Wake Forest’s baseball team is entering a season with high expectations, and the Deacons will finally get underway with four games this weekend.
The program hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament in the past two seasons, a combined record of 56-58 since coming one win away from reaching the College World Series in 2017. This season Wake Forest boasts a lineup full of returning starters and what it thinks is a deeper pitching staff than last season.
Here are three strengths, three unknowns and three weaknesses – a starting nine – for Wake Forest entering the baseball season with Friday’s game against Seton Hall at David F. Couch Ballpark:
Three up: Bash brothers
Juniors Chris Lanzilli and Bobby Seymour formed one of the most-potent hitting duos in the ACC, with a combined 25 home runs and 159 RBIs last season. Seymour’s 92 RBIs were the most in college baseball since Buster Posey had 93 in 2008; Lanzilli was in the top five in the ACC in total bases, RBIs, hits, batting average and homers.
The sluggers above aren’t the only bright spots in the Deacons’ lineup.
Wake Forest returns six of its top seven hitters from a year ago — junior Shane Muntz had 14 homers and 40 RBI, junior Michael Ludowig batted .300, sophomore Michael Turconi hit .273 and sophomore Brendan Tinsman had 10 homers and 41 RBIs.
“We led the league in runs scored last year and return the bulk of that offense. So that’s obviously super encouraging,” Coach Tom Walter said.
Wake Forest has four viable weekend starting pitchers — Ryan Cusick, Jared Shuster, Antonio Menendez and Will Fleming, which is the order in which they’ll start this weekend.
“There’s a lot of competition for those weekend spots, there’s a lot of competition for that Friday job which, again, is not something we’ve had a ton of competition for in years past,” Walter said.
And the Deacons’ bullpen features six pitchers that Walter and pitching coach John Hendricks have been impressed with in the fall and preseason — Shane Smith will be the closer, lefties Bobby Hearn and Tyler Witt are experienced, and the Deacons are confident in Cole McNamee, Riley Myers and Brennan Oxford.
Three unknowns: The weekend rotation
This weekend and the one two weeks from now are the big ones for Wake Forest determining its weekend rotation.
The Deacons play four games this weekend, with a doubleheader against UW Milwaukee on Saturday. Next weekend, Wake Forest travels to Long Beach State, and then returns home for games against La Salle, Brown (doubleheader) and Sacred Heart on Feb. 28-March 1.
“By the time you get to Louisville (March 6-8) if you’re good on the mound, you’re probably going to know your three weekend guys and the only other thing is who’s your Tuesday guy?” Hendricks said.
How the defense shakes out
Wake Forest doesn’t lack for dangerous hitters, but there will have to be some tinkering in the positions they play to get the best bats into the lineup.
Lanzilli started every game last season in left field, but he’s expected to play some third base. Turconi made 33 of his 42 starts last season at second base, and he’ll slide over to shortstop and take over for Patrick Frick, who was drafted. DJ Poteet started 47 games in center field last season, and he’s expected to be at second base. Ludowig will be in the outfield, but when Lanzilli is at third, the Deacons are likely to have two inexperienced outfielders out there with Ludowig.
Wake Forest entered last season ranked 20th by D1Baseball and lost four of its first seven games.
Now the Deacons enter the season ranked in the top 25 by five of the six recognized polls, and how they handle elevated expectations — from outside and from within — will likely play a factor all season.
“We know we have to prove it and we saw last year, first weekend we were ranked and we weren’t ranked again,” Seymour said. “That’s kinda — it’s things like that, proving that we have a lot more maturity and a lot of guys will do their jobs and I think we have a great team this year.”
Three down: Lack of past success
Six players remain who were on the roster in 2017, and in that season, Christian Long and Chase Mascolo had a combined 29 at-bats, Hearn and Rhyse Dee pitched a combined 5⅔ innings, and Witt and Ben Casstevens didn’t pitch at all.
It’s a veteran team, but most of it only has experience in going 56-58 for the past two seasons.
Wake Forest will get the first crack at — or from — the league’s preseason favorite with a series against Louisville March 6-8. Other home series in March are against Clemson (March 13-15) and North Carolina (March 27-29), and the road ACC series is at N.C. State (March 20-22).
“Our schedule is tough early, we’ve got Louisville and Clemson at home early and we’ve got Carolina at home in March,” Walter said. “We’re going to have to play well early.
“You know, when you have to play well early, it’s good to have a veteran club.”
Junior season pitfalls
Wake Forest has nine juniors who have played key roles in the past two seasons, all of whom Walter referred to as professional prospects. Position players Lanzilli, Seymour, Poteet, Muntz and Ludowig, and pitchers Shuster, Menendez and Fleming and the dual-role McNamee are the juniors, and sophomore infielder Turconi is a draft-eligible sophomore.
With draft eligibility comes a pressure that can sometimes engulf previously productive players — that’ll be a hurdle worth tracking for some of these Deacons.