LOUISVILLE, KY – While never truly dead, the Wake Forest bats had been a sleeping giant for some time — the team had four home runs in its past two ACC series, and none came last week against NC State.
That all changed Friday night in Louisville. With five swings of the bat, the Demon Deacons brought “Rake Forest” back to life, and eclipsed those four ACC home runs by the fifth inning on their way to a 11-5 victory. In short, it was a celebratory atmosphere at Jim Patterson Stadium.
“It’s great,” Justin Johnson said after the game. “The guys are great. We have a lot of fun out there. And [the full-team celebrations are] part of it. It’s so much fun to play with this group.”
It wasn’t just the long ball either — Wake Forest registered 16 hits, and nine came from the outfielders. Tommy Hawke dominated with a 4-6 line, Lucas Costello connected three times and Pierce Bennett pitched in twice. Costello also added two web-gem catches at the wall, likely saving several runs.
At first, it didn’t look like Wake Forest’s bats would be the story of the game, and if so, not for the right reasons. The Deacs were able to get two runners on base in the first inning with one out, yet couldn’t deliver a run. They couldn’t bring in a runner from second in the following inning, either.
“11 pitches the first inning, 11 pitches the second inning,” Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter said. “[I] clearly wasn’t liking the way the game was trending.”
But, in the third, Wake Forest transformed their bats from ice to fire. As a result, it embarked on the first of three critical innings that defined the series-opening win.
With runners on the corners and one out, Brock Wilken took Louisville starter Ryan Hawks just over the left field fence for the three-run home run. Then, two pitches later, it was Bennett. To make it back-to-back-to-back jacks, Johnson added a solo shot, making the score 5-1.
Hawks was able to get out of the inning after that, but had given up more home runs than he previously had to his name for the entire season.
“That second time through the order, our hitters did a great job making an adjustment on [Hawks,]” Walter added. “I was really proud of [that].”
In the fourth, it momentarily appeared to be another inning where Wake Forest would get runners on base, yet fail to capitalize. But, with two outs, Bennett ran out an infield hit. Then, Johnson notched home run No. 2 — the “Grand Salami” — clearing the bases and extending the lead to eight.
JJ GRAND SLAM— Wake Forest Baseball (@WakeBaseball) April 14, 2023
9-1 Deacs! pic.twitter.com/bEYL0Af52k
“I’m just seeing the ball well,” Johnson said. “The guys in front of me, just wearing down the pitcher, that’s huge. [There was] something over the plate and I’m just trying to do my job and give it to the next guy.”
To close the three-inning onslaught, Hawke joined the home run party with a shot to right in the fifth.
Starting pitcher Sean Sullivan, after going long in the second game of last Sunday’s doubleheader, struggled to find his groove Friday evening. In 3.2 innings of work, the Northwestern transfer gave up five hits and three earned runs.
His replacement, Seth Keener, stumbled his way through two innings, but after that, was dominant, recording back-to-back 1-2-3 innings. He finished with one hit, one earned run and six strikeouts, closing the game, aside from a final out by Derek Crum.
“It’s huge,” Walter said of Keener’s performance. “It saved our bullpen. We got our main leverage pieces still available, which is really good. We’ve got our bullpen where we want it going into these next two games.”
With the victory, Wake Forest reached 30 wins, and did so in the fewest games since 1949. Additionally, the Deacons are on their way to gaining full control of the ACC Atlantic — second-place Louisville holds four more losses than Wake. But, the job isn’t done yet.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position where we’re in the conversation to be a national seed,” Walter said. “So every game here on in, the race for those seeds, it’s gonna be tight and every game matters.”
And, to further that hold at the top of the division, Wake Forest has two more opportunities to take games off the Cardinals. That effort begins tomorrow at 1pm.