The Wake Forest Demon Deacon baseball team took a shot to the face in the first inning against the West Virginia Mountaineers in what turned into a heavyweight battle between two top 30 teams looking to grab the inside track in the Winston-Salem regional.
With senior ace Parker Dunshee on the mound, who was drafted in the 14th round of the 2016 MLB Draft and decided to return to Winston-Salem for his final year, the Mountaineers were able to land the first blow with a leadoff double, an RBI single, and a two-run shot from Jackson Cramer to grab a 3-0 lead before the prolific Diamond Deacon offense ever had its first crack at WVU freshman pitcher Isaiah Kearns.
When Wake did come to the plate, Kearns showed no fear at all - striking out Jonathan Pryor and Jake Muller right out of the gate before getting Stuart Fairchild to fly out to center field to maintain West Virginia’s three-run lead through one.
With their confidence building before a contingency of loud Mountaineer fans who made the trip to Winston-Salem, West Virginia again started the inning off with a double and had runners on the corners with two outs looking to add to their lead. But in true Dunshee fashion, he induced a grounder to third to get out of the inning and from there was in exquisite form - settled down after a bit of a nervy start and prepared to navigate through a dangerous West Virginia lineup with relative ease.
Dunshee allowed a total of six hits and three runs in seven innings, with four of the hits coming in the first two frames. He walked only one batter, in the second inning, and struck out five Mountaineers limiting their ability to get any momentum going offensively after their first time through the lineup. Despite almost throwing 100 pitches through the first six innings, manager Tom Walter sent Dunshee back out for the 7th inning where he was able to put the Mountaineers down in 1-2-3 order while still hitting nearly 90 mph with his fastball even with the long outing and warm North Carolina June night.
With Dunshee tuned in on the mound after a shaky first few outs, it was up to the Demon Deacon offense to do what they had done all year: work the zone, look for good pitches, and punish mistakes made by Kearns on the mound.
The Deacs looked good starting the third when Bruce Steel walked on four pitches, but an uncharacteristic error on the bases resulted in a double play when Steel was doubled off at first after a Keegan Maronpot fly ball. Wake put their first runner in scoring position with the next batter - on a ball that surely would have scored Steel from first - when Logan Harvey doubled on a 1-0 pitch to right field, but Harvey was then picked off at second base by Kearns to end the inning; the second mental mistake of the inning for the Deacon offense.
After the Deacs stranded two runners in the fourth following a walk by Fairchild and Gavin Sheets getting hit by a pitch, Kearns finally made his first big mistake in the fifth inning. After Johnny Aiello hit the first pitch of the inning off the centerfield wall for a double, Kearns had Steel on a 1-2 pitcher’s count but had trouble getting on the same page with Ivan Gonzalez behind the plate, and stepped off the mound following a long pause while examining Gonzalez’s signs.
The very next pitch was a breaker that was right down the zone and Steel punished Kearns for the location by turning on it and drilling it over the left-center wall to put Wake on the board and energize what was, at times, a raucous crowd in Winston-Salem.
This was the end of the night for Kearns, who had an impressive appearance with just one major mistake: the lethal one to Steel on his last pitch of the game. He walked two, struck out four, and allowed only two runs on three hits in four innings of work. For a depleted West Virginia rotation, Kearns acted as a stopgap and staked the Mountaineers out with a 3-2 lead when he left. This was truly something to be proud of for the freshman and West Virginia has a solid young arm in him moving forward.
While WVU continued to struggle at the plate against Dunshee as the night wore on, the Wake bats were finally beginning to, well, wake up. Fairchild singled up the middle in the 6th and stole second for the second time in the game to put the tying run in scoring position and Ben Breazeale walked before Aiello chased a nasty 0-2 breaker off the outside corner of the plate from Sam Kessler putting Wake down to its last nine outs, trailing 3-2 entering the 7th inning.
The Diamond Deacs were finally able to break through with a two-out rally and bring the game square for the first time since the game started. With the Deacs struggling against Kessler and his off-speed command, Steel and Maronpot both went down swinging to begin the inning before Harvey walked on four straight pitches against a visibly frustrated Kessler. West Virginia opted to pull Kessler with a runner on first and bring in utility man and designated hitter Braden Zarbnisky to face the top of the order with two outs.
In what was a great battle, Pryor turned on a 2-2 pitch and nearly sent it over the wall in left center. Harvey motored around the bases and scored from first and just like that the Deacs were back even after playing seven innings of catch up. Mueller and Fairchild then both drew walks off of Zarbnisky, who struggled to find the zone at times, but with Sheets up and the bases loaded, he buckled down and got Sheets on a 1-2 pitch to end the inning.
Any notion of trouble that Wake fans may have had with the game plan of bringing closer Griffin Roberts in for a two-inning save after Dunshee worked seven innings, following Roberts’ blown save in the same situation against Miami last week at the ACC Tournament, was surely only exacerbated when the sometimes erratic, but always exciting, Roberts allowed a single to start the inning and then threw a wild pitch to allow Rodriguez into scoring position after only two pitches.
But from there Roberts availed himself and was able to eradicate any demons that may have been lingering around by showing why he was out there in the first place: his absolutely dominant ability to pound the zone with an absurd slider in the low-80’s while keeping hitters off balance with a fastball that works from 90 to 95 mph and can touch 97. He worked around hitting Austin by striking out the side and never allowing Rodriguez to get off of second base.
In the 8th, Wake again put two runners in scoring position, bringing the go-ahead run just 90 feet away before Zarbnisky got Harvey swinging on a full count to end the inning.
The top half of the 9th offered limited drama as Roberts was in full control of his stuff, needing just six pitches to put West Virginia down in order - leaving the Diamond Deacs, batting as the home team, just one run away from advancing to 2-0 and Sunday’s regional final.
Pryor started the bottom of the 9th with a single up the middle and a sacrifice bunt by Mueller, one of the best bunters in the nation, put the winning run in scoring position. Fairchild got the free pass to first to bring in the potential of an inning-ending double play, which set the scene for Gavin Sheets to come to the plate - the man in second place in the nation in RBIs.
Sheets had shown flashes of power throughout the first two games, with at least two fly balls reaching the warning track of Gene Hooks Field Friday night against UMBC, and two absolutely massacred foul balls earlier in the night against West Virginia. Sheets took the first two pitches for balls, putting Zarbnisky in the unenviable position of having to come into the zone against Sheets and what happened next was all too predictable for someone with the ability at the plate that Sheets has. The 2-0 pitch came right across the plate and Sheets turned on it into right center, a ball that was destined to plate Pryor from second as soon as it left his bat. The ball bounced off the wall in right-center field on a ball that didn’t even get the rightfielder to move - opting instead to watch it fly hopelessly over his head. Pryor rounded third and scored easily on the play as pandemonium ensued on the field in front of an electric Wake Forest crowd as Wake secured the 4-3 come-from-behind victory.
Roberts got the win, going two innings allowing only one hit and striking out four batters. With the appearance on Saturday night, it is not too likely that Roberts will be available to pitch Sunday afternoon but it is certainly possible that he could be asked to go for a couple outs if need be in a high leverage situation. In the event that Wake needs to play a game Monday night, Roberts would likely be available to go two or three innings in his normal role.
With the victory, Wake sits at 2-0 in the regional and advances to the regional final on Sunday afternoon at 5 p.m. They will face the winner of the 1 p.m. elimination game between Maryland and West Virginia. West Virginia beat Maryland 9-1 in the opening game of the region on Friday afternoon but is unlikely to have top starter BJ Myers available after Myers threw 5.2 innings in that first contest. Similarly, Maryland will not have top starter Brian Shaffer who saw the mound against WVU in a game where the Mountaineers pounded the Terps for six home runs.
Wake Forest will send typical Saturday starter Donnie Sellers to the mound in the Regional Final.
It’s been mentioned a couple of times, but it cannot be overstated how solid the fan support and environment was last night in Winston-Salem. Aaron Fitt, a Baseball America writer who was at the game, tweeted that it may have been the most electric atmosphere he had been at so far this season, which included the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry.
The Deacon faithful should again be out in throngs tonight as Wake looks to advance to the Super Regionals for the first time since 1999 when the Deacs went to Coral Gables and fell to the eventual champion Miami Hurricanes. The formula from here is easy: win today and advance; lose today and there is a winner-take-all rematch Monday night. All games will be held in Winston-Salem.
What a night, weekend, and season it has been so far for Wake Forest baseball and there is still plenty of ball to be played. Today, Wake will play their biggest baseball game in nearly two decades. One win and in, let’s get it done. And as always, go Deacs.