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Baseball Preview: No. 17 Wake Forest @ No. 2 Louisville

The Diamond Deacs head north for a critical ACC series against highly ranked Louisville.

The Wake Forest baseball team stands for the National Anthem before the Elon game.
Dean Shore

Wake Forest, ranked 17th in the nation by Baseball America, travels to Kentucky to take on the second-ranked Louisville Cardinals in a three game series at Patterson Stadium.

Wake Forest enters the series at 22-8 (8-4), while Louisville comes in with an impressive 25-3 (10-2). Louisville will be one of the toughest challenges the Deacs face this year, and is one of Wake’s three remaining road series in conference play.

Wake has never beaten Louisville in baseball, as the Cardinals hold a 7-0 series advantage. They played four times last year, and Louisville won all four games, including a sweep in Winston-Salem by a 21-7 total margin. Wake then fell in the ACC Tournament by a 9-5 score.

The Cardinals are coached by Dan McDonnell, currently in his 11th season. Louisville is undefeated at home this season, sporting a ridiculous 18-0 record (along with a 37 game winning streak at home during the regular season) while Wake Forest is 8-4 on the road. Louisville’s last regular season loss at Patterson Stadium was March 25, 2016 to Virginia.

Louisville is 5-1 against teams currently in the top 50 of the RPI and 10-2 against top 100 teams. They have won all four conference series, dropping games against N.C. State and Virginia. Their only other loss was to Cincinnati, who is 14-14 and 134th in the RPI. For comparison, Wake is 3-3 against top 50 teams and 12-6 against teams in the top 100.

Last Time Out

Louisville knocked off in-state rival and top-ten Kentucky by a 5-3 margin on Tuesday. The series against Wake will mark their fifth, sixth, and seventh consecutive games against top 15 RPI teams. Louisville is 3-1 in the last four games.

Meanwhile, Wake Forest destroyed Elon by a 14-1 margin which featured freshman Nick DiPonzio hitting two home runs in the same inning, including a grand slam as well as a fantastic effort by the Wake pitching staff - striking out 18 total batters. The Deacs were supposed to travel to Elon on Wednesday to square off with the Phoenix again, but the game was moved to next Wednesday due to weather. Wake still has not lost a midweek game this year.

Wake has won eight of their last ten games, with the two losses coming to Georgia Tech and Miami.

Starters (Wake listed first)

Friday (6 P.M.) - RHP Parker Dunshee (5-1, 4.43 ERA) vs. LHP Brendan McKay (4-1, 1.18 ERA)

Saturday (1 P.M.)- RHP Donnie Sellers (3-2, 3.60 ERA) vs. RHP Kade McClure (3-1, 2.87 ERA)

Sunday (1 P.M.) - RHP Connor Johnstone (3-0, 3.32) vs. LHP Nick Bennett (3-0, 1.53 ERA)

One of the best surprises for the Demon Deacons so far this season has been the performance of the weekend starters. Dunshee has picked up where he left off last season as the Friday starter and the Deacs are 5-2 in his starts this year (only losses were to Houston in the opener and Georgia Tech, in a game where Dunshee left with the lead).

While the Deacs are only 1-3 on Saturday games in conference play, it has not been because of the performance of local pitcher Donnie Sellers who has solidified his position as a weekend starter while holding batters to a .243 batting average. Sellers has only allowed three earned runs in his previous two starts. A large part of his success on the mound has been limiting the number of walks issued, as opposing teams have only drawn nine walks across 40 innings.

Wake will throw Connor Johnstone on Sunday, the reigning co-pitcher of the week in the ACC, who is coming off a three hit complete game shutout against Miami. Johnstone has gone at least six innings in five of his seven starts this year and has two complete game shut outs. He has come up big in conference play as the Deacs have won every single rubber match of the year (4-0).

Batting

As discussed in the Elon preview earlier this week, it’s likely that manage Tom Walter sticks with the same lineup that he has used for the bulk of the season. This is an absolutely potent offense that ranks second in the country in home runs, behind only Virginia Tech, and third in the nation in runs, behind Jackson State and Tennessee Tech. Wake has also been able to rake on the road, hitting 24 home runs away from Winston-Salem which is good enough for second in the nation.

The Deacs are averaging 8.7 runs a game this year, up from 6.3 runs just a season ago. Individually, Gavin Sheets is second in the country in RBI’s with 44 and the Deacs have five players in the top 50 nationally in home runs.

Louisville’s pitching staff will provide a tough test for the Demon Deacon offense though and something is going to break. Each of the three starters for the Cardinals have a sub-3.00 ERA and the “worst” of the three has a 2.87 ERA. Given the solid performances of the weekend starters, it’s no surprise that Louisville is fourth in the nation with a 2.34 ERA as a team.

Here’s the Deacons’ expected batting order:

  1. Jonathan Pryor (LF)
  2. Jake Mueller (2B)
  3. Stuart Fairchild (CF)
  4. Gavin Sheets (1B)
  5. Ben Breazeale (C)
  6. Johnny Aiello (3B)
  7. Bruce Steel (SS)
  8. Keegan Maronpot (RF)
  9. Logan Harvey (DH)

Around The ACC

Other series around the ACC this weekend are:

North Carolina @ Boston College

Georgia Tech @ Notre Dame

Florida State @ N.C. State

Pittsburgh @ Virginia

Virginia Tech @ Clemson

Duke @ Miami (Saturday through Monday)

Atlantic Standings

1. Louisville 25-3 (10-2)

2. Clemson 25-5 (10-2)

3. Wake Forest 22-8 (8-4)

4. Florida State 20-11 (6-6)

5. N.C. State 16-14 (5-7)

6. Notre Dame 10-17 (4-8)

7. Boston College 9-17 (1-11)

The division standings indicate how big a series this really is for Wake if the Deacs want to stay in contention for a division or conference title. Wake gets a bit of a bad break in that it gets the other three top teams in the division on the road, while playing the bottom three teams on the road.

If the season ended today, Wake would be the four seed in the ACC tournament. We will have more coverage on the new format of the ACCT (hosted, unfortunately, by Louisville) as the season progresses.

Louisville is one of the best teams in the nation and is a legitimate national championship contender. When you combine their ability at the plate with their starting rotation, headlined on both sides by phenom Brendan McKay - widely regarded to be a top ten pick in the upcoming MLB draft - this is likely the toughest test Wake will face all year.

While I generally frown upon moral victories, it would be far more than simply a “moral” win to avoid a sweep on the road and get a big road win against a top 5 opponent. If the Deacs are able to win this series, they will vault up the national rankings and be a top 10 team with half the conference season left.

Both Baseball America and D1 Baseball issued their first NCAA Regional “bracketology” of the season this week and the Deacs are slated to host a region based on where they currently stand. The top 16 teams in the country get to host. Winning this series would go a long way in entrenching Wake as a potential regional host and would catapult the Deacs onto the national scene - perhaps getting some press as a potential Omaha-bound College World Series team.

There’s a lot of baseball left to be played this year, but this is one of Wake’s biggest baseball series in the last decade - if not longer. Let’s get some runs Deacs.

The games are all available on ACCN Extra, which is available WatchESPN/ESPN3. If you want to watch the games, they should all be available to stream through your ISP.