WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — It had been more than 21 months since Bruce Steel had produced a collegiate base hit.
After missing all of 2016 with a torn thumb ligament, Steel also missed the first five games this season with a strained oblique.
Then he went hitless Friday and Saturday against Southern Cal (5-2).
But his first hit of the 2017 season was a big one - as it turned an early two-run deficit into a one-run advantage in the rubber match of a marquee non-conference series.
Bruce Steel put the Deacs (4-4) ahead in the bottom of the 2nd with a three-run line shot over the left field wall, then Wake added on 11 runs in the bottom of the 3rd to top Southern Cal 18-5 Sunday afternoon at David F. Couch Ballpark.
Steel’s home run took the pressure off the Deacs after allowing a three-spot to the Trojans in the top of the first.
“We were feeling the pressure after giving up three in the first, no doubt. We knew we needed to win this game,” Wake coach Tom Walter said. “As a hitter, when you press, it can affect you. When Bruce Steel put us on top, we all took a collective sigh. We went to work and had a great third inning.”
Knowing the struggle Steel has been through made the breakthrough moment that much sweeter for his teammates.
“That was my favorite moment of the whole game was Bruce’s ball going over the fence, because what he’s been through in his career here,” Wake starting pitcher Donnie Sellers said. “I know he’s still battling an oblique strain. For him to do that and get another hit was huge for him and our team.”
Wake catcher Ben Breazeale singled to lead off the 2nd, and Keegan Maronpot’s walk put two Deacs on the bases. Steel came to the plate with two on and two out, and got behind in the count 0-2 before battling back.
“We’ve been working on my 2-strike approach a lot,” Steel said.
Steel watched a pair go by out of the zone to even the count, then fought off a solid offering by USC starter Marrick Crouse. Then he delivered the momentum-changing rocket over the left field fence.
“It feels good,” Steel said. “All the hard work is paying off. It’s been a long time coming.”
Then the floodgates opening in the bottom of the 3rd, as the Deacs sent 14 to the plate, scoring 11 runs on eight hits to put the game essentially out of reach.
“We strung together a few good at-bats. We got a couple of lucky ones too,” Walter said. “One just drops in, we reach on an error, get a couple walks — things like that. We strung together some at-bats, which was exciting.”
Gavin Sheets continued his impressive weekend with a 3-for-3 performance at the plate. He had four RBIs and scored twice. Sheets entered the weekend with a .105 batting average and two RBIs. He exits the series with a .375 average and 18 RBIs.
“Good gosh. These guys just keep hitting,” Sellers said about the 3rd inning. “When am I ever going to go back out to pitch? It was like a rain delay. I warmed up twice. It was something to witness. I’ve never been a part of anything like that before.”
Stuart Fairchild hit his fourth home run of the season, and was 2-for-3 at the plate, scoring three times.
Jake Mueller hit second behind Jonathan Pryor for the first time this season, and delivered with a 3-for-4 performance at the plate, scoring four runs.
“Mueller had a good day. He was on base four times and scored four runs for us,” Walter said. “He had been struggling, but we dropped him in the 2-hole and he and Pryor set the table for (Stuart) Fairchild and Sheets. When you’re getting guys on base for Fairchild, Sheets and Breazeale, it bodes well for success.”
Sellers walked David Edson to lead off the game, then surrendered back-to-back home runs to Corey Dempster and Lars Nootbaar.
“I was making pitches in the thick of the plate, and they were getting good swings on them. They weren’t really good pitches,” Sellers said. “They were super thick. After that, I just started living down, trusting the sink on my fastball and mixing in my off-speed pitches to get soft contact.”
Sellers then set down the next nine Trojans he faced, going 5.2 innings in the win.
“He only gave up four hits. He left a couple pitches up in that first inning. He got two big shut-down innings,” Walter said. “He probably could have went a little bit further, but we had 85 pitches on our mind. Really pleased with the way he threw three pitches for strikes. We’re excited about he is right now.”
Holden White, Chris Farish and Griffin Roberts combined for the final 3 ? on the mound for Wake, allowing just one hit while striking out five.
The win was simply one the Deacs had to have, Walter said.
“We had to have it. After last weekend of going on the road and not playing well, this puts us in equation where if we take care of business in the league, we’ll be in the conversation for a bid,” he said. “That’s always goal one — to get to the NCAA Tournament, and this team is certainly capable of doing that. It was good to see us respond today.”
The Deacs host Davidson (5-2) at 6 p.m. Tuesday before playing four games at home next weekend.
“Now the bats are rolling and we’re pitching good,” Sellers said. “It’s all up from here.”