Fresh off an NCAA regional appearance in 2016, the Wake Forest baseball team is ready to start the season back in the same state it ended the last one: Texas. The season begins on Friday against the Nicholls Colonials at 3:00 (EST) before a quick turnaround to square off against the host of this weekend event at Schroeder Park, the Houston Cougars, at 7:30 (EST).
As manager Tom Walter enters his 8th season in Winston-Salem, the 2017 version of the Diamond Deacs likely has more hype entering the year than any previous Walter squad. Led by ace Parker Dunshee returning for his senior season despite being drafted in the 14th round by the World Series champion Chicago Cubs (had to throw that in there!), there is reason for optimism for all Wake baseball fans. Dunshee is projected as a top 10 senior in college baseball this season and is expected to compete for a spot on an All-American team.
Dunshee is not the only Wake player expected to make a splash nationally, as junior outfielder Stuart Fairchild (two-time all-ACC player already) was named to a host of preseason All-American lists as well and was recently named to the initial watch list for the Golden Spikes Award, which honors the top amateur baseball player in America. Fairchild will be a critical part of Wake’s attempt on offense to replace the bats of Will Craig and Nate Mondou, who both left for the majors after phenomenal 2016 seasons.
The two critical questions for the Deacs entering the year revolve around filling in gaps left from last season or attempting to remedy problems that arose on a consistent basis: (1) will the Deacs be able to find a slew of weekend starters to support Dunshee and (2) as mentioned earlier, will the Deacs be able to replace the lost bats that formed the core of a potent offense which really was the driving force in Wake making it to the NCAA’s?
The general thought from the media to these questions, and the Wake team at large, appears to be “yes.” The Deacs received votes in both the NCBWA (top 35 teams were ranked) and Collegiate Baseball (top 40 teams were ranked) polls. Baseball America, which I believe provides the best college baseball coverage out there, also has Wake slated into the NCAA Tournament in its preseason projections - as a three seed in the South Carolina bracket.
The ACC is once again loaded, with: Clemson, Louisville, North Carolina, Florida State, Miami, and N.C. State all ranked in most polls to start the year. Last month, the ACC media selected FSU to win both the Atlantic Division as well as the conference overall. The Deacs were picked to finish fifth in the Atlantic, behind FSU, Louisville, Clemson, and N.C. State. Wake finished sixth in the Atlantic last year at 13-17, but was able to make both the ACC and NCAA Tournament from that position.
Wake will play four games to begin the season in Houston, two against Nicholls and two against Houston - all at Houston’s baseball complex. Earlier this week Walter announced the four starters for the weekend: Connor Johnstone (v. Nicholls); Parker Dunshee (v. Houston); John McCarren (v. Nicholls on Sat.); and Donnie Sellers (v. Houston on Sun.).
While these spots are likely not set in stone for the rest of the season, it seems that the top two guys in Walter’s eyes as of right now will be Dunshee and Sellers, as they face the tougher task in Houston this weekend. Obviously Dunshee is the ace and will get most Friday starts in conference play barring a change in Walter’s strategy over the years, but in college baseball you still need two other starters who can go on the weekends against top-level ACC competition.
It was also announced last week, by Les over at Scout (who I highly recommend for all things Deacon sports, but particularly his baseball coverage - $$$ article) that sophomore right-hander Griffin Roberts would be tasked with closing out games this year. Roberts struck out 18 batters over 15.2 innings last season and has a fast ball that can get up to 95.
The short-term outlook for Wake is to get through this weekend with at least three wins. Nicholls was not a tournament team last year and appears by all accounts to be a traditional early season OOC game where Wake should come away with two victories. On the other hand, Houston will be playing at home, is ranked in the top 40 of a couple major polls, and was selected as the Omaha Sleeper team to make the CWS by two writers at Baseball America. Getting a split with Houston on the road and sweeping Nicholls would be a great start for the Deacs.
Following the four-game road trip to start the year, Wake will come back to North Carolina for a nine-game home stand beginning on Tuesday against UNCG. Southern California will then come into town next weekend for a three-game series after Wake headed out to the west coast last year. The Deacs will wrap up that homestand with five games against Davidson, Radford (x2), and Kent State (x2). Of these teams, Kent State likely poses the greatest threat as they are fresh off of a 44-14 record although they were left out of the NCAA Tournament following a loss in the MAC title game to Western Michigan. After this road trip, the Deacs will take a trip to Myrtle Beach where they’ll square off against defending national champions Coastal Carolina in what promises to be a fun matchup.
We will have more coverage this season of the Wake baseball team as the year unfolds, and would like to have weekly/weekend updates on where the team stands as well as offer up some analysis. Specifically, next week look for a recap of the opening weekend and a road map of the schedule and the season ahead, looking at what Wake will need to do to make it back to postseason play.
If anyone has any questions or comments about the team, let us know below and we’ll do our best to answer. It’s always exciting to get a new season underway, particularly when there is some hype surrounding the preseason. Let’s get some wins Deacs!