Highfill SR2

Freshman pitcher Sam Highfill throws a pitch during NC State's 6-5 win over Arkansas in Game two of the Fayetteville Super Regional. Highfill threw 6.1 innings, allowing just three runs on two hits in the win.

After beating No. 1 Arkansas in the Fayetteville Super Regional, the NC State baseball team will travel to Omaha, Nebraska to take part in the College World Series. 

The Wolfpack will play in the first game of the event at 2 p.m. EDT on Saturday, June 19 as it takes on the No. 9 seed Stanford Cardinal. The Pack will battle it out with the No. 5 seed Arizona Wildcats and the No. 4 seed Vanderbilt Commodores, as well as Stanford, in a double-elimination bracket for a berth to the College World Series Finals.

Stanford Cardinal

The Wolfpack will take on Stanford in the opening game of the College World Series on Saturday, June 19, and the Pack might as well take a look in the mirror when it takes a look at the Cardinal’s statlines. The Cardinal play a very similar brand of baseball to that of NC State. Both squads hammer homers at high rates, as Stanford ranks 12th in the nation in home runs per game compared to State’s ranking of sixth. 

The Stanford offense is spearheaded by outfielder Brock Jones, who exercises both power and discipline at the plate. Jones ranks among the top 50 batters in the country in both walks per game and home runs per game, placing 19th and 47th respectively. 

This combo has earned Jones a season OPS (on-base plus slugging) of 1.072, making him the only qualified Cardinal batter with an OPS over 1.000. Infielder Nick Brueser comes close in this regard, clocking in with a .943 OPS, but after him only batters with a sub-.900 OPS remain to fill out the rest of the Stanford lineup. 

Both teams also take great pride in their defense, as the Wolfpack’s fielding percentage of .983 is second best in the country, but is only a shade above Stanford’s mark of .980, good enough for the 10th-best spot. 

“We play very sound defense, we’re smart,” said NC State head coach Elliott Avent. “But this time of year, as we tell our team every day, there are eight great teams left in this and they’re here for a reason. They’re all playing well at the right time, so the little things matter even more so now than in any time during the season, so you’re going to have to play extremely well to advance out there in Omaha.”

The Cardinal will be backing up right-handed pitcher Brendan Beck, who will likely take the mound for Stanford against NC State. Beck also ranks nationally in a couple of statistical categories, showing off his efficient pitching with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.57 and a WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of .95, numbers that rank 46th and 22nd in the country, respectively.

“[ESPN baseball analyst Kyle Peterson] just told me about the guy we’re going to face at Stanford,” Avent said. “I’ve talked to some friends of mine that have faced [Beck]; they say he is unbelievable.”

Beck also sports an opposing batting average under the Mendoza line, so it will be interesting to see who prevails between the righty and a Wolfpack offense that bats .289 as a team.

Arizona Wildcats

The Wildcats are another primarily offensive team in Bracket 1. They rank in the top 10 in the land in multiple hitting categories, including seventh in total walks, fourth in batting average, second in on-base percentage, fifth in runs per game and sixth in slugging percentage.

“I’ve been told that this might be as good an offensive team that the University of Arizona has ever had, and they’ve always been good,” Avent said.

The Arizona attack is led by three solid sluggers: outfielder Donta Williams, first baseman/outfielder Branden Boissiere and third baseman/first baseman Jacob Berry. Williams has the best batting eye of the trio, tying for 43rd in the nation in walks per game and placing 30th nationally in OBP.  The Wolfpack pitching staff is generally good at preventing bases on balls, but William’s plate discipline could prove difficult to deal with against junior left-handed pitcher Evan Justice, for example, who has allowed the same amount of walks this season as freshman right-handed pitcher Sam Highfill despite tossing over 30 fewer innings.

Boissiere is the contact specialist of the Wildcats, as his 1.51 hits per game ranks 34th in the land. Unlike Williams, Boissiere’s ability to get knocks does not single out a weakness of any particular Wolfpack pitcher, as each has been solid in preventing hits. Berry, however, poses the biggest threat of any batter in the Wildcat lineup. With a season OPS of 1.140, boosted by a slugging percentage of .692 that ranks 27th in the country, Berry can flat-out rake. If NC State runs into Berry with runners on base, the situation will be even more dire, since Berry also places 38th-best in the nation in RBIs per game. 

The prowess of the Wildcat offense is dampened by the lack of an ace pitcher, however. Out of the four Arizona pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched, not one possesses an ERA under 3.00, and each has an opposing batting average of at least .230. If the Wildcats and the Wolfpack meet in Omaha, it will likely be a slugfest that is won by the team that hits better, with relatively mediocre pitching throughout. 

Vanderbilt Commodores

Unlike Stanford and Arizona, Vanderbilt’s biggest strength is its pitching, as the Commodores have pitching talent in spades. Right-handers Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker are two of the best pitchers in the nation, ranking third and sixth among all of this year’s MLB draft prospects, respectively.  Both rank among the best in the nation in several pitching categories, so the fact that they both play for Vanderbilt makes the Commodores seem almost invincible on the mound. 

Despite these lights-out hurlers, Avent is confident that with enough rest, his own pitching staff can contend in Omaha. 

“Obviously you’ve got Vanderbilt with Kumar and Leiter, so I’m sure [Vanderbilt head coach] Tim Corbin feels good about that,” Avent said. “But we like our staff, they’ve gotten us to where we are, it’s certainly better in this format than it has been for the last three weekends.”

The Commodores are also a force to be reckoned with at the plate, placing nationally in several hitting stats, including the eighth-best team slugging percentage in the country Vanderbilt just narrowly beats out NC State, which ranks ninth in the nation in that category, by two points, so suffice it to say both teams can hit for power.

The Commodores are similar to State in that both squads like to be aggressive on the basepaths. In particular, outfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. swipes the second-most bags per game in the nation, and the Commodores steal the 45th-most bases per game as a team, four spots above NC State.

Since the Pack lacks an ace on the level of Leiter or Rocker, it would take a herculean effort to take down the Commodores. Having bested No. 1 Arkansas in the Fayetteville Super Regional, NC State has shown it is not afraid to go head-to-head with the best in the country, but the Wolfpack will have to go through Vanderbilt if it wants to come out on top in Omaha.