Will Craig returned to the Wake Forest lineup for the first full three game series in conference play, and the Deacs promptly took two of three against the Blue Devils over the weekend to get a much needed series victory. Wake followed up the series win over Duke with a 4-3 win over in-state rival Elon on Tuesday night, kicking off an eight-game road trip with a victory.
The Deacs got off to a fast start on Friday night in Winston-Salem, hanging eight runs on the hapless Devils in the first inning en route to a 12-0 beatdown. It was the largest conference win for the Deacs since the 2010 season, since a win over Maryland. Will Craig, Joey Rodriguez, and Stuart Fairchild all recorded two RBI's, while Fairchild went 4-5 at the plate, including his second home run of the season. Starter Parker Dunshee threw six innings of shutout ball while allowing only four hits and pushing his record to 4-2 on the season with a 3.32 ERA.
Wake returned to David Couch Ballpark on Saturday and clinched the series over a struggling Duke team by eeking out a 3-2 win in the 10th inning on a wild pitch. Duke twice held the lead, striking first in the third to go up 1-0, and going back ahead in the 4th 2-1 after Wake tied things up in the bottom half of the third on a Joey Rodriguez RBI single up the middle. The score remained 2-1 entering the bottom of the 8th when Craig led off the inning by drilling a 1-1 pitch over the left field wall to knot the game at 2. The home run was Craig's 8th of the season.
After closer Donnie Sellers recorded five outs in the 9th and 10th, Wake pushed the game winning run across in the first extra inning when a wild pitch with the bases loaded brought Nate Mondou home for the 3-2 Wake victory. Starter Connor Johnstone threw 7 solid innings, allowing two runs on 8 hits.
The Deacs entered Sunday looking for a series sweep of the Blue Devils and trying to get their conference record above .500. Despite a solid tandem effort from starter Drew Loepprich and long reliever John McCarren, who combined to allow only three runs on four hits through 6.2 innings the Diamond Deacs were not able to get their bats going and dropped the finale 3-2.
Wake had a fantastic chance in the 8th inning to bring in the tying or leading run, but ultimately could only push one run across and stranded runners on second and third. The Deacs mustered a two out single in the 9th but could not get the run in and fell 3-2. .
Wake returned to action on Tuesday night to begin an eight-game road trip when they faced Elon, a team struggling to find a win. The Phoenix pushed across two unearned runs in the second inning against a makeshift pitching rotation where no Demon Deacon threw more than two total innings.
Wake responded with a run in the third when a double play with nobody out scored a run from third. The game remained 2-1 until the 7th inning when Wake regained the lead for good behind a sacrifice fly and yet another wild pitch to put the Deacs up 3-2. Craig tacked on his ninth home run of the season in the 8th for an insurance run and despite a 9th inning rally, Donnie Sellers recorded his third save of the year despite giving up a run and Wake held on for a 4-3 win.
By taking three of the last four the Deacs maintained their pace which at present has them firmly in the mix for an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament. Wake currently sits at 17-10 on the season with a 4-5 record in ACC play. One site which projects the regional teams, College Sports Madness, has the Deacs as the fifth team out of the tournament at present (while I've used the site before for regional projections I really have no idea how solid a job they do - merely using this as an early projection for where Wake might find themselves if the season ended today).
While the NCAA Tournament is the ultimate goal for this team, Wake first needs to set their sets on making it into the ACC Tournament - no small task in a conference absolutely stacked like the ACC is. The top 10 teams will advance to the tournament in Durham with the 7 through 10 seeds playing a "play-in" game to get into pool play where three more games would then be guaranteed.
Warren Nolan currently projects the Deacs to finish the season at 74th in the RPI with the 34th hardest schedule in the nation. The site also does conference projections and has the Deacs slated to finish 30-26 overall (12-18 ACC). If these projections were correct for every ACC team, the Deacs would be one of the final three teams into the conference tournament.
More immediately for the Deacs, they need to take care of business away from home over the next couple of weeks. Despite a solid 13-4 home record (inflated by soft competition outside of conference play), Wake is only 4-6 on the road and has six of their next seven total games against conference competition. The Deacs first travel to South Bend to take on a Notre Dame team who is currently tied with Wake at 4-5 in the conference. Both teams will be viewing this as a must win series and for Wake it is even more critical as the next three weekends take the Deacs to Raleigh to play a tough N.C. State team (ranked 17th by D1Baseball) before coming back to Winston to take on FSU (ranked 9th) and UNC (ranked 7th). If the Deacs drop this series to the Irish, the chances of making the ACC Tournament are certainly in jeopardy.
The good news for Wake fans is a healthy Will Craig appears to make a huge difference for the Deacs. While this is a small sample size, Wake is 4-1 in conference play with Craig in the lineup and 0-4 without him. Craig missed a few games a couple weeks back after he tweaked his oblique pitching in the conference opener against Clemson. One major recurring issue for the Deacs is an inability to runs on the board which has primarily manifested itself in Wake being unable to get hits with runners in scoring position. While the Deacs hung 12 on Duke in the series opener last Friday, the offense was widely considered to be Wake's strongest suit and the Deacs have frequently been sputtering over the past three games even against relatively sub-par opposition pitching.
Here's the weekend schedule for Wake in South Bend:
Friday - 6:05 first pitch
Saturday - 4:05 first pitch
Sunday - 1:05 first pitch
At present it does not appear that there will be any viewing options, but if any become available we will keep readers updated. Similarly, while Dunshee is almost a lock to get the ball tomorrow and it is likely that Johnstone will get the nod Saturday, McCarron's strong appearance in relief for Loepprich in Sunday's season finale might see McCarron get the nod for the final start on Sunday against the Irish. That's speculation on my part, but also something to keep an eye on.
If you have any questions or comments about Wake baseball or anything else please let us know below and as always, go Deacs!