WINSTON-SALEM, NC – For the second-straight weekend, a monumental game for Wake Forest started late — this time two hours, 15 minutes. But the delay didn’t seem to impact either team. With hard wind and active bats — a haven for home runs — the Deacs did just enough to outlast Alabama, holding on for a 5-4 victory.
“Heck of a ball game,” Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter said. “Two really good teams battling out there. So proud of our guys. Did just enough to win.”
And a win in the opening game is oh so critical in getting to Omaha. Per NCAA Baseball, 79% of teams who win Game 1 of the supers move onward to the College World Series.
“We’ve got it where we want it,” Walter said. “But, at the same time, we’re playing a really good team, and they’ve got a bunch of pitching left. We do too. There’s two really good teams in this super. We’re gonna be slugging it out, fighting for every inch.”
Following a solid, but less than stellar, 6.1 innings from Rhett Lowder, it was unclear how Wake Forest would proceed. Does Walter go to bullpen arms Michael Massey, Cole Roland or Cam Minacci? Not so. Instead, converted starter-to-reliever Sean Sullivan hit the mound with a two-run advantage.
“We wanted Sully to be in there and face as few hitters twice as possible,” Walter said. “Try to keep his pitch count down in case we need him again later in the weekend. We thought that Sully was a good matchup coming in behind Rhett like that, and [he] got the job done.”
Two outs later, the Deacs were out of the inning unscathed.
But, on the first pitch on the team’s next trip to the plate, Caden Rose shot Alabama within one of the lead with his second home run of the day.
The only problem — that was it. Sullivan retired six of the last seven batters, including three-straight strikeouts in the ninth, to nullify the Crimson Tide threat and take the Deacs within one win of Omaha.
“He’s sitting on it, maybe [I] should have brought it a little up,” Sullivan said of the home run. “But then refocus, attack the next pitch. You can’t really dwell on it, or else that’s when you get into trouble.”
The home run didn’t affect his confidence in the slightest.
“I missed the spot a little bit,” Sullivan continued. “I knew what I did wrong, and just made that adjustment on the fly.”
Lowder, with the wind against him, still felt he didn’t have his “best stuff.”
“I was trying to make big pitches,” Lowder said. “I was just mixing it up. I think two pitches really hurt me on the day. [I] just had to battle through that.”
In the top of the third inning, Lowder gave Rose his first home run of the day on a 0-2 pitch, something he “never does” per Walter.
Then, in the following inning, the junior issued a close-call walk with two outs. The next at-bat, Colby Shelton knocked a rocket to right field to tie the game at three.
But, Lowder persisted, put the Deacs in position and got his 15th win of the season, a program record. As he walked off the mound, it came to mind that this is likely the last time he would do so at The Couch.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said of the moment. “I’ve got goosebumps right now thinking about it. I couldn’t ask for a better crowd and the support along the way. It’s awesome.”
Just as Alabama got to Lowder by way of the home run, Wake Forest succeeded with the long ball. Sophomore Tommy Hawke took Luke Holman’s first pitch of the game deep to center field to open the scoring. Justin Johnson tacked on another an inning later. Lastly, Danny Corona crushed a ball to right, allowing the Deacs to retake the advantage.
It was a swing Corona potentially never should’ve had. In a postgame broadcast interview, Corona told members of the ESPN crew that he swung on the check call. In the aftermath of the call and ensuing score, Alabama assistant coach Matt Reida was ejected.
“When it happened live, I thought he probably went,” Walter said. “But nobody’s got a better view of it than the third-base umpire. These guys are in this game for a reason, they’re the best at what they do. I trust those guys to make big calls and get them right. I thought the home plate umpire was super consistent tonight.”
In addition to the big-time hitting, Wake Forest did the little things right on offense. The team’s base-running was superb, single handedly accounting for two of the runs that proved to be decisive.
In the second, Pierce Bennett touched home for Wake’s third run, which would have never occurred without two intelligent tag-ups on consecutive fly outs. Four innings later, the game-winning run in Brock Wilken was created by the junior running out a fly ball that was dropped in the short outfield, putting him on second.
“Free 90s, we talked about it in the conference tournament, our base running was not great,” Walter said. “We were disappointed by that. It’s been a point of emphasis for us since then and … all year. Because, when you’re in tight games, it comes down to those free 90s.”
In a close 5-4 game, emotions run high. But, first pitch of a key Game 2 is just 18 hours away. Resetting, regardless of a win or loss, is important.
“Both teams will try to do a good job tomorrow of hitting that reset and getting back to neutral and showing up, because the score starts over 0-0,” interim Alabama head coach Jason Jackson said. “I always tell guys ‘if you win, go home and enjoy it. If you lose, go home and be pissed. It’s okay. But when you go to bed tonight, we’re not going to bring that to the yard with us tomorrow.’”
On the mound for Wake Forest will be Josh Hartle, with Seth Keener and the entirety of the Deacons’ strong bullpen available. Alabama has not announced its starting pitcher. The game is slated to begin at 12pm on ESPN.