Building a college baseball batting order isn’t an exact science.
Varying factors enter the equation, no doubt — previous season results, summer league play and camp performance all play huge roles.
As the Deacs began the season in Houston, coach Tom Walter had settled on second baseman Jake Mueller as the leadoff hitter with senior left fielder Jonathan Pryor to follow leading into the lethal heart of the Wake Forest lineup featuring sluggers Stuart Fairchild and Gavin Sheets.
It didn’t work.
Mueller went 0-for-11 in his first three games in the leadoff spot and the injury-plagued Deacs floundered in Houston, losing three of their first four to begin the season.
It took less than a week for Walter to find the right combination. After sitting Mueller in the Saturday contest the following week at home against Southern Cal, Walter put him in the two hole behind Pryor for the series finale — and that’s been the default lineup the rest of the season.
Mueller went 3-for-4 at the plate, drew a walk, knocked in a run and scored four times as the Deacs mauled the Trojans 18-5 to capture the series that righted the ship after the surprisingly rocky beginning.
Playing behind Nate Mondou, now with the Oakland Athletic’s Class A farm team Beloit Snappers, last season at second base, Mueller played in just 11 games — starting three. He batted .250 in 16 official at-bats.
This season he’s become a vital cog in the Deacs No. 4 ranked scoring offense — he’s batting .346 with two home runs and 23 RBI. He’s scored 38 times and has an on-base percentage of .432.
“It wasn’t working,” Mueller said about his early-season stint leading off. “I might have been putting too much pressure on myself there. After the Houston series, he moved me lower in the lineup then I was benched for a game in the USC series. He just wanted to give me a mental break — a reset.”
Wake is fourth in the nation in runs scored (330), 14th in batting average (.315) and second in home runs (69).
“Since then (the change), the top of the lineup has really been setting the table for our middle guys. It’s been better that way,” Mueller said. “Pryor is a great leadoff hitter. He’s done everything we’ve expected him to do, and it’s easier for me to hit when he’s on base. It opens up more holes for me. It’s a great combination.”
Junior center fielder Stuart Fairchild (.352, 11 HR, 41 RBI) and first basemen Gavin Sheets (.325, 13 HR, 53 RBI) follow Mueller in the lineup batting third and clean up respectively. Opposing hurlers don’t exactly look forward to facing those guys, meaning Mueller is likely to see more straight-forward pitching.
“With those guys behind me, they have to come at me more. They have to try to get me to get myself out more, or they just have to come right at me,” Mueller said. “How they pitch to me that first at-bat kind of sets the table for how they’re going to pitch to me the rest of the game. There are times they are going to come at me. If I can get ahead of counts, that’s when I really start to look for fastballs and look for something to drive. I’m not necessarily a power guy, but I can set the table.”
Though the Deacs don’t play much small ball, Mueller is tied for the team lead with three sacrifice bunts. He’s also bunted for a hit seven times this season. He’s clearly the most proficient bunter on the squad, and his drag down the first base line is an absolute thing of beauty — forcing the first baseman, pitcher and second baseman to make uncomfortable decisions that typically end with his speeding past the bag safely.
“As a two-hole hitter, you’re going to have more situational at-bats. Sometimes you have to act as a lead-off guy, sometimes you need to drive in runs and other times you have to move guys around by bunting or using the hit-and-run,” Mueller said. “It’s the little things. I’m at my best when everything is open for me. The two hole allows me to do all those things. I never had doubt the two hole would work for me.
“I’ve always been a little undersized, and I don’t hit the ball out of the yard as often as everybody else. I’ve had to figure out a way to make myself more versatile. I’ve been a good small ball player since I was young. I’ve always had that part of my game. It’s something to take pride in. The big thing in baseball is to never bunt, but why not when you can get it down and it’s free.”
Mueller believes the bunt is an important weapon in his arsenal.
“It’s a good part of my game and opens up holes for me. They have to come in at the corners a bit and that allows me to hit balls through the hole that get by them,” he said. “It adds versatility to my game. I’m not the biggest guy with the most power. I had to figure out something. It makes a difference, that’s for sure.”
Mueller graduated from Richland Northeast in Columbia, South Carolina, but moved there from Georgia during his middle school years. He never really was a fan of any South Carolina school growing up, giving his allegiance to the Georgia Bulldogs and even the North Carolina Tar Heels for a period of time — the latter something he claims to not be too proud of now.
He committed to the Deacs as a high school sophomore, and the Gamecocks came hard at him late in the process trying to get him to postpone his decision.
“I didn’t think it was the right fit for me. Wake was,” Mueller said. “Playing for a guy like coach Walter. He’s an incredible person. I think he’s a great ambassador for the program. He sets the standard of being a great baseball player, but also fine young men. He sets the bar for us in all aspects of life.”
The Deacs (28-11, 12-6) take their show on the road this weekend, heading south to Mueller’s home state of South Carolina to face the No. 3 ranked Clemson Tigers (31-7, 14-4) in a three-game series that begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
The Deacs came close to taking a series last season against the Tigers, in the ACC-slate lid lifter.
“We had that 8-4 lead against Clemson on Sunday and just blew it. It was a crappy feeling when that happened,” Mueller said. “It’s something we haven’t forgotten, and is one of the reasons why this series is even bigger.”
The Deacs are a consensus top-20 team themselves, and have shown this season they can play with and beat anyone.
“We have proved ourselves. We’re an elite team this year. There’s no doubt in my mind that we can go to Omaha and the College World Series,” Mueller said. “We have the depth, pitching and experience. We can do that.
“It’s important to make a statement on the road against a top-5 program.”
Walter echoed Mueller’s confidence.
“We know we can play with anybody. We’ve shown that, and our guys believe in themselves,” he said. “We’re not worried about being overmatched in any game we play.”
Parker Dunshee (7-1, 3.99) will get the nod on the mound for Wake Friday evening against Clemson’s Charlie Barnes (4-2, 2.30).
“We’re going to have to pitch well. They are a team that based on momentum. When they beat you, they beat you with big innings. They score runs in bunches,” Walter said. “They’re not a team who scores one here and one there and then you look up and they have six. They’re a team who scores four in an inning.
“So you can’t give them free passes or make errors. We have to play clean baseball. If we do that, we have a chance to win all those games. I like our club and I like this matchup. We’ll be ready to play on Friday.”
Donnie Sellers (3-2, 4.35) will start the 4 p.m. Saturday contest for Wake, with Connor Johnstone (5-0, 2.87) on the mound for the 1 p.m. Sunday tilt. There is inclement weather currently in the forecast Sunday, so keep an eye on Demon Deacon Digest for any potential schedule changes.
"They like to build innings and put pressure on you. We have to avoid that by playing good baseball. It’s a tough place to play,” Walter said. “They have great crowds and they’re used to having success. It’ll be a fun environment, just like Louisville.”
We’ll be at Clemson all weekend and look forward to delivering great coverage of the Deacs in this important ACC series.