Wake Forest Demon Deacons vs. Boston College Eagles
Friday First Pitch: 2:30 PM
Saturday First Pitch: 1:30 PM
Sunday First Pitch: 1:00 PM
This weekend will have a flood of emotions. On Saturday, Boston College will retire Pete Frates' #3, making it just the second number retired by the Birdball baseball program. It'll join the program's all-time winningest coach, Eddie Pellagrini, who the field was named after following a dedication in 1997. With the rarity of the honor, the announcement this week made gave this weekend, which is already special for the ALS Awareness Game, an even more special feel.
But as special as Pete's honor is, there's still baseball that needs to be played - three games to be exact. Roughly a game and a half separates seventh place Wake Forest from 12th place Boston College. That's the difference between being a lock for an at-large NCAA bid to being out of the ACC Championship altogether. These are critical games for both teams to win, something that's the undercurrent of a weekend already packed with storylines.
We enter this weekend with Boston College at 9-13 in league play. Since winning percentage determines who finishes where, they're actually behind Duke and in front of Pittsburgh despite both being in a mathematical tie in games back. In 12th place, BC is right on the heels of a North Carolina team they won't play, chasing teams they don't hold head-to-head tiebreakers over.
A good weekend by Boston College can put them inside the bubble and give them an inside track to the ACC Championship heading into two weeks against Georgia Tech. A good weekend by Wake Forest can lock the Deacons into Durham and potentially move them one step closer to sealing up a favorable bid to the NCAA Tournament.
It's going to be a tense weekend full of emotion and drama, playing out the best way we can honor Pete - on a baseball diamond.
Record: 27-17 (10-11 ACC)
Last Time Out: Wake Forest is riding a six game winning streak, thanks in part to last weekend's sweep of North Carolina, winning a pair of one-run games. On Friday, the Deacs beat the Tar Heels, 6-1, before following it up with a 5-4 and 3-2 victory.
Wake Forest book-ended the UNC weekend with a pair of wins over Appalachian State. Last week, they won, 15-9, before defeating the Mountaineers in Charlotte, 10-7.
Two weeks ago, Wake defeated FSU to kick off this winning streak.
Around The Horn
Will Craig might be the most-feared hitter in the nation. A draft-eligible junior this year, Craig is a preseason All-American and considered one of the top 100 prospects for Major League Baseball among this year's possible selections. It's well-deserved, with his .430 batting average, 13 homers, 53 RBI, .558 on-base percentage, .860 slugging percentage, and 104 total bases.
Let's run this down again. Craig is the national leader in slugging percentage, the ACC leader in RBIs per game (1.43, also second nationally), batting average, and RBIs. He's in the top three in the ACC OBP (2nd), homers (tied for 2nd), total bases (3rd), and walks (tied for10th). Consider how good that is even further when you realize he missed a handful of games with a strained oblique suffered against Clemson when he was on the mound pitching.
Beyond Craig, Gavin Sheets is hitting .325 with nine doubles, five homers, and 28 RBI. He's followed up Stuart Fairchild and Nate Mondou, stalwarts the Deacon lineup at .294 and .286, respectively. Fairchild has 15 doubles on the yearand 30 walks, plus 13 stolen bases in 16 attempts. He'll make for a great chess match with catcher Nick Sciortino if he's able to reach base.
This is a power lineup, and it has been for a couple of years now. They've had 24 innings where they've scored four or more runs, including two against Florida State, two against USC, two against Notre Dame (in the same game), and one against Clemson. When they've had one of these "big innings," they've won 75% of their games. When they don't have one of these big innings? They're more down to .500.
Despite this, Wake Forest is only the ninth best hitting team in the league at .281. They've only scored 280 runs, something that doesn't even touch the top half of the league. After those top four hitters, there's a drop off to below .270, and three hitters bat .250 or lower.
They can put up massive numbers, but they're very much boom-or-bust. They rely on big innings and big hits to win games, which means the pressure is on to stop the offense. Do that, and it'll go a long way to being in a position to win.
On The Bump
If there's an area of concern for the Deacons, it has to be on the mound. Despite having a 3.82 team ERA in 2014, Wake's runs allowed ballooned up last year, and the team finished the season with a 5.73 mark. This year's improved to a happy medium, but their 4.71 team ERA still ranks 13th in the league, ahead of only Virginia Tech's 6.22.
The problem isn't starting pitching. The Deacons still have Parker Dunshee, who should be a hot prospect among draft boards with a 6-3 record and 2.97 ERA. He's thrown 66.2 innings, and he's going to present Eagle hitters with some electric stuff. Considered one of the 15 best ACC pitchers in this year's draft, he's going to draw the Friday start. But he's never started against Boston College.
On Saturday, the Deacs will send Drew Loepprich, who carries a 2-1 record with a 3.91 ERA, and Connor Johnstone will start on Sunday with a 2-3 record and a 4.94 ERA.
The problem isn't relievers, either. John McCarren has 20 appearances on the season, with two starts, having thrown 44.1 innings - tops behind the three weekend starters. He's 6-2 with a 3.25 ERA. Behind him, Chris Farish is 2-1 with a 3.33 ERA in 27 appearances.
Craig and Donnie Sellers share closing duties this year (remember Craig missed time injured), each with five saves. They've combined for 36 appearances, a 6-2 record, 10 saves, and a 3.97 ERA.
The problem is in depth arms. There's a considerable drop off to a number of guys with between 7-15 appearances. Eight pitchers have ERAs over 8.00, of which only three have thrown more than 10 innings. Like BC's relievers, one bad outing can doom a season. It doesn't mean these guys aren't good, but it means they've run into trouble somewhere along the line.
From an Eagles perspective, it's imperative to get to those depth arms, work pitch counts, and try to knock the starters out early. The front and back of the staffs are really good. If you can get to the middle, that will help.
The weather is going to start out this weekend cool and sunny, then get progressively warmer and worse as we progress to Sunday.
Friday is shaping up to be the pick of the weekend, with temperatures reaching into the lower 50s with partly cloudy skies. For a 2:30 PM first pitch, it should be perfect weather.
On Saturday, cloud cover will roll in, but it'll get warmer. A day starting out cool in the 40s will be around 60 when game time starts. There's little chance of rain, and it'll be breezy as the Eagles honor Pete Frates, then play nine innings to fight ALS.
Sunday, on the other hand, is looking rough. It's going to be 60, but the chance of rain spikes between 8 AM and 2 PM - right when the game will be played. It's also going to be incredibly windy, though gusts won't pick up until the late afternoon or early evening hours.
Where else would they be to raise ALS Awareness? They'll be in the Birdcage, capacity seating at 1,000.
This weekend is really going to stress test Shea Field. Last year, 3,000-plus fans turned out for the ALS Awareness Game. It's the biggest draw on the baseball calendar. With seating limited,the majority of fans will swell onto the parking deck at Alumni Stadium. Seating and open space will be at a premium for that reason.
Since the atmosphere will be incredible,it's probably best to get their early and stake out a parking spot or some room along the garage ramp. Maybe bring some sandwiches and a cooler and enjoy the day from start to finish.
Music to Listen to As You're Fighting ALS
Pearl Jam - Alive.
A couple of weeks ago, I listened to Pearl Jam's iconic album 10 on the way to the games. I listened to Alive, one of my favorite songs, when I was pulling into the Beacon St. Garage. I got out of the car, walked into the press box - and they started playing Pearl Jam's Alive.
From what I understand, it's one of Pete's favorite songs. I could be way wrong on that one, but I hope I'm not, otherwise I'm going to look like a fool here.
Pete - this weekend is for you.
Random Fact(s) of the Week
Wake Forest leads the all-time series, but it's only by a 16-14 margin. They've won seven of the last 10 in #TheRivalry. One of those losses came last year, when the Eagles won, 10-7, in the Sunday game down in Winston-Salem.
Wake is in the midst of constructing a $14 million player development center along the third base line at their stadium, now rededicated in honor of David Couch (who donated $3 million to the school for this purpose). The facility will be 41,000 square feet with a new locker room, team lounge, training room, equipment room, video conference center, team meeting room, kitchen, offices, and indoor batting facility.
They're also going to build this thing called a pitching laboratory, which will have 18 high-speed cameras to analyze the biomechanics of every player. It'll be done in January.
This comes on the heels of six renovations to the program since 2009. In '09, Wake Forest bought the home of the Winston-Salem Dash, Ernie Shore Field, renaming it Gene Hooks Field at Wake Forest Baseball Park. They built an indoor hitting facility beyond left field the next year, then installed artificial turf and a manual scoreboard in 2011. In 2012, they added a video board, then changed over all of the chairback seats to be all-black in 2013. They renovated the visiting clubhouse in 2015 into a state-of-the-art weight facility for their own usage.
They fully intend in the future to build another indoor practice facility for baseball, and they also intend to renovate concession stands and restrooms with new concourse-level viewing areas.
This is the second time Wake Forest has played in the ALS Awareness Game. They played in the first ever game back in 2012, a 1-0 victory by the Eagles.
Boston College is 2-2 in ALS Awareness Game, having beaten Wake and Georgia Tech (2015) but having lost to Pittsburgh (2014) and Virginia Tech (2013).
This is such a critical weekend of baseball, and it's set against an emotional event the likes of which none of us have ever seen before. This is going to be a heck of a weekend, but at the end of the day, the Eagles have to come away with wins in order to have a chance at the ACC Championship going into the Georgia Tech series in two weeks.
There is a way to beat Wake Forest. It's done by timely hitting and big time pitching. For what it's worth, that's exactly what the Eagles have. Guys like Nick Sciortino and Johnny Adams have been hitting great as of late, and all Jake Palomaki does is get on base. Joe Cronin, the team leader, does the little things that make a team dangerous to pitch against.
And they have elite starting pitching. Jacob Stevens was still pretty good against Virginia Tech last weekend, but he lost because he left the wrong pitch over the plate a couple of times. Justin Dunn, who will pitch on Saturday, commands all of the attention anyone can throw at a college ballplayer, and Mike King is old reliable, having apparently straightened himself upright for the stretch run with an unbelievable, complete game start against the Hokies last week.
Side note- that it's Dunn going in the ALS game, against that backdrop? The place should be crazy and out of control by the third inning.
Can BC win this series? They absolutely can, but they have to prove it where it matters - on the field.