Baseball: Wake Forest-Florida State Preview

USA TODAY Sports

Wake Forest opens their weekend series against the #5 Florida State Seminoles on Friday night.

The Diamond Deacs kick off a massive series tonight at Wake Forest Baseball Park when nationally ranked Florida State comes to Winston-Salem. Wake enters the series with a 24-15 (11-7 ACC) record, fresh off a mid-week 4-2 victory over in-state rival Appalachian State. The Seminoles, ranked 5th in the most recent Coaches’ Poll, enter with a 28-8 (14-4 ACC) record after a resounding 6-1 win over Jacksonville on Tuesday. Friday’s opener will begin at 6 P.M., while Saturday’s tilt starts at 4 P.M., and the series finale gets underway on Sunday at 1 P.M.

The Deacs have won four of six conference series this year and with an 11-7 record in the conference currently sit in fourth place in the ACC. The Seminoles’ 14-4 conference record has them in a three-way tie for first with Miami and Virginia. With the ACC Tournament just a month away, each of the remaining weekend series will play a critical role in shaping the postseason picture. The 2014 version of the ACC Tournament is modified pool play, where the top six teams in the conference automatically advance to the pool play while 7th place takes on 10th place and 8th squares off against 9th in a one-game play-in to fill out the final two spots in the pool.

Wake has ridden a relatively easy conference schedule to a solid position at this point, but with series remaining against nationally-ranked FSU and Virginia, along with a tough matchup with a pre-season favorite to win the conference in N.C. State, the Diamond Deacs have a lot of work left to do just to ensure they have a place in the ACC Tournament. Perhaps more importantly, the mid-week win over App. State, in addition to the results of other games across the country, boosted Wake’s RPI up to 46 entering this weekend. Were the season to end today Wake would almost certainly be on the outside of the bubble looking in, but the home stretch of the ACC provides a multitude of opportunities for the Deacs to pad their resume and boost that RPI.

Righty senior Jack Fischer will get the Friday night start for Wake and enters the game with a 4-3 record and a 3.32 ERA. Fischer has been a constant for the Deacs’ rotation and in five Friday night starts in conference play, has gone at least eight innings in four of them. For the Noles, righty Luke Weaver will get the start with a 5-3 record and a 3.10 ERA. In ACC play, Weaver is 3-2 in six starts and boasts a 3.48 ERA but ran into some trouble last weekend against Georgia Tech giving up five runs in the first before settling down to pitch seven innings.

Saturday features lefty John McLeod getting the nod for the Deacs against sophomore righty Mike Compton from Florida State. McLeod’s 1.96 ERA is fifth in the ACC and he needs just 14 strikeouts to reach 100 for his career. Compton ranks fourth on the Seminoles with a 3.71 ERA and has struck out 31 batters over 43.2 innings.

Sunday’s finale will pit righthander Connor Kaden, 2-3 with a 4.60 ERA, against undefeated southpaw Bryant Holtmann from Florida State who has an impressive 5-0 record to go along with a 3.14 ERA. Kaden has struggled a little as of lately, giving up two runs on four hits in just three innings against North Carolina in last weekend’s finale. His appearances over the past few weeks have been relatively short, with the longest outing since the Boston College finale on March 22 sitting at just 5.1 innings (two weeks ago in the Maryland finale).

The Florida State lineup features one of the ACC’s best hitters in D.J. Stewart who is batting an impressive .374 while slugging .670 with seven homers and 30 RBI’s. Junior first baseman John Nogowski leads the Seminoles with 36 RBI’s on the year while batting .298 with nine doubles and Casey Smit leads the team with a .491 OBP and is second with a .374 behind only Stewart.

For the Deacs to grab an important series win, the pitching staff will need to limit the Seminoles’ opportunities and get outs in critical situations. The Yellow Jackets held FSU to just 20 hits over the three games series, the lowest this season in a conference series for the Seminoles – showing just how dominant the FSU bats can be at times. Prior to the series loss in Atlanta, the Noles had won eight games in a row but narrowly escaped several games against Boston College and Notre Dame, two teams firmly in the bottom of the ACC.

The Deacs have lacked some offensive power at times throughout the season, but have been paced by an impressive campaign by freshman Will Craig who leads the team with seven homers and 29 RBIs. Craig’s seven home runs are tied for first in the conference with Stewart, and he currently has the 10th most home runs ever for a Wake Forest freshman with a month remaining in the season. Both Grant Shambley and Evan Stephens do fantastic jobs of getting on base, as both rank in the top ten in the ACC in batting percentage, while Stephens ranks third in the NCAA in walks and with one more walk will vault into the top ten in Wake history for most walks in a career with 106.

The weather looks to be nice this weekend with the potential for some rain on Saturday, but all three games should be played by the time Florida State heads back to Tallahassee. This is without a doubt the biggest series of the season up to this point for the Diamond Deacs and the performance over the previous two months has put Wake in a position to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid. With a series win this weekend Wake would be firmly on the bubble and with a sweep would almost certainly be in the tournament were the season to end on Sunday.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, it is critical that the Deacs avoid a home sweep to keep their head above water. While grabbing just one of three games is not the best case scenario, the Seminoles are an incredibly talented team with national title aspirations. A sweep would be horrendous for the Deacs, almost forcing a sweep later in the year over Virginia in the season finale or an ACC Tournament title to snag Wake a place in the field of 64.

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