Can Wake Forest Turn Things Around Despite Early Struggles?


Image credit: (Photo by Isaiah Vazquez/Getty Images)

The season started with great promise for Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons were ranked No. 1 in the Preseason Top 25 for the first time in program history and had five players with a legitimate chance to become a first-round pick in July. They were coming off an ACC title and their first trip to the College World Series in 68 years and were favored to repeat both accomplishments.

A month later, Wake Forest is in a much different spot. It is 14-6, 2-4 and has tumbled to No. 15 in the Top 25. It’s lost back-to-back series to open ACC play after not losing a conference series at all last season. It is dealing with several injuries, including losing All-American first baseman Nick Kurtz for the next few weeks with a shoulder injury. The Demon Deacons are facing arguably their most adversity since their dismal 2021 season that saw them go 20-27 amid injuries and Covid concerns.

Wake Forest inhabits a tricky position in late March. There’s still plenty of time for it to right the ship before Selection Monday. It’s only one-third of the way into the season, after all. But it’s also played enough baseball that angst about its early season performance is understandable. Its many injuries make it very literally not the same team today that was in the preseason when its lofty expectations were created.

So, as Wake Forest prepares for a critical ACC series this weekend at home against Louisville, what’s gone wrong and can the Demon Deacons correct it in time to still meet their goals for the season?

Wake Forest Rotation

While the Deacs lost All-American Rhett Lowder, the best pitcher in program history, and Sean Sullivan, the team’s No. 3 starter, from last season, their weekend rotation was still expected to be the team’s biggest strength in 2024. All-American Josh Hartle returned and moved from the No. 2 slot to the front of the rotation. Righthander Chase Burns joined as a transfer from Tennessee and righthander Michael Massey moved from the bullpen to the rotation. All three had the potential to become first-round picks in July.

The rotation has not been the elite group it was expected to be. Burns has more than held up his end of the bargain, going 4-0, 2.08 with 56 strikeouts and 12 walks in 30.1 innings. He’s arguably been the best pitcher in the country, delivered a quality start in four of his five outings and Wake Forest is undefeated when he takes the mound.

Massey has been good but limited and is 3-1, 1.23 with 25 strikeouts and seven walks in 14.2 innings. He missed his start last week due to a hamstring injury and his status this weekend at Louisville is still uncertain. He likely won’t be at full bore if he does make his start.

Hartle, who last year went 11-2, 2.81 with 140 strikeouts (second-most in program history) and 24 walks in 102.1 innings, has struggled this season. He is 3-1, 6.26 with 22 strikeouts and six walks in 23 innings. He started the season fine but in the last two weeks, against Duke and Virginia, he’s given up 13 runs (12 earned) in 5.1 innings on 19 hits with three walks and five strikeouts. Hartle last season did not have a game in which he gave up more than seven hits. He’s now done it in consecutive weeks.

Duke and Virginia both have older lineups that are among the best in the sport. Both rank top-10 in batting and average more than 9.5 runs per game. Both teams stayed disciplined in their approach, used the middle of the field well and knocked Hartle out early. The lefthander wasn’t at his best in either start. Perhaps the Blue Devils and Cavaliers were nearly uniquely suited to take advantage. Or maybe they created a gameplan other teams will be able to follow.

What is certain is that Wake Forest needs Hartle, Burns and Massey at something close to their best. In the six games this season that haven’t been started by that trio, the Deacs are 3-3 and their starting pitchers are 2-1, 7.85 with 22 strikeouts and 13 walks and seven hit batters in 18.1 innings.

“It all comes down to starting pitching,” coach Tom Walter said. “Josh Hartle hasn’t been himself but we’re getting better. For the first inning [at Virginia] he was better, looked more like his old self. Second inning got away from him a little bit. If we make a couple plays behind him, who knows, he might throw six. Josh is getting a lot closer and when he puts it together and we get Michael Massey back healthy and we can count on those three guys giving us reliable starts, it makes our bullpen a whole lot better.

“Our bullpen has been taxed because we’ve been getting two out of Massey and three out of Hartle. Once those guys become who we know they are things are going to look a lot different.”

The Bullpen

That brings us to the bullpen. Wake’s relief corps was also a strength last season, led by closer Camden Minacci (0-1, 2.73, 12 SV), Massey (3-0, 2.58) and Cole Roland (2-1, 2.12), as well as the piggyback combination of Sullivan and Seth Keener. Minacci, Massey and Roland all made at least 24 appearances and combined for 97.2 innings. Keener and Minacci were both top-10 round draft picks last summer and Massey is now in the rotation. Roland has yet to pitch this season due to injury. Lefthander Joe Ariola and righthander Chase Walter both missed the first few weeks of the season due to injury, as well.

That has left Wake Forest inexperienced in the bullpen. There’s been some goodrighthander William Ray is 0-2, 1.56 with 20 strikeouts and seven walks in 17.1 inningsand some badgraduate transfer David Falco Jr. (Maryland) was expected to step in as closer but is 0-1, 7.15 with four saves in 12 appearances. As a whole, Wake’s bullpen is 2-3, 5.49 and has been asked to cover more than 4.1 innings per game.

It’s tough to accurately assess Wake’s bullpen given what it’s been missing so far this season. The Deacs expect Roland to return in the next couple weeks. Ariola and Walter are getting back up to speed. And Walter is right: if Wake Forest gets more quality length out of its starters, the bullpen will benefit.

Wake Forest Lineup

The Deacs are averaging 8.8 runs per game, 46th nationally. That’s a healthy number but it’s also, incredibly, 12th in the ACC. Kurtz is hitting .241/.475/.444 with three home runs, 24 walks and 12 strikeouts. Seaver King, another Preseason All-American and projected first-round pick, is hitting .307/.354/.568 with six home runs and five stolen bases. Sophomore Jack Winnay (.343/.439/.806, 9 HR) and graduate transfer Adam Tellier (.386/.490/.807, 9 HR, 8 SB) have stepped up to lead the offense and sophomore shortstop Marek Houston (.306/.405/.431) has made a nice jump.

The lineup looks solid and there’s more pressure on it this year because the pitching staff isn’t performing at an elite level. It’s dealt with injuries of its own. Most significantly, Kurtz left Friday’s game at Virginia with a shoulder injury suffered diving for a groundball. He isn’t expected back for a few weeks. Houston has missed time as well.

While Wake’s lineup hasn’t fully clicked yet, it’s hard to nitpick a team that’s averaging 8.8 runs per game. Assuming Kurtz returns to full health, a breakout is coming for the All-American. He’s done a good job of not expanding his strike zone so far and ranks eighth nationally in walks. The Deacs maybe need to do a better job of protecting him in the lineup. King has come on stronger in recent weeks and Tellier and Winnay are making sure there’s no shortage of power in the lineup.

“Jack has a low heartbeat,” Walter said. “We can put him anywhere on the field and he’s going to do well.”

The Defense

Wake Forest last year ranked 21st nationally in fielding at .979. This year it is 109th at .971. That’s not a huge dip but it’s not insignificant. There have been some crucial errors, including a couple last weekend at Virginia that swung the series.

The Deacs are searching for the right combination defensively. Freshman outfielder Javar Williams has recently come into the lineup in part for his defensive abilities.

As long as Houston is hurt, Wake won’t be at its best defensively. But with Kurtz and Houston in the lineup, the Deacs should be a solid defensive unit. Maybe not as good as last year, but good enough.

So, where does all of that leave the Deacs? Today’s team is not the same team that was picked to repeat as ACC champions and return to Omaha. Until it gets healthy, it’s not fair to hold them to that standard.

But Wake Forest won’t be fully healthy for another couple weeks – the midpoint of the season. And the games played right now still count toward the conference standings and its NCAA Tournament resume. It’s a little early for RPI but Wake Forest is doing just fine metrically (RPI 14, SOS 15). The trouble, such as it exists, is that the Deacs have already lost two ACC series and face a tricky three-week stretch ahead – home against Louisville (14-7, 1-2) and No. 23 North Carolina (18-4, 4-2) before a trip to Virginia Tech (15-4, 5-1). The schedule doesn’t slacken considerably after that but by mid April, Wake Forest is expecting its injured players to be back in action.

Wake’s dream of back-to-back ACC title is far from dead, though the next few weeks will be critical to keeping it alive. Hosting a regional is firmly still on the table. Clemson last year went 2-7 to open ACC play. The Tigers then got red hot and earned the No. 4 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Expecting Wake Forest to play like 2023 Clemson down the stretch is unfair. But the Deacs’ roster and coaching staff have more than enough talent and experience to pull out of this skid, find their groove and be playing their best baseball come May. Do that and Wake Forest still has the ingredients for another Omaha run.

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