Wake Forest baseball looking dominant on mound, at plate

The second-ranked Deacons have swept three straight ACC foes

Pitcher Josh Hartle, pictured last year, and Wake Forest have shaken off their early postseason exit in 2022 and are among the top teams in college baseball. (Gail Burton / AP Photo)

Wake Forest’s 2023 baseball season had its roots in a disappointing June weekend in College Park, Maryland.

The 2022 Demon Deacons entered the NCAA Tournament as the second seed in their regional on the strength of 39 regular season wins, the second most in program history and the biggest year-to-year improvement Wake baseball had ever seen.

Against third-seeded UConn, Wake scored first, led twice and overcame a five-run deficit in the eighth inning only to lose on an unearned run in the ninth. Two games later against Maryland, the Deacs again scored first and led twice before giving up six runs in the eighth to bring their historic season to an end.

“That’s where it starts,” coach Tom Walter said after Wake’s first practice of the 2023 season. “They know what it feels like when we’re standing on the field at Maryland when they know we should have and could have played better.

“We were certainly disappointed in our performance. We had the UConn game right there where we wanted it and couldn’t get it done. Then had the Maryland game right there and then couldn’t close it out in the eighth and ninth innings. That hunger started last year when we were on that field staring at each other asking, ‘How is our season over?’”

After nearly two months of games, the bad taste seems to be stubbornly remaining in the mouths of the Demon Deacons. Wake has played like a team possessed in the first half of the season, looking like a group on a mission.

The Deacs won their first 13 games of the season, added another eight-game winning streak later on and are currently ranked No. 2 in the nation. After beating Notre Dame and Duke two out of three games each to win their first two ACC series of the season, Wake has not lost a conference game since, sweeping three from Miami and Clemson — the school’s first time sweeping back-to-back ACC series since 2002 — then beating NC State in a doubleheader, with Easter weekend rain doing what conference opponents couldn’t by stopping the Deacs from winning three.

At 28-4 overall and 12-2 in the ACC, Wake is off to its best start since 1950, better even than its 1955 team that won the College World Series. The Deacons are doing it on the mound, leading the nation with a 2.30 ERA and allowing less than a baserunner an inning. They’re also doing it in the batter’s box, with six starters hitting over .300 and an offense that is eighth in the country in runs scored.

Wake is outscoring foes by a 296-97 margin, meaning their average game is a 9-3 win. The Deacs outscored ACC opponents by a 6-3 average margin.

The pitching staff has made the difference for Wake this season. The Deacs have posted four shutouts on the year and haven’t allowed more than five runs in a game in the last month. They’ve recorded 390 strikeouts against 75 walks. Wake has the ACC’s top three strikeout leaders in Sean Sullivan, Josh Hartle and Rhett Lowder, who also rank in the top eight in the league in ERA and are a combined 17-2. They also have closer Camden Minacci, who is second in the nation with eight saves.

“I feel like we’ve had a good enough offense consistently to go to Omaha,” Walter said. “We’ve always scored enough runs. But if you look consistently at the teams who go to Omaha, it comes down to pitching and defense. We haven’t been as good in those areas as we need to be.”

Against NC State, the pitching helped an offense that was missing some punch, with Adam Cecere and Nick Kurtz, who rank second and fourth respectively in the ACC in OPS, out injured. Both are expected back within two weeks. The Deacs’ pitchers were able to keep the Wolfpack in check, and the offense scratched out a pair of comeback wins.

“It says a lot about our team,” Walter said. “We’re scrappy. We’re not swinging the bats well right now up and down the lineup. When you don’t have Cec and Kurtz, that allows them to pitch around Brock (Wilken, who leads the ACC in home runs and runs scored). … We’re finding different ways to win, and we’re winning primarily with pitching and defense, which is good. Because I do think this will be a good offensive club before it’s all over with, but we’re just an average offensive club right now.”

In other words, the Deacs still think they can get better. And that bad taste in their mouth is looking like it might last all the way to Omaha.