With the Wake Forest basketball team struggling and the football team done for the 2015 sports year (although spring football is almost here), the main focus for Wake fans should shift to some other sports which might not normally get as much attention from the Demon Deacon faithful. One of these sports is baseball, where head coach Tom Walter has positioned the Diamond Deacs to put together a run at the NCAA Regionals this year in hopes of ending an eight-year postseason drought.
In the 2015 season, the Deacs finished 27-26 (12-18 ACC) but were in a solid place to make a run at the NCAA Tournament at the end of March before plummeting to an 8-16 overall finish which included winning only two of the last six conference series. While the early season is not necessarily a make-or-break time for postseason hopes, the Deacs have four relatively easy games to start the season.
First up, tonight at 6 P.M., Wake takes on Georgetown in Winston-Salem. The Deacons hosted Georgetown a couple seasons ago and knocked the Hoyas off 3-2 in a tightly contested game.After the Hoyas, Wake will take on UMBC on Saturday, VMI on Sunday, and Davidson on Tuesday to wrap up the early homestand. Wake has a perfect 12-0 all-time record against Georgetown, VMI and UMBC. Hopefully Wake can get started with a 4-0 record before heading out west to take on Southern California in a very intriguing early-season matchup for the Diamond Deacs.
The Demon Deacon roster is stocked with returning talent, most notably junior Will Craig who was crowned the 2015 ACC Player of the Year as a sophomore. Craig, a two-way player who will still be relied on this year on the mound as well as at the plate, batted .382 last season with 13 home runs and 58 RBIs - all of which led the team. In addition to being the player of the year in a stacked ACC (which of course featured the eventual national champion Virginia), Craig was named to almost every single First Team All-American list imaginable and was named to most preseason First Team All-American lists for the upcoming season. Craig spent a lot of time at first base last year but appears to be sliding over to third for his junior year.
In addition to Craig's firepower, junior Nate Mondou was picked as a Second Team All-American by D1 Baseball at second base. Last season Mondou hit .338 with 10 homers and 57 RBIs. Mondou was named to the Third Team All-American list last year and if last season is any indication we should expect to see Mondou batting in the three slot, right in front of Craig at cleanup. With Mondou and Craig back-to-back in the lineup, opposing pitchers will have a daunting first inning ahead of them for the bulk of the year as one early mistake allows Craig to get to the plate potentially for an extra time in the game.
The Deacs also return sophomore outfielder Stuart Fairchild, who was picked by several news outlets as freshman All-American just one year ago. Fairchild helped anchor the offense by batting .349 with 41 RBIs and 12 stolen bases. If Fairchild can rake at the same rate he did a season ago, he will provide the Demon Deacon offense with a much-needed extra bat in the middle of the lineup and should help make the Demom Deacon offense one of the tops in the ACC, if not the entire NCAA.
On the other side of the ball, the Diamond Deacs appear to be set to turn to a trio of juniors - at least at the start of the year - to try and get the job done on the mound. The opening day starter tonight will be junior Parker Dunshee who went 5-3 last year with a 2.89 ERA. Dunshee was shuffled around a bit last year, pitching both as a starter and in spot relief appearances throughout the year. As a reminder, in college baseball you generally will want to find three solid guys to be "weekend starters" for conference play while other guys in the rotation will get spot starts in the middle of the week against non-conference competition.
Dunshee appears to be slated in as the Friday starter for the beginning of the year and there's no reason to believe that he will lose that spot if he performs well in the heavy OOC portion of the schedule. Junior Connor Johnstone will get the ball on Saturday against UMBC at 4 P.M. Johnstone went 2-4 with a 6.36 ERA with 9 starts and 19 total appearances. Notably, Johnstone became a consistent weekend starter towards the end of last season and is expected to maintain that role.
The final starter for this weekend's series, on Sunday at 2 P.M. against Georgetown, will be the aforementioned Will Craig who went 3-4 on the mound last year with a 6.09 ERA. He is on the preseason watch list for the John Olerud Award, which is given annually to the top two-way player in the country.
Two freshmen who Demon Deacon fans should be sure to keep an eye on is infielder Johnny Aiello, the 71st best recruit in the class according to Perfect Game, and infielder Jake Mueller, rated as the 426th best recruit in his class by Perfect Game. Aiello has previously had Tommy John surgery, but is widely expected to contribute for the Deacs this year. Similarly, Mueller is likely to see some playing time particularly earlier in the season. Mueller's defense was commended on multiple occasions in high school as the righty was named a three-time gold glove winner for the state of South Carolina at shortstop.
Overall, the Diamond Deacs should be exciting and fun to watch this year. Despite being picked to finish 6th by ACC coaches in an absolutely stacked Atlantic Division, Wake is likely to be a bubble team for the NCAA Regionals at the end of the year. Quite frankly, I expect Wake to finish in at least fourth and possibly fifth in the division. In order to make the NCAA Regionals a reality, Wake will likely need to hit the 35 wins plateau and take care of business in the mid-week non-conference games, a spot where the Deacs have struggled at times over the past few years.
Despite a relatively easy start this weekend, Wake's schedule quickly ramps up as the Deacs head to southern California to play....well, Southern California in a three-game tilt next weekend. USC is ranked in the top 25 by four of the major six college baseball publications and it will be a serious road test early in the year for Wake. After this series though the Deacs return to Winston where they play their next five games in a row - all against relatively poor competition. Through the first 12 games of the year, Wake will want to have at least 8 or 9 wins to feel good heading into a five-game stretch against nationally ranked Coastal Carolina (two road games) and the opening conference series (in Winston) against Clemson. If Wake could get off to a 10-2 start they would be very well positioned moving forward.
Over the course of the season Blogger So Dear will be providing weekly updates at the least and will likely have game threads for most of the contests. The weather is projected to be great in Winston-Salem this weekend so if you're around, get out to see the Diamond Deacs kick off their season as you have three great chances. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns let us know and we will try our best to answer them. And as always, go Deacs.