WINSTON-SALEM, NC – There were 2 outs in the bottom of the 7th last Friday when Wake Forest coach Tom Walter popped out of the dugout and headed to the mound.

With the tying run coming to the plate and Chase Burns having already thrown 98 pitches against No. 2 Clemson in a game the Deacons needed to win, the sellout crowd at David F. Couch Ballpark sensed that a pitching change was about to be made.

And they loudly began lobbying Walter not to do it.

But they didn’t have to worry.

Walter already knew there was no way his ace was coming out of the game in that situation.

“He would have fought me had I tried to take him out,” Walter joked afterward. “There would have been a fist fight and I wouldn’t have won that one. I had to leave him in. I knew that’s what he wanted. I just wanted to hear from him.”

He heard it in the most emphatic way possible.

With the crowd cheering each pitch as if it was the final out of the World Series, Burns blew 3 filthy sliders past a flailing Clemson DH Nolan Nawrocki to end the threat before exploding toward the dugout with a primal scream.

The scene was, in a word, electric.

And for Burns, it was business as usual.

The junior right-hander has been lighting up the radar gun with his 100-plus MPH fastballs and his teammates with his off-the-charts energy since coming to Wake from Tennessee as one of the nation’s most sought-after transfers last fall.

At 10-1 with a 2.85 ERA and a school-record 156 strikeouts heading into the final week of the regular season, Burns is a lock to give the Deacons their 3rd consecutive ACC Pitcher of the Year. He’s also poised to follow in the footsteps of Rhett Lowder, who won the previous 2 conference awards, as a top-10 pick in this summer’s Major League Baseball Draft.

His intimidating presence on the mound gives Wake a shot at winning the opening game of every weekend series it plays and has the 8th-ranked Deacons poised to make a serious run at a trip back to the College World Series.

As overpowering as Burns has been all season since transferring from Tennessee, he may never have been better than he was against Clemson on Friday. He allowed only 1 run and 2 hits while striking out a career-high 16 over 7 innings in a 4-2 victory that set the stage for a series sweep of the then-2nd-ranked Tigers.

“That’s as dominating a pitching performance as I’ve ever seen in college baseball,” said Walter, who is in his 27th season as a coach, with the past 14 at Wake. “It was really special.”

Walter was fully aware of how special Burns could be from the moment he landed the highly sought-after prospect off the portal.

But he also knew there was work to do in order to bring out Burns’ best.

The 6-4, 195-pound fireballer has always had the physical tools to back up his standing as a blue-chip prospect. But after a standout freshman season with the Volunteers, his lack of command got him relegated to the bullpen midway through last year.

He still managed to strike out 114 batters in 72 innings while helping Tennessee join Wake in Omaha. And he finished the season ranked as the No. 2 overall prospect in the draft class of 2024 by D1Baseball.com.

But in order to bring out his full potential, Burns believed he needed a change of scenery.

And not just any change of scenery.

He specifically chose Wake to gain access to its renowned pitching lab, which features state-of-the-art biomechanics and technology that have contributed greatly to the development of multiple 1st-round picks.

“I’d be lying to you if I said that the lab didn’t have a say in whether I was coming here or not,” Burns said. “Technology is moving the game of baseball.”

And yet, even with all the emphasis that’s being put on analytics and factors such as arm angles, release points and spin rates these days, the most important work Burns has done in honing his craft has been between his ears.

“I know it sounds stupid, but I throw with my eyes closed sometimes just to be able to feel how I feel, stay directional and get moving through the target,” he said. “It’s really helped me a lot.”

He credits Wake pitching coach Corey Muscara for helping him mentally and “being able to have 100% confidence” in what he’s throwing.

That confidence is manifested in a personality that’s as electric as the fastballs he’s consistently blowing past hitters.

According to his coach, the sequence of events both leading up to and after that dramatic final strikeout on Friday has been the rule rather than the exception.

“The compete gene in him is through the roof,” Walter said. “That’s special. Rhett Lowder had that same one. He showed it a little differently. To have 2 guys like that in back-to-back years in our program is fun to watch.”

And not just when he’s on the mound.

Burns is so wired that even when he’s in the dugout, he has too much energy to sit down and relax between innings. Walter compared him to “a caged lion, pacing up and down the dugout.”

It’s a persona that carries over to his teammates.

“It’s just fun, because the energy is always there,” right fielder Jack Winnay said.

“It fires everybody up, for sure,” added center fielder Antonio Morales. “When you go in the dugout and he’s just screaming and yelling, everyone just feels it and everyone gets hyped up. His energy definitely helps us out.”

It’s not something Burns does intentionally. He describes his sometimes over-the-top reactions as “that blackout state where you don’t really know what’s happening. … It’s something we like to call flow.”

That flow is a wave of emotion, mixed in with some 100 MPH fastballs and nasty sliders, that has the potential to carry Wake Forest a long way.

Maybe all the way back to Omaha.

Feature photo courtesy of Wake Forest athletics