Two big bats were drafted after the 2016 season, but the Baseball Deacs haven’t missed a beat offensively.
That’s not to say Will Craig and Nate Mondou haven’t been missed, but the Deacs have more than compensated.
Wake fans could point to the continued improvement and increased depth of the pitching staff as one of the reasons for the Deacs 30-13 start. And they would be right — and that may be a great topic for an article NEXT week.
But in recent years, the Wake Forest baseball program has been known as bashers — and that really hasn’t change. If anything, they are more dangerous offensively than any other recent year.
From top-to-bottom the offensive improvement by every returning Wake Forest batter is borderline remarkable.
Batter - 2016 avg. - 2017 avg.
Jake Mueller - .250 - .349
Stuart Fairchild - .293 - .358
Ben Breazeale - .246 - .356
Johnny Aiello - .226 - .333
Bruce Steel - .167 (2015, missed 2016 with injury) - .274
Keegan Maronpot - .159 - .232
And last but not least, leadoff hitter Jonathan Pryor, who hit just .247 last season. He’s been over .400 for much of 2017, and is sitting at .388 with three home runs, 27 RBIs and 41 runs scored.
He’s raised his average more than 140 points in a season, and is part of table-setting tandem with Mueller than has helped the Wake Forest offense score 8.3 runs a game — good for seventh in the nation and a two -runs-a-game improvement over last year.
“When the whole team is swinging the bat well, it makes it easier for the guy going behind you,” Pryor said. “There’s no way to really pitch around in this lineup. I think everyone is focused on trying to not do too much.
"This year I’ve been more comfortable and know my role. I know what I need to do, and learned from my struggles last year. I stay in my approach. It’s been awesome to see how everyone is doing.”
Pryor sees a lot of pitches, which is a valuable skill for a leadoff hitter, but his walk rate is way down in 2017. He’s drawn just 23 free passes in 43 starts in 2017versus 39 walks in 49 starts last year.
“Last year I focused on my weaknesses, not my strengths. It helped put me in a slump. This year, I’ve been able to focus on my strengths,” he said. “Last year I was maybe a little too patient. I took too many good pitches. I didn’t hit for a high average, but my walks were up a lot. I’ve been able to find a happy medium, and be aggressive in the right situation but also be patient when needed.
“I’ve seen a lot of pitches and still put the ball in play. I’ve adjusted and my approach has evolved from year to year.”
Now the Deacs get to see how those hot bats produce after they’ve had eight full days to cool down. Wake hasn’t take the field since winning 12-6 at Davidson a week ago Wednesday, taking time off for finals week.
“Nice to get it over with. Everyone was stressed,” Pryor said. “Now we can just focus on this weekend.”
For Pryor, a senior, it was his last finals week at Wake Forest.
“I’m all done now,” he said. “It hasn’t really hit yet.”
The Deacs had a couple days completely off baseball, but have been back in preparations late this week as the Boston College Eagles (18-24, 7-17) come to David F. Couch Ballpark for an important three-game ACC series.
"I think we’ve done a pretty good job this week. We faced some live pitching the last couple of days to get us ready for this weekend,” Pryor said. “I feel like we’re sharp still. We needed the time off. We’re where we want to be.”
With the zanily-structured ACC Tournament starting May 23rd in Louisville, the Deacs are in the hunt to lock down one of the top four seeds, which would give them a huge advantage to reach the semifinals.
“We know we have so much left to do still. We’re happy with the way we’ve been playing, but this is a big weekend coming up for us,” Pryor said. “I think we’ll be right where we want to be if we play the way we should. We just want to take care of business and be ready for this weekend.”
The Deacs are currently just one-half game in front of Virginia (14-10) for the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament. After hosting Boston College this weekend, Wake has a road series at Florida State (11-12) then a home series against Pittsburgh (8-13) to close out the conference regular season. Virginia host Miami (12-11) then travels to Georgia Tech (6-15) for series.
“I know that everything will take care of itself. We just need to go out and try to win every game,” Pryor said. “There’s three weekends left in ACC play, and it’s three weekends we feel confident about. We have to take care of business the next three weeks, play well in the ACC Tournament and we think we have a chance to host an NCAA regional.
“If we play the way we should the next three weeks, we should be in great shape.”
The series against Boston College starts at 6 p.m. Friday with Parker Dunshee getting the start for Wake (7-1, 3.93) against the Eagles Jacob Stevens (4-5, 4.52). Game two is slated for 4 p.m. Saturday and the series concludes at 1 p.m. Sunday.