Baseball is, by its very nature, a fickle sport. There is a lot of variance in any one game and the old mantra that “anyone can beat anyone one time,” while true in any sport, is particularly true in baseball where the likelihood of the worse team winning is quite high in one game.
With this in mind, a double-elimination tournament with your season on the line provides a daunting task for any team - even if you are the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, playing at home, as the best overall team in a four-team region. In order to maximize the Deacs’ ability to advance, manager Tom Walter will be faced with many tactical decisions about when to use pitchers, when to save arms for another day, and perhaps when to close up shop on a game and focus attention to not playing yourself out of the tournament in the future by investing too much in one game.
The teams who will advance to the Super Regionals across the country will have a mix of talent, skill, and yes, luck, but a lot of “luck” is simply of a team’s own making. With this in mind, there are a few interesting decisions that Wake will make over the course of the regional. Let’s take a look at a few:
Starting Pitching Matchups
Perhaps no other single issue can impact how well a team does in a jam-packed double-elimination weekend than how a team manages its pitching. This begins with the first decision that a team must make.
For the Deacs, who play their first matchup after the West Virginia-Maryland game has been played, and against UMBC - the team generally regarded to be the worst of the four in the region - this first choice basically provides two options: Connor Johnstone or Donnie Sellers.
While Parker Dunshee, the Friday starter for the last two seasons, sits atop the starting rotation, Walter is not going to throw Dunshee game one. This makes sense for two reasons: first, Wake does not want to throw their best pitcher against the team generally regarded to be the worst in the subregion and relatedly, second, Wake wants Dunshee to make his start in the game that is going to produce the highest leverage situations related to Wake winning the region.
With a win against UMBC, Wake is guaranteed to play at least three games which will provide a start for each of the three normal starting pitchers. My personal preference is throw Sellers against UMBC, Dunshee against the winner of the West Virginia-Maryland game, and then Johnstone on Sunday in what will either be an elimination game or a chance to clinch the region. If Wake goes 3-0 they move on.
If Wake ends up needing to pitch four or five games to advance, I would expect to see Drew Loepprich start a fourth game with John McCarren and Morgan McSweeney tasked with providing a couple solid innings a piece. Wake’s lack of meaningful pitching depth last year was the downfall after Dunshee threw a gem to beat Minnesota in the opening game and this year’s squad is vastly improved in this area. However, to move on to the Super Regionals Wake is going to need the back end of the starting rotation, as well as the middle-inning guys to step up and get outs.
This is related to the first decision - of who to start and when - but with so many games crammed into a weekend, when bullpen guys come in for an inning or two (or even a couple outs) is both impacted by, and heavily impacts, when they can be used again throughout the weekend.
Wake has three guys from the bullpen who I expect to see called in to pitch in high-leverage situations throughout the weekend: Griffin Roberts, Chris Farish, and Colin Peluse. These situations include coming in to record an out or two with runners on after the starter comes out, coming in to throw a clean frame with a one or two run lead, or coming in for the 8th or 9th inning to lock down a save and secure a Demon Deacon win.
While each of these guys is capable of throwing more than one inning, I wouldn’t expect to see any of them for more than three or four outs at a time and in a perfect world Wake will not have to use any of these guys at all in the first game against UMBC. If the Deacon offense can get on the board against the Retrievers and stretch the game out, Wake can rely on some pitching from the backend of the bullpen. Even if UMBC can scrape across a couple runs in a 10-2 game with nine outs left - this provides Wake a better opportunity to advance as the weekend goes on since the high-leverage guys aren’t going to be tired out working on consecutive days.
I expect the plan in what is hopefully the winner’s game on Saturday, to be the same as the game plan was against Miami: Dunshee for 7 innings or so and the Roberts from there on out. Given Roberts’ struggles against Miami, Walter may be more inclined to leave Dunshee in for another inning than he otherwise might, or might also look to Farish or Peluse first so that Roberts only needs to get three outs.
Despite some erratic pitching at times, I firmly believe that Roberts is a top two or three pitcher on this squad and is a guy that can be counted on to close out games in the NCAA Tournament.
Getting the Bats Alive
This isn’t so much a strategic analysis, but is more of a straightforward issue in that Wake’s greatest strength is their offense. This is a team who has hit over 95 homers on the season and has one of the highest-powered offenses in the country. Wake can make everything a lot easier on themselves, and their pitching, by getting the bats going early and often against UMBC to ride a wave into the weekend.
The Deacs stranded 17 runners against Miami in their loss at the ACC Tournament last week, and I certainly do not anticipate that this will happen again. While this may be some cause for concern for some, I actually take the opposite view: Wake was getting hits, drawing walks, and getting guys on but just couldn’t get those timely hits to add runs to the board. The timing of hits ebb and flow and Wake should bounce back this weekend and light up the scoreboard consistently.
It’s going to be an exciting weekend for Wake baseball - for both the team and the fans. A large part of advancing is playing the odds right, getting a little bit lucky, and making the right decisions from a managerial perspective with the weekend as a whole in mind, rather than simply one game.
We will have some predictions up later this week as we get closer to game time, but I expect the Diamond Deacs to take care of business with a superior offense, a stellar pitching staff, and a manager who has proven he has a nose for winning in Winston-Salem.
Let’s get it done Deacs.