WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Part two of our exclusive interview with Wake Forest baseball coach Tom Walter.
The Deacs are coming off a 35-27 season which saw them make the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Walter’s leadership. The Deacs lose sluggers Will Craig and Nate Mondou to the MLB draft, but return a wealth of offensive weapons, a Friday night ace in Parker Dunshee and a host of potential arms that could provide Walter the most depth on the mound since he’s been in Winston-Salem.
On Johnny Aiello’s two-homerun debut coming as a left-handed batter
Walter: “He hit one in the NCAA Tournament right handed, and I know he hit one other one during the season from the right side. His slugging percentage was better right handed that it was left handed. His swing is better right handed, so it’s going to hold up. Left handed, it was just just a little too much uphill. He struggled with velocity, and he struggled with soft. He doesn’t have those issues right handed. It’s just a better, more compact swing right handed than left handed. I think he’s going to come out and have a good year for us.”
On if Bruce Steel will provide some power in the lineup
Walter: “Bruce has sneaky power. He doesn’t look the part — he’s only 6-foot-1, 180 pounds. He’s got some power. We’ll miss Will Craig, obviously, because he was the best player in the league. But we’ll miss him as much on the mound, just being that guy at the end of the game. We’ll be able to make up for the offense with other guys. Gavin Sheets will be in our four hole, won’t be a huge drop off from Will Craig. Stuart Fairchild is back in the three spot. Nate (Mondou) batted second last year, and I think Bruce will be able to replicate most of what he did. The offensive production will be fine. The good home run hitting teams hit one a game. The bad home run hitting teams hit like .6 a game. There’s not a huge difference. Power just isn’t a huge influence in the game right now. Last year we didn’t steal many bases because of Will, Nate and those guys hitting in the middle. We didn’t want to run Stuart in front of Will. I think we’ll be able to run a little more and do some different things offensively that we didn’t do last year because of Nate and Will. We didn’t want to take the bat out of those guy’s hands.”
On pitching for 2017
Walter: “We’re going to move Donnie Sellers to the rotation. We have (Connor) Johnstone and (Drew) Loepprich back. We’ve got six freshmen pitchers in here that we’re really excited about, including three left handers. These are guys that can really. . . I think we’re going to have some options that we haven’t had. I don’t know if we’ve had a left-handed option out of the bullpen since I’ve been here. Eli Robins early, but he didn’t throw a whole lot of strikes. We haven’t had a go-to left hander out of our bullpen since I’ve been here, which is disappointing. We’ve addressed that, and with the three lefties we’ve brought in, two of them are going to be in the bullpen and one has a chance to be a really good starter — he could be our Sunday starter. We’ve also got a freshman righty that could also be our Sunday starter. Again, our rotation is going to be better, and if we’re pitching Johnstone or Loepprich mid-week, which again I’m not saying those guys won’t pitch on the weekend — that remains to be seen. It’s good to have competition for those spots. That makes us better. Whoever pitches on Tuesday is going to be a good upgrade from in the past because of the competition for the weekend spots.
“Griffin Roberts will be a key for us. He went out and had a great summer. He’s a guy that we think can and will close. Command will be the question. He has to command it and throw strikes. He’s got a swing-and-miss fastball, and a swing-and-miss breaking ball. He’s got better stuff than Will Craig did. Now Will had that internal drive. He just didn’t give it. He was a competitor. The closer is similar in that way — it’s not always about the stuff, but the guy who wants the ball. I think Griffin has that and wants to be that guy. We’ve seen him throw up to 95, with a swing-and-miss breaking ball that is unhittable at times. I don’t have any doubt Griffin will be able to do it at the end of the game. He might struggle to begin with, but he’s going to be dynamite by the end of the year.
“We also have Rayne Supple with a year under his belt. He’s a guy that can compete for a starting job. Then we have reliable John McCarren, who’s been so solid for four years. If we start him, he’ll be fine. If we bring him out of the pen, he’ll be great in that role too. We’ve got really good pieces on the mound, provided we stay healthy and these freshmen progress like we think we will. We’ve got some pieces on the mound that we haven’t had.”