WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Perfection unfolded Saturday night in Winston-Salem.
The Deacs topped the Mountaineers 4-3 in front of a mixed and ravenous crowd of 3,018 passionate fans cheering every big play, jeering every supposed bad call and ultimately losing their mind during the climatic walk-off finish.
Big home runs, loud foul balls, vicious strikeouts and a bit of controversy delighted the masses, especially the ones cheering for the hometown Deacs, who advanced to the NCAA Regional Final with the victory.
“What a great college baseball game that was. Two really good teams going toe to toe, neither team backing, neither team giving in. Just really proud of our guys to fight their way back, down 3-0, against a really good pitching staff,” Wake Forest coach Tom Walter said. “Finding a way to get it tied up, just clutch at bats and clutch plays and clutch pitching on both sides, and the fans were electric. Just a great college baseball environment and that game right there was what college baseball is all about. It was just really fun to be a small part of that.”
Wake is now just one win away from advancing to next weekend's Super Regional round, a best 2-out-of-3 series for the right to move on to the College World Series in Omaha.
For tonight, those dreams are vivid and real for these Deacs after their emotional win over No. 2 seeded West Virginia. The Mountaineers now have to win three straight to claim the region.
Though there were many standout Wake performances, it was first baseman Gavin Sheets who delivered the walk-off single to plate Jonathan Pryor, thus leading to Sheets being mobbed by his teammates and doused in the middle of the field with a water cooler as part of the impromptu celebratory dogpile.
“That was an unbelievable feeling. Earlier in the game I hit two balls well that were foul, so the biggest thing there I was thinking was just stay behind the ball, and get it in right center,” Sheets said. “I knew I had a chance to get the fastball there, and I got the fastball and I stayed behind it. Just a really exciting game, the fans were unbelievable, that’s why you play college baseball right there, so just an unbelievable night.”
Pryor led off the bottom of the 9th with a solid single to left field, then moved to second base on a sacrifice bunt by Jake Mueller. West Virginia coach Randy Mazey chose to give Wake center fielder Stuart Fairchild an intentional pass, thus setting up a potential double play with Sheets at the plate.
Sheets delivered in the 9th in the finale of a trilogy of prolific at-bats late in the game against West Virginia pitching. Facing West Virginia starter Isaiah Kearns in the bottom of the 4th, Sheets was ultimately plunked on a 3-2 pitch after what seemed like a 10-minute at-bat. With Fairchild at first, Kearns tossed to keep him honest nearly a dozen times, six times in a row at one stretch. Sheets stepped out as Kearns was about to finally pitch to him again, in a bit of gamesmanship.
After the Deacs had tied the game at 3 in the bottom of the 7th on a Pryor double that plated Logan Harvey, Sheets had an opportunity to break the game open. He struck out with the bases loaded instead.
“I looked at the scoreboard and saw that I thought I had one more shot in the bottom of the ninth. I kept telling myself to stay in it and not get too down,” Sheets said. “Obviously, it was a big situation and I wanted to do something there, and for that strikeout there (in the seventh), I just wanted another shot at it. Griff did a great job of keeping us in the game there, and keeping it tied, so I got another shot in the ninth.”
West Virginia hammered Wake starter Parker Dunshee early, scoring three runs on three hits in the top of the 1st, culminating with a two-run home run by Jackson Cramer.
Dunshee settled in, made adjustments, and went seven full innings for the Deacs. He allowed just six hits while striking out five. He did not figure in the decision.
“I just didn’t locate very well in that first inning with my fastball. A guy jumped me and took me out of the yard on an 0-0 pitch. That wasn’t a very good pitch, so I just need to come out better in the first inning going forward, because in the past month or so it hasn’t been as good as I’d like it to be,” Dunshee said. “So, I had to make a couple adjustments and realize that they are a pretty free-swinging team, so if I made pitches just out of the zone or on the edge of the zone, without nibbling and giving them free bases, then I would be alright. In the first inning, I just didn’t make enough good pitches, that’s a really good offensive team so they can hit mistakes, and they did in the first inning.”
Griffin Roberts took over after the Deacs tied the game in the bottom of the 7th, and was virtually unhittable. His slider was absolutely nasty, and he struck out four of the eight batters he faced, earning the win.
“It was kind of the pitch I had going tonight, didn’t have my fastball in the first inning, so I had to find something that worked, so that’s what I went to,” Roberts said about his slider. “Stayed with it, and didn’t give in at all. I knew they were sitting slider, but was just relentless with it, and just got to keep doing it and trust it. But next time, I’ve got to have my fastball, you can’t just rely on one pitch all the time.”
Back-to-back extra base hits by the Deacs drew them to within striking distance in the bottom of the fifth. Johnny Aiello led off with a double to right-center field, then shortstop Bruce Steel hammered one over the wall in left-center for a two-run blast bringing the Deacs to within 3-2.
The dramatic win catapulted Wake to the region final Sunday at 5 p.m. They will face the winner of the noon contest between No. 2 seed West Virginia and No. 3 seed Maryland. UMBC was eliminated Saturday with a 16-2 loss to Maryland.
The Deacs plan to start Donnie Sellers (3-5, 4.34), and have an absolute bevy of arms available in the bullpen. Wake has used just Morgan McSweeney and Griffin Roberts thus far in relief this weekend.