OMAHA, NE – At 3:19 pm CT, Wake Forest was in a 2-1 hole in the seventh inning, and looked destined to fall to Stanford. Then the weather delay came. With lightning surrounding Charles Schwab Field in Omaha, the respective teams retreated to their locker rooms and wouldn’t emerge for an hour. From that point forward, with a 4:45 pm restart, it was the Deacs’ game.
As Brock Wilken professed, “The Kings of the Delay,” went and won it.
With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Danny Corona stepped to the plate. Star batters Nick Kurtz and Wilken stood on second and third, respectively, after drawing walks. With one swing of the bat — a single up the middle — Corona flipped a one-run deficit into a one-run lead that the Deacs rode all the way to victory.
The sophomore’s first attempt of the at-bat was a big, but unsuccessful cut. In that critical moment, hitting and third-base coach Bill Cilento called time. With new information, Corona cracked the game-winning swing.
“Earlier in the at-bat, when I chased out of the zone, I was looking for something up,” Corona said. “I told Billy that. He told me I actually should be looking down. Once I saw it go down in the zone, I was just looking for something to drive up the middle.”
For a team that struggled all game long, Wake Forest’s execution in the most pivotal of moments proved paramount.
“I told our team at the end, if we break it down to the smallest level, they got two guys on, they got a bunt down and a base hit,” Stanford head coach David Esquer said. “They executed in order to win that ball game. You’ve got to give them credit for doing that.”
With Corona’s hit, closer Cam Minacci said he knew one thing as he strode to the mound to get the final three outs.
“This game is over.”
Minacci put the first Stanford player away with a groundout, but the second grounder skipped away from shortstop Marek Houston.
“I said, ‘let’s get a double play right here,’” Minacci recalled. “We talked about it. I said, ‘JJ, let’s go get a double play.’”
So they did. With a grounder directly to Justin Johnson, who calmly stepped on second and threw to first, Wake Forest secured outs two and three and stormed to the field to celebrate an unbelievable comeback.
“We visualize it,” Johnson said. “It’s going through your head before the play — you’re going to get a double-play ball. You create your own reality. So we created the double play there.”
This contest wasn’t Wake Forest’s first time experiencing a game-stoppage in the NCAA Tournament. The Deacs were delayed for nearly five hours in the NCAA Regional, had a start time moved back in the supers and had the hour break today. They are veterans at this point.
“Every time we have a delay, we come out with so much energy and our vibe is immediately switched,” Wilken said. “For us to come out there like that, it’s probably something that wasn’t expected from the other side. That’s what great teams do during delays.”
“We got loose, played some card games, played some hacky sack, got the music bumping,” Corona added. “It got us right.”
Prior to Minacci, dual starter-reliever Seth Keener took the mound to right the ship following the break. Keener calmly registered four-straight strikeouts to lead the Deacons to the fateful bottom of the eighth.
“If it had just gone the first 30 minutes, we would have gone back to Sully [Sean Sullivan],” Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter said. “Once it got beyond that, we just didn’t feel good about Sully there.”
The suggestion of Keener didn’t come from Walter or pitching coach Corey Muscara.
“We considered [Cole] Roland…[Michael] Massey,” Walter said. “[First-year student assistant] Will Craig was actually the first person to mention him. He’s like, ‘What about Keener’ and then the more we looked at who was coming up in the matchups, the more Keener really made sense.”
Starter Rhett Lowder labored through 5.1 innings to open the game for Wake Forest. In a 31-pitch first inning, Stanford loaded the bases on two singles and a walk, but was held to just one run on a hit-by-pitch.
Lowder experienced similar issues in the third, ceding a single and moving the runner over on a balk. A second single would put the Cardinal back into the lead. But Lowder survived after that.
“I just had to slow the game down,” he said. “It was speeding up on me a little bit. I just had to keep making pitch after pitch. Nothing crazy. I feel like I’ve been in some situations like that before where I don’t have my stuff. I just had to find a way to get outs and keep us in the game.”
Those two times trailing were the first Wake Forest had done so in the entire NCAA Tournament. The lead was briefly broken by Wilken, who powered a home run 409 feet over the left-field fence to break the single-season ACC record.
The Deacs wouldn’t break the deficit again until Corona’s hit. The team recorded just six hits in the game and left nine on base, but what was done was sufficient.
“I felt like we were tight early and nervous,” Walter said. “[We] got out of our plan offensively [and] didn’t have great at-bats, really, for the first seven innings. Rhett Lowder didn’t have his great stuff. He gave us a chance to win like he always does. We did just enough.”
Now, Wake Forest looks ahead from the winner’s bracket. The Deacs will face the victor of tonight’s game between LSU and Tennessee on Monday at 7 pm ET. The victor then will move on to what effectively is the College World Series semifinals.
Coverage of Wake Forest baseball and the College World Series continues in Omaha. Stay tuned to Blogger So Dear for news, game stories and features.