Trea Turner's early return from an ankle injury has sparked N.C. State. (N.C. State Athletics)

Trea Turner established himself as one of college baseball's most dynamic players as a freshman last year, hitting .336 and leading the nation with 57 stolen bases in 61 attempts. There might not be a better catalyst in college baseball. But as a sophomore, Turner has proven that he can also handle hitting in the No. 3 spot in North Carolina State's order. In just 25 games, he has already matched last season's home run total (five) and has boosted his slugging percentage from .459 to .704. He's hitting .429/.500/.704 with 28 RBIs, showing that there is much more to his game than speed.

So when Turner injured his ankle during N.C. State's first conference game against Clemson, the Wolfpack lost its best run producer -- not just its fastest player and starting shortstop. A piece of bone chipped off Turner's ankle, producing a lot of swelling and sidelining him for most of the first three weekends of conference play. Without him, the 'Pack lost the Clemson series and was swept at Virginia.

Since Turner's return to shortstop, the Wolfpack has gotten hot. And that's not a coincidence. N.C. State has won eight of its last nine games, including a series win against Maryland last weekend and a sweep of Virginia Tech this weekend. Turner had three hits and two RBIs out of the leadoff spot in Saturday's 13-4 win, then went 2-for-4 in the No. 3 hole Sunday, sparking a critical four-run eighth-inning rally with a leadoff single.

"There's no question, before he went out, he was involved in almost every part of our offense. He either began a rally, was in the middle of it or finished it," N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. "He came back a lot quicker than we anticipated. It was a great job by the sports medicine program and Trea Turner -- the toughness. It's made a big difference for our team. He's still not the base stealer he was, still not 100 percent, but having him back in the lineup is a big, big difference."

Speed was Turner's defining skill as a freshman, but he has just 11 stolen bases in 13 tries this year, and his ankle injury has limited his base stealing since his return to action. But he has emerged as a more dangerous hitter this year, filling a new role for the Wolfpack.

"Obviously he's got tremendous hand-eye coordination," Elliott Avent said. "He's got great balance at the plate; he's a great athlete. And he's got tremendous bat speed. Because of the bat speed and his balance, he doesn't chase a lot of pitches out of the zone."

Turner played third base as a freshman and then played second base last summer for Team USA, so he is playing shortstop this year for the first time since high school. He has handled the position well, and his ankle injury is affecting him less and less.

"When you go through what he went through, the big thing is: 'Am I 100 percent? Can I make that quick step?' I think he's starting to trust that thing now," Avent said. "It's a whole different position as far as going to get the ball. He was getting so good right before the injury. My question was, 'When he came back, would he pick up where he left off?' And he pretty much has. He made a couple of big-time plays this weekend; he's playing pretty good defense for us right now."

Turner also has had a major impact on N.C. State's clubhouse. Avent said Turner's calming presence reminds him of the way Troy Tulowitzki affected the clubhouse on the 2004 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, for which Avent served as an assistant.

"The guy's a winner," Avent said. "He's a winner in everything he does. He's a good teammate, keeps the clubhouse loose. He's not just a good baseball player: He's a great clubhouse guy."

Read more from Aaron Fitt's weekly Three Strikes column.