Friedlander: NCAA Tournament regional a chance at redemption for Wake Forest, ace Rhett Lowder
Slight of build, long of hair, Rhett Lowder looks more like a starving artist than one of the best pitchers in college baseball and a soon-to-be-1st round MLB Draft pick.
And in fact, he is an artist. A gallery of his works can be found online.
But as talented as the Wake Forest junior is with oils on canvas, his most memorable masterpieces have been produced through another medium. One involving a baseball and his strong right arm rather than a steady hand and a brush.
Lowder has painted the corners against opposing hitters so well that he’s been named the ACC’s Pitcher of the Year in each of the past 2 seasons.
He’s currently 13-0 and the anchor of a pitching staff that’s the nation’s best heading into this weekend’s NCAA Tournament regional in Winston-Salem.
He’s been so dominant that his coach, Tom Walter, was merely stating the obvious after last week’s win against Pittsburgh at the ACC Tournament, when he said that “every time Rhett Lowder takes the mound, we feel really good about our chances.”
Rhett Lowder is fun to watch.
Holding 92-95 MPH, topped at 96 in the first, w/ two different shapes (4S and 2S). SL looks much improved, 84-87 MPH with legit two-plane break and spin near 2600-2700 RPMs. CH with serious fade and dive at 84-87 MPH. Very easy and loose delivery. pic.twitter.com/GmkNwisV7W
— Tyler Jennings (@TylerJennings24) May 25, 2023
And yet, like many talented artists throughout history, there is an inner demon fueling Lowder’s passion. It’s a fire that was kindled a year ago at this time in the Deacons’ NCAA regional opener against UConn.
He didn’t take the loss in the 8-7 setback. At least, statistically. But after giving up 7 runs and 10 hits in 6 1/3 innings against the Huskies, he placed much of the blame on himself.
So when he takes the mound for Saturday’s game against Northeastern or Maryland – the former ACC rival that eventually eliminated Wake in 2022 – Lowder won’t just be pitching to help his team take a step forward on the road to Omaha and the College World Series.
He’ll be seeking a little redemption.
“I think we’re going to see a whole new gear from Rhett Lowder (this) weekend,” Walter said. “I’m looking forward to that.”
Lowder didn’t have his best stuff in his 1st postseason start this season. But after surviving a rocky 1st inning and a changeup that didn’t want to behave itself, he still managed to pitch 7 innings and allow only 1 run in the ACC Tournament pool play victory against Pitt.
Despite his effort and a win against Notre Dame the following night, the Deacons failed to follow up their ACC regular-season championship with their 1st tournament title since 2001 when they were beaten by Miami in a soggy semifinal.
As disappointing as that was, Walter made it clear that the ACC Tournament was merely a warmup for the only postseason event that matters.
Asked earlier this week how he would evaluate his team’s season if it should end in the regional this week, the Wake coach answered bluntly that “for us to consider this season a success, the train only has 1 stop.”
And it’s not Winston-Salem.
The Deacons are 1 on 8 ACC teams getting ready to begin regional play Friday. Fellow top-8 national seeds Clemson and Virginia are also hosting 4-team regionals, as is No. 9 Miami.
Boston College is in Tuscaloosa as the No. 2 seed in the Alabama regional, Duke is also a No. 2 in Coastal Carolina’s pod in Conway, S.C. while North Carolina and NC State are the No. 3 seeds in their respective regionals at Indiana State and South Carolina.
𝗧𝗵𝗲𝘆'𝗿𝗲 𝗜𝗻. ⚾️
The Road to Omaha starts Friday! pic.twitter.com/uAxpp0Troo
— ACC Baseball (@ACCBaseball) May 29, 2023
“Now it’s real,” the Wake Forest ace said at a media availability earlier this week. “Every game matters a lot. Just try and win out from here.”
There’s a lot of pressure that comes with Wake’s all-or-nothing approach. Especially when factoring in the memory of last season’s disappointment.
Even though the tournament uses a double elimination format, every start from here on out could potentially be the last for Lowder. And by extension, the rest of his senior or draft-eligible teammates.
Rather than letting the urgency of the moment become a burden, the Deacons are doing what they can to use it to their advantage.
“There’s a lot of us that don’t have a lot of games left together, so we just want to cherish the ones we do have left,” Lowder said. “We have a lot of fun. We all look forward to coming and playing together. I don’t think we’re going to take anything for granted.”
That focus will be tested Friday night when the Deacons play their regional opener against George Mason, the surprise Atlantic 10 champions who, at No. 176 in the RPI, are the lowest-rated team in the field. (Yes, that’s worse than Tulane, which won the AAC Tournament and sneaked into the LSU Regional with a 19-40 record and a 154 RPI.)
A loss to 4th-seeded George Mason would mean Wake’s train to Omaha would be in danger of derailment before ever leaving the station by the time Lowder takes the mound in Game 2 on Saturday.
And that wouldn’t be a pretty picture at all, regardless of how talented the artist on the mound might be.
ACC photo by Jaylynn Nash