clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Lee swings Wake Forest over LSU, into College World Series semifinals

Minutes after a run-saving tag at home, Lee knocked the game-winning single in the eighth inning

Wake Forest Athletic Communications

OMAHA, NE – When third base coach Bill Cilento joined Bennett Lee for a mid-bat conversation in the bottom of the eighth inning, it felt like déjà vu. Just seconds later, Lee struck a single through the third-short gap to bring around Danny Corona and give Wake Forest its first lead of the day. Three outs later, that 3-2 advantage punched the Deacs’ ticket to the College World Series semifinals.

Two days prior, it was a talk with Corona that led to a game-winning RBI double. But, Cilento initiated that. This time the roles were reversed. In that moment, Lee was “just looking for a little reset.”

“There were no magic words,” Cilento said after the game. “Lee called that time out waving me down. That’s a first for me in coaching. I just said I was glad to see him and it sure would be great if he [could] hit a ball through the infield and Danny could score. [Then] we can get three outs and go home.”

“The guys trust him implicitly,” head coach Tom Walter said of Cilento. “He works so hard at the game plan for game prep. In big moments, they go to him because Billy knows what they can expect. It just gives them a great sense of calm and confidence in those big moments. Really, when you’re playing on a stage like this, that’s what it’s all about.”

The winning runner, Corona, reached base with disciplined hitting. After swinging hard through the first two pitches of the at-bat, he recognized an off-speeder was coming and reacted for a double in the alley.

“I knew he was gonna come heaters with me,” he said. “I knew, after that first time, he might try to take an off-speed pitch. So I was ready for that last one.”

According to Walter, there was a chance Corona would have never swung the bat in that situation.

“Before the inning, we were talking about him bunting if JJ [Justin Johnson] gets on base,” he said. “Danny’s like, ‘but I want to hit,’ and I was like, ‘I understand you want to hit, but we need to get a runner in scoring position.’ Obviously Danny took care of that himself.”

That sequence is an indicator of Corona’s growth that parlayed him into a starting role. And it’s paid off. After playing in limited portions early in the season, the sophomore has mashed 19 RBI in his last six games.

“In the past, [the pitch] would have spun up on Danny and he would have swung through,” Walter said. “But he was, in the moment, able to control his emotions, stay back on a good changeup and double down the line.”

For Wake Forest to even position itself for that critical bottom of the eighth, the team had to make two key defensive plays.

With runners at the corners and no outs, Michael Massey induced a grounder to third base. Charging in, Brock Wilken secured the ball, shifted out of the baseline and rocketed a ball to home, which Lee snared off the ground and applied to the runner just in time. Quick thinking and playmaking saved the run, and likely the game, for Wake Forest.

“Coach Walter told me to tell Brock to maybe get the out at home if we have it,” Lee said. “So that was already in our heads coming into it. Then [Cade] Beloso hits a little squibber. Brock, the ball’s literally still spinning in his glove when he went to throw it, so just an unbelievable play to even get the ball to me. Then…I’ve done millions of picks in my life and I just took over.”

Closer Cam Minacci came on to get the final three outs, and with his second pitch recorded two of them. A tailor-made 5-4-3 double play kept the game tied at two and set the table for the winning hit.

“Pitch plan was to throw a first-pitch slider and then a heater,” Minacci said. “That was what we did. We just executed our pitch plan, got the guy to rollover, turned a double play.”

The heavyweight battle with LSU began inauspiciously for Wake Forest. Starting pitcher Josh Hartle worked rather comfortably through two innings, but in the third, the wheels fell off the wagon.

Nine-hole hitter Josh Pearson walked on four pitches and advanced on a wild one. Tommy White then turned an RBI-single into a double on a juggle in center field. And, to cap it all off, left fielder Adam Cecere lost a surefire fly out in the sun to plate a second run.

From there, Hartle fought, finishing the game with nine strikeouts and just four hits in six innings.

“Some things go against him there, couple walks here and there and a ball in left field we should probably make a play on,” Walter said. “All of a sudden down two-nothing, but he settled in and got us into the sixth inning. It wasn’t a typical Josh Hartle outing, but he battled and kept making big pitches when it mattered…[to] give our offense time to get going.”

After tying the game off a bases-loaded scenario in the sixth, Walter turned to Cole Roland and Massey for two outs each. Minacci, after struggling to find time to pitch in the regionals and supers because of big leads, got the job done with one as small as it can get.

“We’ve been working — we all do a lot of visualization work and we believe,” Minacci said. “I’ve seen this [moment] a hundred times. I knew there would be a one-run save in Omaha, and we’ve gotten two. We believe and that’s why we win.”

Minacci has entered those situations because both games thus far truly have been razor thin for Wake Forest. The Deacs haven’t had their A-game yet, and have only led for a half-inning in both of their wins. That’s Omaha.

“That’s the one thing I said in the huddle before the game, I said they don’t know how tough we are,” Walter noted. “We’re a tough-minded team. We don’t quit. We don’t give up.”

“We’re super confident at all times,” Corona said. “Even when we’re down, we know the big swing’s gonna come. We know we’re gonna come out on top. We never let it get to us.”

With another game won by the slimmest of margins, Wake Forest will be one of the final four teams in the College World Series. That meant a serious celebration for a team that knows how to have fun.

“That was pretty crazy,” Corona said, referring to the locker room. “That felt like a party that everyone dreams of. All my brothers out there, we have [smiles] ear to ear. We were all going crazy, and that was the greatest feeling.”

“How can we lose,” Minacci asked later. “Every single guy is having the time of their lives right now. Like, who can beat us? It seems pretty much impossible.”

Riding high off another heart-pounding win, Wake Forest has earned an extra day of rest. Tomorrow, Tennessee and LSU will fight for the right to remain in the College World Series and face the Deacs. They will need two victories over Wake to make it to the finals — the Deacs, just one.

First pitch between Wake Forest and the Vols/Tigers is set for 7pm ET Wednesday on ESPN.