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Wake Forest overcomes adversity, defeats Florida State and claims ACC regular-season title

A four-run ninth inning put the Deacs ahead for good

Wake Forest Baseball

TALLAHASSEE, FL – The juxtaposition was glaring. In the above 90-degree heat index of a sunny day in northern Florida, Wake Forest was as cold as ice. But, come danger time, the Deacs’ bats caught fire and rose above the struggle. In doing so, Wake Forest’s nail-biting 7-3 win over Florida State gave the team its ninth-straight ACC series victory. More so, the Deacs claimed their first ACC regular-season title since 1963.

“Really proud of this club,” Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter said after the game. “I just can’t say enough about our club and the culture that these guys have built and how much they care about each other.”

“This is such a special group,” Walter continued. “To see the hard work they pour into it, the emotion they pour into it, the passion they pour into it. And again, what they pour into their relationships with each other is the most special part. That they get to celebrate this on a storied field…in a venue like this, makes it even more special.”

All tied in the top of the ninth, Wake Forest — having been on the ropes since the sixth inning, and once again fighting for its life — struck a glaring right hook. Back-to-back singles by Justin Johnson and Danny Corona set the stage. A Bennett Lee walk loaded the bases.

Initially, after those hits, it wasn’t the bats that did the scoring damage in the ninth. Adam Cecere and Marek Houston were plunked consecutively to plate two runs and reclaim the lead. Lucas Costello scored another with a single, and Nick Kurtz landed the final blow with a fielder’s choice.

“I told them, the thing I love about this team is there’s no panic,” Walter said. “They just keep grinding. They know, eventually, that they’re gonna punch runs across. As we talk about all the time, sometimes they run out of time, and we lose. But we never feel like we get beat. We only run out of time.”

It wasn’t Nick Kurtz’s only contribution to the game, in fact his first was far greater. Trailing 2-1 in the top of the eighth, Kurtz stepped to the plate with one on and two outs. After fighting to hold back on a ball that sliced just off the edge of the zone, Kurtz promptly ripped the next pitch to deep center field, clearing the wall and rocketing the Deacs back in front.

“Kurtzy, what a great at-bat that is,” Walter noted. “[He] lays off a pitch that was definitely a ball away, then homers to straight-away center field. On a day like this, [that] is not easy to do. That’s a big-time swing in a big-time situation.”

“I just tried to put a barrel on the ball,” Kurtz said of the at-bat. “Brock’s been swinging it amazing this series. So I was like, ‘alright, if I can either walk or get a base hit, we’ve got a good chance to take the lead or tie the game.’ When I hit it, it felt good. And then, as soon as I saw the center fielder, I knew it was gone.”

But, for every Wake Forest attempt to close the game, Florida State matched. James Tibbs led off the bottom of the inning with a solo homer to tie the game at three. Prior to that, after the Deacs tied the game in the sixth with a Justin Johnson solo shot, the Seminoles responded with a run of their own.

Before the sixth inning, when Florida State first jumped ahead, the story of the game was vastly different. In the first five-and-half innings, starters Josh Hartle and Connor Whittaker were bulldozing through their opponent’s lineups. That is, until the home-half of the sixth, when Florida State finally cracked the scoreless run with a triple and single.

“Give credit to Whittaker,” Walter said. “[He] stoned us for six innings. We didn’t have anything going offensively.”

Hartle finished the game with another impressive statline: six hits, two runs, one earned, while striking out three over 6.1 innings.

“Thank goodness we had Josh Hartle on the mound,” Walter said. “He just kept getting zeros for us.”

When Wake Forest turned to Michael Massey, things started poorly. With a single, a runner attributed to Hartle came home. The Tibbs homer after Kurtz’s was off Massey as well.

But then it got better, much better. Following the home run, Massey retired six-straight Florida State batters, four on strikeouts. The recovery on the mound was critical in leading the Deacs to victory.

“Really proud of how he responded to that,” Walter said. “Two strikeouts and a ground ball and gets us right back in. Then comes in and throws a clean ninth. After the home run, he goes six up, six down. It enables us to save [the bullpen] for tomorrow.”

With one stepping stone of what Wake Forest hopes to be many more out of the way, the attention turns to tomorrow. A series is left to be swept. A national seed is still on the line. The end of the road is possibly far, far away.

The regular-season championship does signal one thing — times are a changin’.

“When I got on campus last year, they mentioned the need [for] big changes to happen,” Kurtz said. “The culture we’ve built now, it’s gonna stay this way for as long as possible.”

“We’ve checked one box,” Walter added. “This club still has a lot of boxes left to check.”