Friedlander: Wake's weekend statement and other ACC baseball regional takeaways
Wake Forest didn’t just win its regional this weekend.
The Deacons made a statement.
A loud one.
Whatever questions there might have been about the legitimacy of their selection as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA baseball tournament were answered emphatically as they bludgeoned their way to 3 lopsided wins and a spot in this weekend’s Super Regionals.
In 3 games over 3 days, all attended by raucous sellout crowds at David F. Couch Ballpark, coach Tom Walter’s team outscored its opposition by a whopping 48-7 margin, topping things off with a 15-1 beatdown of George Mason on Sunday.
As it turned out, the most difficult hurdle Wake encountered during a regional that also included Maryland and Northeastern was the weather.
But even that was no match for the Deacons.
They waited out a 5-hour rain delay on Saturday before handing out some payback on the team that eliminated them last season in a 21-6 victory against the Terrapins that ended just after 2 a.m. Sunday morning.
“They’re an incredible team,” George Mason coach Shawn Camp said of Wake after his team’s 2nd lopsided loss to the top seed this weekend. “They’re the best baseball team I’ve seen all year.”
The Deacons will take the next step toward confirming Camp’s assertion next week when they’ll face 16th-seeded Alabama in a best-of-3 series in Winston-Salem, with the winner moving on to the College World Series in Omaha.
Contrary to the old baseball adage that momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher, Wake is on a roll that won’t be easy to stop. Despite a tournament format that doesn’t lend itself to carryover from 1 round to the next.
“The momentum of this season started early in the year, but it kind of built as the season went on,” Walter said. “The culmination of that is what you saw (Sunday).”
It’s not enough that the Deacons can roll out 3 of the best starting pitchers in the ACC, and perhaps the country, in Rhett Lowder, Seth Keener and Sunday’s starter Josh Hartle, to go along with a lineup loaded with potent bats beyond stars Brock Wilken and Nick Kurtz.
They also have a knack for breaking an opponent’s spirit by scoring early and often as they did in all 3 games of this regional.
Wake led 4-0 after 2 innings against Mason on Friday, 4-0 after 1 against Maryland in the weather-delayed Saturday marathon and 9-0 after 2 on Sunday.
“It’s always huge to jump out to an early start, get the momentum in our dugout right away,” Bennett said. “College baseball is all momentum based. Getting the crowd into it early, getting the team up and going, that’s huge. (It) allows us to just cruise.”
— Wake Forest Baseball (@WakeBaseball) June 5, 2023
But the Deacons didn’t cruise. They continued to tack on runs and never let either the Patriots or the Terrapins build any hope of getting back into the games.
And now it’s on to their 1st super regional since losing in 3 games to eventual national champion Florida in 2017.
Wake was a plucky underdog then. Now it’s the favorite.
But there’s still work to do.
“It was obviously very impressive, the way we played,” Hartle said Sunday. “We’re just trying to go out and play our game and we’re not going to let the foot off the gas.”
Going, going … gone
While the Deacons were keeping their pedal to the metal, the 2 teams that met for the ACC Tournament championship last week were running out of gas in the regionals they hosted.
Champion Clemson and runner-up Miami both had their seasons end with losses Sunday.
The Tigers’ elimination was especially painful.
First they saw their 17-game winning streak end Saturday night in 14 innings against Tennessee on a night in which they squandered a career pitching performance by ace Caden Grice and lost ACC Rookie of the Year Cam Cannarella to a controversial ejection.
Then forced to come back and play again in an elimination game less than 12 hours later, they weren’t the same team they’ve been for the past month-and-a-half in the tank in losing a 3-2 decision to Charlotte on Sunday.
“It looked exactly like it was,” a disappointed coach Erik Bakich said afterward. “It looked like we were emotionally drained. It wasn’t a lack of effort. It’s just not much in the tank.”
"It feels like driving 100 mph and we just slammed on the breaks."
Erik Bakich says he told the team they should be proud of the value they added to the Clemson baseball history books. pic.twitter.com/3KhZXsbXIw
— Beth Hoole (@bethhooleVNL) June 4, 2023
Miami, meanwhile, lost for the 2nd time in as many days to 2nd-seeded Texas. After staving off elimination with an 8-5 win against Louisiana earlier Sunday, the Hurricanes fell victim to a 9-run 3rd inning rally that all but decided their fate in an eventual 10-6 loss.
The ACC also lost 3 other teams on Sunday as North Carolina lost its 2nd 1-run decision to Iowa in the Terre Haute region, Boston College was eliminated by host Alabama and NC State was pummeled by Campbell in Columbia, S.C.
Cavaliers continue nonconference dominance
Virginia has been unbeatable, literally, against nonconference opponents this season. It’s a trend that continued into its NCAA regional, as the Cavaliers disposed of Army, then East Carolina twice to run their record against non-ACC competition to 28-0.
Sunday’s clinching 8-3 victory against the Pirates followed a similar pattern to the 1st 2 games of the weekend thanks to a dominant pitching performance by Connelly Early. The transfer from Army yielded only 2 runs on 7 hits while striking out 10 in his 6⅓ innings of work.
For the 3 games in the tournament, UVa starting pitchers gave up only 3 runs on 12 hits in 18 1/3 innings while recording 19 strikeouts.
Because of that pitching and the nonconference success, the Cavaliers will be a heavy favorite if they face Coastal Carolina in next week’s super regional. The script would change considerably, however, if the opponent is ACC rival Duke – which beat UVa 2 out of 3 during the regular season.
The Blue Devils and Chanticleers will play the deciding game of their regional on Monday,
Duke’s arms race
The Blue Devils might have a 50-50 shot at advancing in a winner-take-all deciding game at Coastal Carolina. But the odds aren’t exactly in their favor because of their precarious pitching situation.
Coach Chris Pollard tried to piece together a bullpen game for the 2nd straight day on Sunday, using 6 pitchers in an attempt to close out the Chanticleers without having to get to Monday’s “if necessary” decider. But didn’t work out as well as it did in Saturday’s win against Rider.
Coastal Carolina broke a 5-5 tie with 3 runs in the 7th off Owen Proksch and Charlie Beilenson and held on for an 8-6 win.
With Beilenson and Adam Boucher having pitched in all 3 games this weekend and Aaron Beasley has come out of the bullpen twice, Duke will either have to hope their arms hold out for 1 more game or put up a big number offensively to advance.
Featured photo courtesy of the ACC