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LSU defeats Wake Forest 5-2, forces elimination game Thursday

The Deacs couldn’t recover from a four-run third inning

Wake Forest Athletic Communications

OMAHA, NE – Leading into the bottom of the third inning, it felt like Wake Forest was in the driver’s seat against LSU. They held a slim 2-1 lead, but had one of its best pitchers on the mound and an offense that was producing. In turn, the Tigers were already on their third arm. Five at-bats later, the Deacs’ one-run advantage turned into a three-run deficit, a margin they couldn’t overcome.

Three of the Tigers’ first four batters in the inning got on base — walks for Tommy White and Gavin Dugas sandwiched a Tre’ Morgan single. Seth Keener began his next challenge against Cade Beloso with a passed ball to tie the game at two. Seconds later, the senior DH took him deep over the right-field wall.

In head coach Tom Walter’s mind, Beloso probably never should have had the opportunity to swing the bat.

“I had a chance to walk Beloso there on a 2-0 count,” Walter said. “I wanted to do it. I was in between and I should have pulled the trigger on an intentional walk and loaded the bases for Thompson. I regret doing that. He’s a good hitter and I should’ve walked him in that situation. I think it would have been a totally different game had I done that.”

In the Deacons’ first two games, the team didn’t take a lead until the eighth inning. For the first time, they did so early, plating two runs in the second inning on a Tommy Hawke single with the bases loaded.

And, while that inning was a positive, it was also an early indicator of one of Wake Forest’s greatest downfalls in a trying evening. Following Hawke’s single, Lucas Costello grounded into a fielder’s choice, putting runners on the corners with two outs. In a spot that could potentially dig LSU an even larger hole, Nick Kurtz struck out to end the inning.

The Deacs faced similar situations in three additional trips to the plate. Two on with two out in the fifth was nullified by a strikeout. Wake Forest opened the seventh with two runners reaching base before a single out was recorded — back-to-back strikeouts put the inning away. And in the eighth, a Hawke liner found just the wrong direction, going straight to White’s glove at third with a runner in scoring position.

“[Griffin] Herring came in and threw well,” Walter said. “He was kind of effectively wild. He would have big misses, and then he’d locate. We didn’t force him to get in the zone enough.”

Of Wake Forest’s first 20 outs, 18 came from either fly balls or strikeouts.

“In these conditions, you’ve got to keep the ball out of the air,” Walter said. “You can’t strike out and you can’t hit the ball in the air, and we did both those things today.”

“​​It’s all about adjusting, especially here,” Pierce Bennett added on what the team needs to change offensively. “We usually play in a pretty small ballpark. The balls that usually go out there aren’t going out here. We need…hard and low line drives. Just focusing in and trying zeroing in on just hitting line drives, finding the holes.”

In all, the Deacs left 12 on base and struck out 12 times. The Deacons’ 2-5 hitters combined for 0-15 from the plate, though they did draw four walks and a hit-by-pitch. Five of the team’s seven hits in the game came from two players — Hawke and Bennett.

“We had people on base all day,” Walter said. “We were two for [19] with runners on base today. [We’ll] obviously be hard pressed to win a game with those kinds of numbers.”

A bright spot on the night, one that could have potentially saved the game for Wake Forest, was the pitching display from dual starter-reliever Sean Sullivan. In 3.2 innings of relief, the sophomore allowed just two hits and two walks, while holding LSU scoreless.

In the third inning, with Keener struggling, Sullivan wasn’t “quite ready” to enter the game yet, according to Walter.

Had the bats gone a different direction, Sullivan’s performance may have been a winning one. Now, it’s a factor for tomorrow’s rematch — Wake Forest didn’t have to go to the bullpen again.

The loss Wednesday night confirms Wake Forest’s most critical game of the season less than 24 hours later. Never before have the Deacons lost two-straight games, but this will be the toughest situation to keep that streak alive.

With everything on the line, there’s a chance LSU turns to star pitcher Paul Skenes on the mound for however much he can give. In response, Wake Forest may call on its ace, Rhett Lowder. It’s a short turnaround, and neither is on full rest. Final decisions will almost certainly not be made tonight.

“I’m not 100% sure on Rhett,” Walter said. “We’ll have to talk to him. We’ll see how he feels tomorrow and make a decision on that. Knowing Rhett, he’ll probably be on the board tomorrow.”

As for the other side, “I do expect to see Paul Skeenes tomorrow,” Walter said. “I imagine that’s exactly who we’ll see.”

Thursday night in Omaha will be a winner-takes-all showdown. Two of the best teams in the country — one on a high, another trying to rekindle the magic of a special season. It’ll all come down to a single game, but Wake Forest isn’t fazed.

“We’ll be in a good headspace tomorrow,” Walter said. “I don’t worry about us coming out and [not] playing well, or being nervous or the situation being too big for us.”

“That’s what it’s all about,” Sullivan said. “We’re gonna have to be extra gritty tomorrow. Grind out at bats, keep working on the mound and just fight to play one more day with each other.”

First pitch is set for 7 pm ET, 6 pm local on ESPN.