Wake Forest Baseball: Duke Series Preview

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

The Demon Deacons host the Duke Blue Devils in a critical weekend series.

The Wake Forest baseball team returns to action this weekend with a three-game series against the recently surging Duke Blue Devils in Winston-Salem. Wake enters Friday night’s opener coming off of a difficult-to-swallow 12-4 loss on the road to a struggling Charlotte team, while the Blue Devils beat UNCG 2-0 in the midweek game and have won six straight and eight of nine over the past three weeks. Despite the midweek loss, Wake currently sits at 26-18 (12-9 ACC) while Duke is 25-17 (12-9 ACC). The two teams are tied for fifth in the ACC and each seeking a critical series win with only two more conference series remaining before the ACC Tournament. 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.

Duke’s success has been primarily based upon the consistency of their pitching staff. Boasting a 2.88 ERA over the course of the season and ranking second in the ACC in strikeouts per game with 8.75, the Blue Devils have shut out opponents in two consecutive games and have outscored opponents 42-17 over their current six game streak.

Wake on the other hand, has struggled to get the bats going over the past couple of weeks and have scored five runs or fewer in 10 of the previous thirteen games. Despite these offensive woes, the top of the lineup has been strong as leadoff hitter Evan Stephens and traditional two-hole guy Grant Shambley both rank in the top ten of the ACC in on-base percentage. These higher on-base percentages are primarily due to the discerning eye of these two hitters, a trend which also carries over to the rest of the team as the Deacs rank fifth in the nation in walks drawn.

Freshman Will Craig has provided a much-needed spark for the Diamond Deacs on nearly every front as his offensive firepower and pitching prowess have both given depth to the Wake Forest roster. With his eighth home run in Tuesday night’s series’ opening win over Charlotte, Craig regained his spot atop the ACC in home runs and ranks ninth all-time in Wake Forest history for home runs hit by a freshman. While he typically plays the hot corner, Craig has been called in to provide pitching support several times over the past week including a start against on Sunday against Florida State in the series finale. On the season he has pitched 11 innings and allowed  five runs.

This weekend’s series against Duke provides both teams with an opportunity to virtually clinch a spot in the ACC Tournament. With the two teams tied for fifth, one game ahead of Georgia Tech for sixth, the Diamond Deacs and Blue Devils would both advance directly to pool play in the Tournament as a top six team in the conference. However, the loser of the series this weekend will be squarely on the cut-off for a one game winner-take-all play-in game that the seven through ten seeds are required to play to make it to the Tournament’s pool play.

Friday’s opener pairs Wake Forest righty Jack Fischer (4-4, 3.07 ERA) against Duke’s Drew Van Orden (3-3, 3.21 ERA). Fischer went eight innings in his last outing against Florida State and has gone eight-plus innings in five of six conference starts. Van Orden threw seven innings against Virginia Tech last week, giving up only one run on two hits but getting a no-decision for his efforts.

The Wake rotation is mixed up slightly on Saturday following traditional second-starter John McLeod’s hand injury against Florida State. In place of McLeod, Wake will send sophomore Garrett Kelly (1-1, 2.81 ERA) to the mound to make his first start of the season. Kelly will likely not be in for long as his longest outing thus far is 2.2 innings last weekend against Florida State.  Kelly will face off against Duke lefty Trent Swart (3-1, 0.93 ERA). Swart has started six games this year but only thrown a total of 29 innings. Over his previous three starts, all in conference play, Swart has pitched ten scoreless innings while giving up only seven total hits.

Due to McLeod’s injury and the switch in the rotation, Wake does not have a projected starter for Sunday but it can be surmised that either Will Craig or Connor Kaden will get the nod. Both midweek starters, Johnstone and McCaren, struggled at times with their command and are unlikely to get the ball in a critical series finale. Duke will pitch Michael Matuella (1-1, 1.59 ERA) who has made seven starts, including a gem in the Sunday finale against Virginia Tech last week which featured 8.2 shutout innings while only allowing four hits and fanning seven.

For Wake to win the series the bats will need to come alive and the bullpen will need to continue their weekend consistency. While the Diamond Deacs have gotten the requisite outs with relative ease throughout conference play, the midweek performances have left a lot to be desired. With McLeod unable to go on Saturday there will be even more pressure on the bullpen to perform. Closer Aaron Fossas, perhaps the best option in the Wake pen, was named to the NCBWA Stopper of the Year Watch List this week and has ten saves to go along with a 2.65 ERA in 22 appearances.

The weather for Friday’s opener is ominous with thunderstorms expected to roll through the region throughout the day. While Wake Forest Baseball Park does use turf, making it easier to get the field ready for play after rain, the thunder and lightning pose a threat that not even the turf can make up for. If Friday’s game is rained out, it is unclear when the game would be made up as Wake Forest has their spring game for football on Saturday afternoon at 2. This may force a doubleheader to Sunday, rather than the traditional Saturday doubleheader, to avoid an overlap in the events.

With a series win the Deacs will be very well-positioned for ACC Tournament play, but a sweep may be necessary to vault the team back to the same position it was before the midweek loss to Charlotte for NCAA Tournament contention. With an RPI lingering in the mid-50’s the Diamond Deacs need to reel off some wins and they need to start now if they want to make postseason play.

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