WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.— When Wake Forest recruited Donnie Sellers out of high school in High Point, N.C., it did so as outfielder. Three years later, Sellers has ditched the bat and pitched his way into the Demon Deacons’ weekend rotation.
How did it happen? First, he had to get hurt.
“Freshman fall, I broke my wrist and that put me out of hitting,” Sellers explained on Saturday night after stifling Kent State for seven innings in his third career start. “They were like, ‘OK, look, you can’t really swing it anyway, so we’re going to take the bat out of your hand. You’ve got a good arm, so let’s try you pitching out of a bullpen role,’ and then it just blossomed from there.”
After going 5-5, 5.65 in 36 relief appearances last year, Sellers spent the summer pitching for the Harrisonburg Turks of the Valley League, where he allowed just 10 hits in 22 innings and struck out 29 against just eight walks. He was a closer in high school, too, but over the years has worked to improve both his arsenal and his durability.
So far this season, Sellers has gone 2-0, 2.76 with 13 strikeouts in 16.1 innings. Against Kent State, the righthander struck out six and walked none over seven shutout innings in the nightcap of a doubleheader against the Golden Flashes.
He pitched with a fastball and a slider in high school but added a changeup this spring to fully prepare him for a starter’s workload. On Saturday, he recognized early that his slider wasn’t there and that the changeup, which he throws in the low 80s, was going to have to be the primary complement to his four- and two-seam fastballs.
“I pitched in the summer, took off all winter, then came back for the early spring,” he said, “and then I had to start developing my changeup. That’s where we are with the changeup.”
If you listen closely when you watch Sellers, you can hear him grunting after every pitch. That’s one of the last remnants from his time in the bullpen, where he could lay everything on the line for an inning or two without worrying about conserving energy. That’s obviously not the case in the rotation, and he’s adjusting as he gains experience.
“It’s something that I had to work on, because the past two years I was that max-effort guy who could blow it all out for one or two innings,” he said. “If I came out for the third, I just didn’t have the velo and I didn’t have any offspeed or anything, so it’s just about the preseason work and doing all the conditioning for my arm.”
Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter has been impressed with the transformation Sellers has made over the last three years. Although he was draft-eligible last season—he was ranked No. 428 in the Baseball America 500—Sellers went unselected. With increased stamina, a relatively fresh arm and a fully developed arsenal, that won’t happen again this June.
“He came in here, really, as an outfielder as much as anything when he came here,” Walter said. “Now he’s a weekend starter for us and a guy who’s going to be pitching in professional baseball, so he’s come a long way.”
NEWS AND NOTES
• Freshman righthander Morgan McSweeney pitched the final two innings for Wake Forest and struck out one over two perfect innings. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound righthander touched 94 with his fastball in his first inning, and also throws a power slurve. The Deacons will work McSweeney in the bullpen this season before pushing him into the rotation next season.
“Absolutely,” Walter said. “Next year, as a sophomore, Morgan will be in our weekend rotation. This year’s rotation we’ve got two seniors and Donnie’s going to be a draft pick, so we’ll lose our whole rotation at the end of this year but Morgan and Colin Peluse and Carter Bach and some of the other freshmen will be ready by then.”
• Wake center fielder Stuart Fairchild, who rated as the Best Defensive Outfielder and the No. 16 prospect in the Atlantic Coast Conference in Baseball America’s season preview, continued to show all-around skills. He made a pair of excellent catches during Saturday’s doubleheader, and pulled off a straight steal of home in the second game.
He also showed savvy early in the first game when he deked a runner going from second to third into thinking he was going to catch what turned out to be a clean single into short center field. The runner hesitated and Fairchild used the extra time to throw him out at third base. A few pitches later, Sellers coaxed a double play to end the inning and limit the damage to just one run.
“He can do it all, he’s a five-tool guy,” Walter said. “You saw the play he made on the force out at third base in the first game. It was 4-2 in that situation and it got us a big out. He can beat you in so many different ways. He can hit the ball out of the park, he can steal bases, he can beat you on defense. You just don’t see many guys who can beat you in all phases like that.”
• Sellers was opposed in Saturday’s nightcap by Kent State righthander Zach Willeman, the No. 2 prospect in the Mid-American Conference on No. 84 on this year’s College Top 100 prospects, showed intriguing stuff. Willeman worked primarily with a heavy fastball and a 12-to-6 curveball and threw 50 of his 89 pitches for strikes.
Like Sellers, Willeman is a former reliever moving into the rotation for the first time this season. He saved 21 games in his freshman and sophomore seasons, and has started his draft year 2-1, 3.12 with 18 strikeouts in 17.1 innings. His fastball sat primarily in the low 90s but touched as high as 94 mph in the early innings. He was able to land his curveball in the zone at 73-74 mph range but mostly lost control of the pitch when he tried to bury it for strikeouts. Those versions of the curve were in the 76-77 mph range and typically were spiked in front of of home plate.
He did get swinging strikeouts of Fairchild and shortstop Johnny Aiello with the more powerful version of the curve later in the game, showing its potential as an out pitch once he gains more consistency later in the season.
• Fairchild ranked as the No. 1 prospect in 2015 in the Cal Ripken League (subscriber-only link), while the No. 8 prospect that summer was Charlotte second baseman Brett Netzer. Now a junior, Netzer has made progress at the plate and figures to be drafted in the first five rounds this June, as he’s getting crosschecked early. Several high-level scouts were on hand to see him Wednesday, when he had three hits (falling a homer short of the cycle) in Charlotte’s 6-5 win at N.C. State, and he had two more hits in front of crosscheckers against visiting Xavier and lefty Zac Lowther on Friday in a 2-1 49ers victory.
While Netzer went 0-for-9 in the series’ final two games, scouts have seen an authoritative lefthanded swing from an athletic middle infielder with plus speed and solid gap power. He also hit well last summer in the Cape Cod League, batting .283/.360/.424 for Hyannis.
“He’s become the player we thought he could be,” Charlotte coach Loren Hibbs said Wednesday of the 6-foot, 192-pound junior. “He can run, he swings the bat, he’s a confident hitter. And I think he can handle second base. Earlier in his career he had some adjustments to make, but he’s made them.”
• North Carolina State freshman righthander Dalton Feeney, who ranked No. 237 on last year’s BA 500 out of Bismarck (N.D) High, made his first collegiate start on Sunday against UMass-Lowell and impressed. He touched sat in the low 90s and touched 94 twice with his fastball in the first inning before settling into the 88-91 range for the rest of the game. He coupled the fastball with a high 70s slider and completed his afternoon with six innings of two-hit, shutout ball with four strikeouts and two walks. He helped the Wolfpack end a three-game skid.
“We played well today and I’m happy with the win,” NC State head coach Elliot Avent said in a team release. “That’s a good baseball team that we beat today. I thought Dalton Feeney was outstanding, he went after their hitters and they have a really good lineup. He gave us a really good start and he gave us a chance to win.”
• Wolfpack lefthander Brian Brown, expected to be a key piece of the team’s rotation, made his first appearance of the season in relief of Feeney after missing the first couple of weeks with forearm tendinitis. Brown pitched with a fastball in the 86-88 mph range and mixed in two strikeouts—one looking on a breaking ball and another swinging on a changeup—in a scoreless inning.
• N.C. State shortstop Joe Dunand hit his third home run of the season on Sunday night, a long shot just inside the left-field foul pole. Dunand, the nephew of recently retired all-star Alex Rodriguez, checked in at No. 26 on BA’s College Top 100.
Scouts in the Carolinas will compare Dunand and North Carolina’s junior shortstop Logan Warmouth all spring, and Warmoth is off to a strong start. He made a strong play Sunday to end an 8-5 win against Long Beach State, ranging to his right and unleashing a strong throw to get the final out, and earned post-series praise from Long Beach State coach Troy Buckley, who was impressed by his athleticism and defense, and by that of the Tar Heels up the middle in general.
Warmoth also has been North Carolina’s best hitter early; he’s off to a .378/.442/.622 start with two homers, 10 RBIs and seven steals (in as many chances) in 12 games. He doesn’t have loud tools but doesn’t have a glaring weakness either, and his solid .270/.330/.450 summer in the Cape Cod League last year enhances his profile for scouts.
Contributing: John Manuel