WINSTON SALEM, NC – With two outs in the seventh inning, already a career high, Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter made a trip to the mound to supposedly take starting pitcher Seth Keener out of the game. But, he stayed in.
With an induced grounder, Keener made the final out and stranded a runner on third base, concluding a near-perfect performance that powered the Deacs to a 12-0 NCAA Tournament opening victory over George Mason.
“I knew he was going to come out there,” Keener said after the game. “And I figured he’d give me an option. I figured, if I was going to stay out there, I’d have to convince him to keep me out there. So I was like, ‘Alright, no shot I’m coming out of this game.’ I was fired up. I did not want to get taken out at all.”
In that moment where Keener made his own call, Wake Forest’s first-ever sellout crowd of 3,823 rose to its feet and gave likely the most raucous ovation of the evening.
First Sell Out at The Couch ever ✅— Wake Forest Baseball (@WakeBaseball) June 3, 2023
Thank You, Deacon Nation pic.twitter.com/DMmJRsm8Kt
“It was so sick,” Keener said. “When I stayed in and [Walter] went back, and they started standing up, that was awesome. The crowd was electric tonight.”
“I knew he wanted to stay,” Walter added. “I was about halfway out there when I was like ‘you got this?’ I knew he was going to ask for the ball, there was no doubt in my mind. It was really just a matter for him to catch his breath, for him to understand, ‘Hey, I can empty the tank right here.’”
After recording the first six outs of the game via strikeout, Keener proceeded to hold the Patriots to just three hits. He didn’t walk or hit a single batter.
“Seth Keener was clearly the story tonight,” Walter said. “You can’t do a whole lot better than that. I’m really proud of him.”
The junior ended the game with 13 strikeouts, a career high, and also the most put away by a Deacons’ pitcher this season.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had that many strikeouts in my life,” Keener said.
In the early goings of the game, the Wake Forest offense was effective, but not dominant. A duo of two-run homers, by Adam Cecere and Justin Johnson, put the Deacs up 4-0 through three.
It was a special moment for Cecere, who had struggled — and lost playing time — since injuring his hamstring in late March and missing nearly a month.
“The home run felt really good,” he said. “It’s no secret that I have not been playing well since I got injured, but it was a step in the right direction.
And, when Walter made the decision to put Cecere on the lineup card, it just felt right.
“From trust comes confidence,” he noted. “Adam’s one of the toughest competitors on the team. Opening game of the regional, I want that guy in there. That’s what it boiled down to. He’s the heartbeat of our team. I just couldn’t see having an opening day of a regional without him in our lineup.”
Following Cecere’s home run, though, Wake Forest wouldn’t score again until the seventh, making Keener’s career outing all the more important.
“What he was doing really well tonight was he was able to execute on breaking balls and get us out front,” George Mason head coach Shawn Camp said. “I think the game changed a lot when he started to go to his changeup. You gotta tip your hat to him. He did an outstanding job.”
It was the seventh inning that secured the game for the Deacs. Tommy Hawke led Wake Forest off with a triple, and was promptly brought home by a Nick Kurtz double. Pierce Bennett matched Kurtz’s double following a Brock Wilken walk, and Bennett Lee pulled the inning all together with a two-out single to make the score 8-0.
For good measure, an inning later, Wake Forest loaded the bases on two George Mason errors, and Justin Johnson rocked a ball to left field for a grand slam.
Cole Roland and Derek Crum came out of the bullpen and each gave a solid inning of relief to maintain the shutout. With that, Wake Forest felt like the pitching situation for the rest of the tournament came out much better than expected.
“We had [Michael] Massey down there moving around,” Walter said. “We had [closer Camden] Minacci ready behind him. It wouldn’t have been the end of the world if we needed to pitch Massey and Minacci tonight, but certainly glad we were able to spread the lead late.”
Now, Wake Forest will face off with Maryland, a team they want “revenge” against for ending their season in College Park last year. It left a “bitter taste,” but Walter had more important things in mind.
“We’re not worried about what happened last year,” he said. “We’ve got tomorrow in front of us. We’ve got to get a good start out of Rhett Lowder. Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher. Hopefully he gives us a good top of the first like Seth did tonight and gives us some momentum.”
First pitch is set for 6pm ET.
Coverage of the Winston-Salem regional, and Wake Forest baseball, will continue throughout the NCAA Tournament. Stay tuned to Blogger So Dear for news, game stories and features.