Image credit: Louisville coach Dan McDonnell
When Wake Forest coach Tom Walter and Louisville coach Dan McDonnell exchanged lineup cards in Winston-Salem last weekend, you could forgive the home-plate umpire for being a bit perplexed.
For anyone who’s followed college baseball or the Atlantic Coast Conference closely over the last couple of years, those lineups should look vastly different. No Brendan McKay or Drew Ellis or Drew Hairston or Colby Fitch or Nick Solak or Corey Ray for Louisville. No Gavin Sheets or Stuart Fairchild or Will Craig or Nate Mondou or Ben Breazeale for Wake Forest.
Six of Louisville’s nine starters in last year’s College World Series have either been drafted or graduated. Due to the draft and a couple of key suspensions, the Demon Deacons are without the same number from last year’s super regional team.
Thus, two of the most fear-inducing lineups in the country entered 2018 searching for new identities. But by all indications, both programs could be starting to find them.
Though the Cardinals dropped last weekend’s series to the Deacons, they stand at 17-4 overall. The Deacons enter this weekend at 10-11—but they’ve won their first two ACC weekends in impressive fashion against then-No. 3 Florida State and then-No. 12 Louisville.
So, yes, both teams look very different, but “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “worse.”
McDonnell doesn’t do rebuilds.
The reigning College Coach of the Year has taken the Cardinals on four Omaha trips over the last 11 years by using a methodical recruiting approach and always keeping one eye toward the future. McDonnell and his coaching staff routinely stockpile so much talent that freshmen rarely need to be counted on, with only some exceptions. Instead, McDonnell employs his freshman classes sparingly, giving them a handful of at-bats in key moments with the expectation that they’ll be relied upon much more heavily as sophomores and juniors.
The idea is that there’s always another wave of talent behind the current one; this year, that wave just so happens to be predominantly sophomores.
Case in point: shortstop Tyler Fitzgerald. He was the jewel of Louisville’s 2017 freshmen class but had just 125 at-bats behind incumbent shortstop Devin Hairston and second baseman Devin Mann. He batted just .208/.303/.272, but he wasn’t expected to carry the load.
The game is tied as Tyler Fitzgerald delivers a 1-out RBI single to right center to plate Zach Britton. LOU 4, WKU 4 – Top 8th pic.twitter.com/Q8zTQtG6pg
— Louisville Baseball (@UofLBaseball) March 21, 2018
This year, as the team’s starting shortstop, he’s off to a .261/.369/.406 start, and he ignited Louisville’s comeback against Wake Forest last Saturday with a clutch two-out RBI single and a booming home run to left. Suddenly, Fitzgerald has gone from spare part to one of the team’s most experienced players.
“I love it,” Fitzgerald said, smiling. “I cherish this opportunity. I’m in the nine-hole, kind of a second leadoff hitter. I got a lot of at-bats last year, didn’t really go the way I wanted them to, but hopefully I can start heating up here and start helping the team not just defensively but also offensively.”
Unlike the last couple of seasons, the Cardinals only have two upperclassmen who are regular starters: junior center fielder Josh Stowers, who has missed the last two games after hitting his head on the shortstop’s leg on a stolen-base attempt, and Mann, the now-junior second baseman.
Stowers, who is day-to-day, appeared to be hitting his offensive groove just before the injury, homering earlier in that contest against Wake Forest. Similar to what Ray was in his junior season, Stowers is a speedy leadoff hitter who also boasts double-digit home run potential. Mann, meanwhile, has been as steady as they come in the middle of the batting order, hitting .310/.450/.535 with a team-leading 27 RBIs.
Around those two juniors, the Cardinals are still trying to find that right formula of sophomores. Jake Snider, son of recruiting coordinator Eric Snider, has been a dependable two-hole hitter, leading the team with 12 stolen bases in 14 attempts. First baseman Logan Wyatt has also seemingly solidified a top-of-the-order spot with his .333/.500/.533 start, while third baseman Justin Lavey and outfielder Drew Campbell have shown flashes of production.
“We’re just so different,” Fitzgerald said. “But I think the exciting thing about this team is there’s just so much room to grow. We’re not anywhere near how good we could be. That’s what I’m most excited about with this team.”
The Demon Deacons have reached a regional, then a super regional, in consecutive years thanks in large part to one of the country’s most potent offenses.
Last year, powered by the likes of Sheets, Fairchild and Breazeale, the Deacons ranked first in the country in home runs (106), fifth in slugging percentage (.509) and 13th in scoring (7.6 runs per game). Along the way, they coined the much-deserved nickname #RakeForest.
The nucleus of that lineup is now radically different.
“We knew we had big shoes to fill,” said freshman center fielder D.J. Poteet. “I mean, last year, they were probably the best-hitting team in the country. Our freshman class I think is our highest-rated class ever, and we’ve got a lot of pieces to be good.
“We’re still trying to figure some stuff out, like people are still going through slumps, I started off kind of slow, but I think midseason, we should be in full swing, especially the freshmen.”
Wake Forest has had to lean much more heavily on its freshmen than anticipated with the preseason suspensions of starting shortstop Bruce Steel and infielder/outfielder Keegan Maronpot, and thus far, its lineup is producing about three runs fewer per game (4.8) than it did a year ago. This past weekend, the Deacons ran out lineups featuring as many as five freshmen.
There have been growing pains, yes, but there’s also been cause for encouragement.
Poteet, in particular, has elevated his game in the ACC’s first two weekends. The switch-hitting leadoff hitter hit walk-off home runs against both FSU and Louisville in less than a week’s time. Then, the day after he walked off against Louisville, he began the series’ second game with a solo shot. He’s hitting .261/.402/.507 on the season, but there’s no question he’s trending up.
“It’s just confidence and momentum,” Poteet said. “I like those situations, and everybody on our team likes it. I think we’re going to be something special.
“The walk-off and a leadoff home runs are two homers that are pretty rare. It was definitely a good feeling, but I’m just trying to keep it going.”
So, too, is fellow freshman Bobby Seymour, who hit his first career home run against Louisville, and who Poteet said has shown special power in batting practice. Though early season slumps have torpedoed their overall numbers, freshman Chris Lanzilli and Michael Ludowig have hinted at offensive breakouts as well, with Ludowig putting together a big three-RBI day against the Cardinals this past weekend.
“This kind of freshmen group is like when we had Will Craig and all those guys who played as freshmen—you know, Mondou and Craig and then Sheets and Fairchild behind them,” Walter said. “We’ve got some guys with ability who just need seasoning. I wish we had some more pieces around them so it wasn’t so much dependent on them, but they’re learning. D.J. Poteet, Lanzilli, Seymour, Ludowig—those guys are going to be really good players sometime soon.”
And they aren’t entirely alone. Junior second baseman Jake Mueller has quietly been one of the ACC’s most consistent hitters over his collegiate career and is off to a .341/.471/.390 start. Third baseman Johnny Aiello—the team’s top position player prospect—has yet to get his bat fully going, but Walter said he was encourage by Aiello’s offensive display in the rubber game against Louisville. The righthanded hitter slugged a first-inning grand slam to left center and nearly added another bomb in his next at-bat, if not for the wind blowing in.
What makes this Wake Forest club different from the last few years, though, is the strength of its pitching staff. The Deacons have yet to figure out the right combination on the mound in midweek games, but the team’s weekend group of Griffin Roberts, Morgan McSweeney and Colin Peluse could rank as the best rotation in the ACC in terms of stuff and upside. #RakeForest or not, those three arms have been pivotal in leading the Deacons to victory the last two weekends.
Roberts won ACC pitcher of the week after allowing just one run and striking out 13 Cardinals across 8.1 innings. He ran his fastball up to 95 mph deep into the contest, and his hard mid-80’s slider ranks as one of the best pitches in his draft class. McSweeney, meanwhile, struggled in the middle innings against Louisville, but as a converted reliever making just his second start, that was very much expected. He consistently touched 94 mph in his first three innings. Peluse, meanwhile, worked 91-93 mph against Louisville with late, hard sinking action and has shown an aptitude to pitch deep into games.
“We said that coming into the year—we felt like our rotation had a chance to be as good as anybody’s,” Walter said, “and I feel like it’s as good as anybody’s in the league quite honestly. And it’s gonna have to be. We’re a young team. Runs are hard to come by for us right now.”
Added Poteet: “They’re all power arms. Everybody’s sitting 93 or above. And I think that if we score 4-5 runs a game, no one’s going to beat us, especially on the weekend. Weekdays, we still need to figure out our pitching. But on the weekends, I feel like we’re going to win every game.”