save for a Tatum home run that accounted for the game’s only scoring.

“It was a great, gutty performance by a gutty team,” Avent said. “That’s who we’ve been all year. Guys stepped up in roles they hadn’t been asked to play in. That’s who we are. We found a way to make it work. Get a knock here and there, and we might be talking right now about playing for a national championship on Monday.”

Avent said he hoped to have Reid Johnston back for Saturday’s game, although the makeup of the roster is still very much in flux. There’s a good chance Highfill will also see time on the mound.

“We showed a lot of fight today,” the pitcher-turned-first baseman said. “We’re willing to do it again tomorrow if we have to.

“We only need nine guys out there,” he added.

Merely a flesh wound.