On March 11, the No. 9 NC State baseball team was finishing up an uninspiring performance against the NC A&T Aggies. After losing two of three against Virginia in the first series of conference play, and losing to UNC-Charlotte at home two nights after, it seemed like more of the same would follow for the Pack, down 7-5 in the bottom of the ninth inning. But with its back against the wall, the Wolfpack salvaged an 8-7 win off of J.T. Jarrett’s timely two-RBI walk-off single. It was just what the doctor ordered for Wolfpack baseball: a potentially season-defining game that could break them out of a slump.
And the season ended with a bang. Unfortunately, it ended sooner than everyone had wished.
The afternoon of March 12 was when the NCAA announced the suspension of winter and all remaining fall sports until further notice in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That suspension turned into cancellation March 17. While the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament got most of the headlines, lost in the shuffle was the great season that NC State baseball was on the verge of having.
The win against NC A&T wasn’t deserved, but there was a chance the Pack would wake up from its recent struggles and be on the prowl again. There were more challenging games on the Wolfpack’s schedule, including more tough series in conference play against Duke, Wake Forest, UNC, Florida State, Louisville, Clemson and Georgia Tech, as well a date with UNC-Charlotte, a team it’d lost to in what turned out to be the penultimate game of the season. But with the Pack looking to be on the upswing, there’s a chance it could’ve won a lot of those games and earned more feathers in its cap. It’s hard to tell where the season could’ve gone after four weeks, but it might be safe to say NC State would’ve finished the season still ranked, with a more than decent-sized chance to go far in the NCAA Baseball Tournament. They could have even had a chance to go to the College World Series.
The one silver lining in all this is the seniors on this team won’t have to end their careers so suddenly. Spring sport athletes were given an extra season of eligibility by the NCAA, which is great news for outfielder Lawson McArthur, catcher Brad Debo and left-handed pitcher Kent Klyman. Instead of having to leave on a sour note, they’ll have a chance to finish what they started if they choose to. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have ended the season prematurely, it at least won’t claim the senior years of three key players for the Wolfpack.
If there’s an elephant in the room, it has to be star junior catcher Patrick Bailey and his future with the team. Going into this season, Bailey was touted as one of the top players, as well as catchers, in all of college baseball and was projected to be picked early in the upcoming MLB Draft. In the short time Bailey was on the field, he was as advertised, batting .296, slugging .685 and hitting six home runs (including three grand slams). Even when Bailey wasn’t hitting particularly well, the mystique of Bailey scared pitchers at various times this season, and it led to Bailey getting 17 walks this season, including a walk in that 9th inning rally against NC A&T, boosting his on-base percentage to .466. In that sample size, Patrick Bailey was quite simply one of the most electrifying baseball prospects heading into the draft, but the question remains if it was a large enough sample size for major league scouts to sink their teeth into. Maybe it is; after all, Bailey had phenomenal freshman and sophomore campaigns as well, and that might be enough to get him drafted into the first round and leave the NC State program. But there’s a chance scouts will want to see a little bit more out of Bailey, and the possibility, however slim, remains that he could return to the Wolfpack for one more year. There’s a shroud of mystery surrounding what Patrick Bailey has in mind for his baseball future, but then again, these are confusing times, so maybe it’s only appropriate.
We can speculate on what the seniors might contribute next year, who’ll step up and take up Bailey’s mantle (or if Bailey takes on that role again), how many games the Pack could’ve won, and more, but for 63-year-old head coach Elliott Avent, it’s all the residue from what’s amounted to a lost season.
“For 50 years, not a day has gone by where I haven’t had something to do with baseball,” Avent told Jeff Gravley in an interview with NC State Athletics a few weeks ago. “I like to get out there and chop wood, but I sure would rather be playing baseball.”
A lot of time and energy was spent by Avent making sure the Wolfpack had a chance at breaking through this year, and instead of seeing his hard work come to fruition, he was rewarded with a truncated season. But despite the year being cut short, next year holds even more promise for Avent & Co. With fifth-year seniors in tow and the chance to recruit some more talented freshmen on the team, Avent might just have a better roster next year. Sure Avent will be another year older, but so will his players, and they’ll be that much better heading into 2021. And, of course, fans would rather have the season continue, but when the year is devoid of any sports to speak of, hope is the best thing they can hold onto.