WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A record-setting crowd of 2,743 came out Friday night to cheer on the Deacs in their first home NCAA Regional appearance in 15 years.
They didn’t leave disappointed.
Two big innings catapulted Wake to a 11-3 win over UMBC in the first round of the NCAA Regional at David F. Couch Ballpark.
The day, and the experience, for Wake Forest coach Tom Walter was probably a bit surreal as he reflected on the eight-year rebuilding journey that has led to these memorable moments.
“So proud of our guys and happy for our guys. First and foremost, I’m happy for this group of seniors who bought into this program and believed in each other to have gotten to this point,” he said. “Secondly, I’m just proud of our program. To see the hard work our assistant coaches put in, our administration, David Couch, Bill Merrifield and on down the line.
“We’ve had so many people step up for this program, and it feels good to pay that forward.”
Walter hasn’t slept much this week he said.
“I thought Friday at seven o’clock was never going to come,” he said. “I think the clock was going backward. It was a lot of nerves, anticipation and excitement.”
The Deacs move on to face West Virginia, who belted six home runs Friday afternoon in a 9-1 win over Maryland.
The 6th inning was crucial for the Deacs Friday night, and helped set the table for the rest of the weekend.
The Deacs led 6-2 as the 6th began, but a walk, error and bloop single put the bases full of Retrievers with nobody retired.
With the bullpen frantically getting loose, Wake starter Connor Johnstone coaxed a fly out to Stuart Fairchild in center field for the first out of the inning, but a run scored tagging from third.
Then Wake catcher Ben Breazeale connected with first baseman Gavin Sheets, as the two combined for a back pick, nabbing UMBC’s Zach Bright, who was straying too far from the bag.
“I’ll give it to Gavin this time,” Breazeale said. “It’s more on him. He saw something, so we went with it.”
With two down now, UMBC’s Collin Stack singled to right field. Wake’s Keegan Maronpot bobbled the pickup, so Hunter Dolshun was stopped to begin with then ultimately sent toward home. A one-hop strike from Maronpot and a timely short-hop pickup by Breazeale led to Dolshun being out by several steps for the final out.
A bases loaded threat with nobody out for UMBC ended with just one run scoring, keeping the Wake edge at three.
Then, they immediately proceeded to tack on four more runs in the bottom of the 6th to blow the game open 10-3.
“I thought where the game turned, it was 6-2, they load the bases on a walk and an error and kind of a bleeder to right,” Walter said. “CJ keeps it to a one, minimizes that inning, gets us in the dugout 6-3, and we score four to make it 10-3 and that was kind of the ballgame from there.”
Every Wake position starter had a base hit and all but Fairchild scored a run. Fairchild was 3-for-5 at the plate with two RBIs. Wake second baseman Jake Mueller was also 3-for-5 batting, with two runs scored and three RBIs. Both Jonathan Pryor and Bruce Steel had two hits and two runs scored.
The Deacs managed to put 11 runs on the board without a home run, their largest such home output of the season.
“Usually, in the past our offense is based off the home run, we score a lot of runs from the home run, but it’s good to see that even on a day that we don’t hit a home run, we can still string quality at bats together and Coach Walter is huge on that,” Fairchild said. “That’s how you win games, stringing quality at bats together. We were able to do that together for multiple innings, and that’s what got us the win.”
“A lot of teams come into our place knowing that we’re going to hit home runs, but that’s not what our whole team is based around. We can do small ball, we had a bunt hit today, and we strung together a bunch of hits, so it’s not just the home run with us.”
With the padded lead, Johnstone went 7.2 innings, striking out seven Retrievers while allowing just three runs. He earned the victory to put him 8-0 on the season. Johnstone received a huge standing ovation from the Wake faithful as he was lifted for reliever Morgan McSweeney, who closed out the game for the Deacs.
“That was really cool,” Johnstone said. “I got goosebumps there. I’ve never had a standing ovation before. That was a cool feeling.”
Being able to extend Johnstone and use just one reliever means the pitching staff is in great shape going into the rest of the weekend regional action.
“It’s huge,” Walter said. “Depending on what happens tomorrow night, we’re either going to have to win three or four games. We have a lot of baseball left to play in this regional. To not use (Colin) Peluse, (Chris) Farish, (Griffin) Roberts or (John) McCarren — our most reliable bullpen guys are fresh. We’ve got a lot of innings in our holster.”
Wake (40-18) will throw Parker Dunshee (9-1, 4.41) at 7 p.m. Saturday against West Virginia (35-24). The Mountaineers brought a huge contingent of fans for their game against Maryland Friday, so The Couch figures to be filled to capacity Saturday evening.
Maryland (37-22) will face UMBC (23-24) in an elimination game at 2 p.m. Saturday, also at David F. Couch Ballpark.