WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — There’s no breaking in period and no pedaling around the block in training wheels — the Wake Forest baseball season starts with back-to-back weekend series that very well could impact its postseason fate.
Wake begins the 2017 season Friday with a doubleheader in Houston as part of a four-game weekend that includes two games against the hosting Cougars, who are projected by d1baseball.com as a No. 2 NCAA Tournament seed.
Next weekend, the Deacs host USC, a team that was picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 league coaches.
Wake Forest coach Tom Walter won’t have much of a chance to tinker with lineups and situations — the Deacs will be tested right away.
“These games will determine our fate for the NCAA Tournament,” Walter said. “When you have a series against USC and two against Houston, when it comes time for NCAA Tournament selection, if you haven’t fared well in those contests you might find yourself on the outside looking in.
“This year, those games are critical for us. There’s not going to be a huge margin for error. We’ll have to play our best baseball right out of the gate, which we should be able to do.”
Walter is holding returning Friday night starter Parker Dunshee for the second game Friday, a 7 p.m. first pitch against Houston.
“Saturday and Sunday could change based on what we see from those teams Friday,” Walter said about the rotation detailed in the above tweet. “If there’s a matchup we like better, we could flip-flop those guys.”
Houston finished the 2016 campaign 36-23, missing the NCAA Tournament after hosting a regional the year prior.
“Houston is a team that has great tradition, and is used to winning — especially at home. Their number one pitcher is a probably first-round draft pick,” Walter said. “He’s got a really good arm, and we’ll have our hands full with him. They return a Freshman All-American who hits with great power. They have a couple other experienced position players. They’re going to be a very good team and will be playing on their home turf.”
The Deacs first game of the season is slated for a 3 p.m. start against Nicholls from the Southland Conference. Nicholls finished 26-30 in 2016.
“They return their number one pitcher, who we will see in the opening game,” Walter said. “They’ve added a bunch of JUCO guys, so we don’t have a bunch on them, but Nicholls is always good. They play in a real good league, the Southland. They will be a good test.”
The Deacs are just excited to get started.
“We’re thrilled. It’s finally here,” Walter said. “We get here in August, and spend all this time kind of looking at each other and counting the days until we can play somebody else. That day is finally here, and we’re pumped.”
Drew Loepprich, who started 16 games for the Deacs in 2016, will be available from the pen early in the weekend, but may possibly start the home opener Tuesday against UNC-Greensboro. Redshirt freshman lefty Bobby Hearn is another potential option for the Tuesday starter.
One things is for certain — sophomore Griffin Roberts is Walter’s choice for the closing role, and Walter is beyond excited about what he’s seen from Roberts.
“Going into the year, we wouldn’t have thought he would be an upgrade from Will Craig as far as stuff goes, but his stuff is probably better and that’s not a knock on Craig,” Walter said. “He’s throwing the ball really well right now, and has made big strides.
“It’s a plus sinker that’s up to 95, even 96. Three times, so it’s not just bumping. He’s got a wipeout breaking ball that’s probably better than Will Craig’s. It’s more consistently in the zone, and he’s a guy that’s a really good athlete. He can field his position and compete. Griffin can get ready quickly and has shown the ability to go on back-to-back days. We threw him three innings one day, and he held his stuff through 50 pitches. It’s pretty exciting to have him back there at the end as someone we can count on to shorten the game.”
Freshman Morgan McSweeney and sophomore Rayne Supple will be counted on as set-up men for Roberts.
“Morgan McSweeney is a freshman that has really asserted himself that can command three pitches, hold runners and do all the little things it takes to be a great set-up guy,” Walter said. “Rayne Supple started for us last year, but has really been good in that 7th or 8th inning for us in the early go.”
Dunshee believes the pitching staff is the best he’s seen in his time at Wake.
“It’s the most experienced staff we’ve had since I’ve been here,” he said. “We’re 12 deep here this year.”
Positionally, the Deacs return a ton of experience, and Walter believes the middle of the batting order will be just as potent as it was in 2016, despite the losses of Nate Mondou and Will Craig to the MLB Draft.
“I don’t expect any drop off (in offensive production),” Walter said. I think our 3 and 4-hole hitters are as good this year as they were last year. With (Stuart) Fairchild 3 and (Gavin) Sheets 4, that’s as good as that combo last year. Nobody is going to be Will Craig. He was a special guy, but the combination of those two guys. Last year, you could pitch around Will a little more.“
Sheets hit .326 with nine home runs and 45 RBI last season.
“It’s a huge compliment. To have a coach have that much confidence in you just makes you that much better of a player,” Sheets said. “This offense from top to bottom is as deep as it's ever been.”
Both Sheets and Dunshee believe the ceiling this year is greater than last season, when the Deacs made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years.
“The expectation of making it just isn’t enough this year,” Sheets said. “We want to not only make it, but do some damage.”
“I think last year was a step in the right direction, and I honestly think we can go further. This team is loaded with experience,” Dunshee said. “That’s what it comes down to in the tournament — experienced teams go far. I don’t see why we couldn’t host a regional. I think we can win a regional and have a chance to take a super regional to play for Omaha.”
Projected batting order/position
- Jonathan Pryor - lf
- Bruce Steel - ss
- Stuart Fairchild - cf
- Gavin Sheets - 1b
- Ben Breazeale - c/dh
- Johnny Aiello - 3b
- Keegan Maronpot - rf
- Logan Harvey dh/c
- Jake Mueller - 2b
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