It seems like just yesterday the Wake Forest Demon Deacon baseball team walked off the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, one win shy of a College World Series appearance. The 2017 version of the Diamond Deacs was one of the most memorable Wake teams in recent history and for anyone who loves the Deacs (or baseball in general) it will be a long time before the afterglow of the massive bomb from Ben Breazeale to force a decisive game three in the Super Regionals against eventual-champion Florida wears off.
However, Ben is not walking through the door for tomorrow’s opener against Georgetown and neither are several other key members of last year’s squad, including the entire weekend starting staff of Parker Dunshee, Connor Johnstone, and Donnie Sellers plus All-ACC performers Gavin Sheets, Stuart Fairchild, and Jonathan Pryor. Despite these losses, manager Tom Walter brings in a recruiting class ranked in the top 25 by Perfect Game and the Deacs return several familiar faces including closer-turned-Friday starter Griffin Roberts, Johnny Aiello, Bruce Steel, Keegan Maronpot, and Jake Mueller.
Wake faces their first weekend slate of the season with four games over three days in Winston-Salem against the aforementioned Hoyas (Friday) and Navy (Saturday), before wrapping things up with a double-header against in-state rival Gardner-Webb on Sunday. Unfortunately, Deacon fans received some bad news today when the team announced that presumptive starters Maronpot and Steel - in addition to reliever Chris Farish - would be suspended “indefinitely.” With these gaps in the lineup, perhaps for a long period of time, it will be a classic case of “next man up” to get the job done early in the season as the Deacs navigate out-of-conference play in February and March.
Taking a look at what to expect this weekend, Wake opens the season Friday at 4 p.m. with Roberts on the mound against a Georgetown team coming off a 20-36 season. Roberts, a junior right-hander, has a fastball that hits the mid-90’s and a potent slider/slurve in the low-80’s and will be making only the second start of his collegiate career. I expect Georgetown, a team rated outside the top 150 last season and projected to finish sixth in the seven-team Big East, to struggle against Roberts throughout the game and have issues locating his off speed pitches. The key for Roberts will be to maintain command of his control throughout the game, an area where he struggled at times in 2017. A big key to Wake’s success this year will be having the ability to lean on Roberts, as the Deacs were able to lean on Dunshee last year, to have a consistent Friday starter go out and get an opening-night win in weekend series.
The Deacs will return to the Couch on Saturday when they face Navy at 12 p.m. in what should be the toughest matchup the weekend. Navy, a top 100 RPI team in 2017, was picked to finish second in the Patriot League and is coming off a year that saw the Midshipmen win 36 games before falling to Bucknell in the Patriot League title me. Logan Knowles, who patrols center field for Navy, is the preseason conference player of the year and hit .330 last year. Knowles is slated to lead off in the lineup and will be a tough out for lefty starter Carter Bach to navigate.
Bach, a sophomore from Clifton, Virginia, will be making his first ever college start. He went 2-0 last season with a 3.26 ERA over 19.1 innings and is likely to be a weekend starter as the season progresses.
Finally, the Deacs will close out the opening weekend with a double header against Gardner-Webb at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Getting the ball for those two starts will be Colin Peluse - who started seven games last year, primarily in mid-week efforts - and freshman lefty Jared Shuster, who will be making his collegiate debut. Shuster will likely receive a good portion of the mid-week starts throughout the season and I’m excited to see what the Massachusetts native brings to Winston-Salem (hopefully leaving the bad weather behind).
While baseball is a high-variance sport, the Runnin’ Bulldogs (no “G” please) from Gardner-Webb are likely the worst of the three teams Wake will face this week. G-W finished 25-30 last season in the Big South conference.
This weekend offers a good slate for Wake to ease into the season, but with the recent suspensions there may be a little bit of a learning curve for the Wake bats. The good news is the Deacs are projected to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2018 by nearly every publication and, at full strength, is likely a fringe-top 25 team to start the season.
Third baseman Johnny Aiello has reaped in the preseason awards so far this year and Baseball America rates him as the top third baseman in the nation this year. His power will be fun to watch and there’s no reason to believe that he can’t put up the same type of eye-popping home run numbers that we’ve all become accustomed to seeing from Rake Forest over the last few years. He will continue in the footsteps of Will Craig and Gavin Sheets, and perhaps even expand the print some on his own, as he anchors the Wake Forest offense.
While you always want to win every game you play, if the Deacs get off to a 3-1 start this weekend I think it must be considered a success. The games on Sunday will be televised on ESPN3 and thanks to the ACC’s partnership with ESPN, the Deacs will have a considerable number of their games broadcast on ESPN3 (perhaps the flagship station of the Wake basketball team at this point) which is exciting for Wake baseball fans across the country.
After this weekend, the Deacs take to the road for the first time to take on Davidson - a surprise participant in the 2017 Super Regionals after blitzing the UNC regional - and then head to the west coast to square off in a three-game set against Santa Clara. The Broncos out west are coming off a horrible 2017 season which saw the team go 13-40 and finish outside the top 250 in the RPI.
With baseball back and the familiar sounds of the ball pinging off the college bats, it’s time to sit back, crack a cold one, and settle in to follow our Deacs as they look to return to the promise land of the NCAA Tournament in 2018.