Wake Forest Baseball: 2008 Season Preview
Feb. 19, 2008
Wake Forest's ascension under head coach Rick Rembielak continued in 2007, as the Demon Deacons finished runners-up at the ACC Tournament and received their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2002. With a postseason invitation checked off Wake Forest's list of goals, the Deacons have the pieces in place to go even further in 2008.
Rembielak, now in his fourth season at the helm of the Deacon baseball program, returns 22 letterwinners from last year's squad. That number includes all nine positional starters and Wake's top six starting pitchers from 2007. The Deacs lost just six letterwinners from a team that finished last season 34-29 overall.
"It's a huge advantage now that there are a lot of older players that are going to be in that lineup; we don't have to rely on a whole bunch of younger guys," said Rembielak. "There will be a couple younger players who will be seeing some action this year, but the majority is going to be upperclassmen and seasoned veterans. They've been through this--they've been through the struggling times and the first year of competition. I think when you look at a club you have to look at how many older guys you have on it because they understand what each day entails."
Statistically, Wake Forest returns a staggering amount of its production from 2007. At the plate, the Deacons return 95 percent of their at-bats, 97 percent of their hits and 100 percent of their home runs. On the mound, Wake Forest welcomes back 87 percent of its starts and 72 percent of its innings.
That experience will come in handy as the Demon Deacons face the daily grind of the season, attempting to make some noise in the ACC and to qualify for back-to-back NCAA Tournaments.
"I think the guys understand the importance of the postseason and the excitement of the postseason, and I think they are fully prepared in their minds to end up at least repeating what we did last year," said Rembielak. "The first thing we would like to do is not be the eighth seed going into the [ACC] Tournament this year; we would like to end up having loftier goals in the seeding. That would probably be the number one goal for us this year, and then obviously to qualify for postseason play again. I think our team is much more understanding and confident of what needs to be done to get back to the NCAA Tournament."
The lone question mark heading into the season is how the Deacons will replace the production of departed relievers Eric Niesen and Josh Ellis. Niesen was drafted by the New York Mets in the third round and chose to sign with the team and forego his senior season. The lefty had a breakout year for the Deacs in 2007, going 6-5 with a 3.00 ERA in 30 appearances. He struck out 83 batters in 84.0 innings pitched.
Ellis signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks following his graduation last spring. The closer was drafted in the 11th round after finishing the season with nine saves, a 3.20 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 50.2 innings pitched.
"The one void that we really have to fill is the closing roll, where we lost a very effective pitcher for us in Josh Ellis," said Rembielak. "We're going to end up having a seasoned guy, Brad Kledzik, going to that role this year. The back end of the bullpen is probably as important as the starter, so it's important to have the right guy in there. I think Kledzik will end up filling that role because of his approach, his mentality and the fact that he can handle those intense situations because he faced them as a weekend starter."
Offensively, the only question mark for Rembielak is who plays and who sits. With all nine starters back and a number of talented options behind them, the Deacons' lineup could change on a daily basis. One thing is certain, though; Wake Forest will not be short on experience.
"I feel very good about the lineup all the way through because they're older and they're swinging the bats a lot better," said Rembielak. "We're going to get guys on base at the top of the lineup, and it's going to help the hitters on the back end. It's going to enable them to do more, and we have to rely on a lot more guys doing stuff offensively. You get a guy on base there, and now we have more guys that can move him around. That's going to put more pressure on the opposing pitchers."
To complement its wealth of experience, Wake added 12 freshmen, including two redshirts, to the mix this season. That number includes several highly-touted recruits who could make an early impact for the Deacons.
"I think there will be a couple freshmen who are going to end up seeing some action," said Rembielak. "They are going to be pushing some older guys, and it's going to be very difficult to keep a couple of the younger guys out of the lineup. However, they don't have to be the guy that really has to carry the burden, either as a pitcher or as a position player. They're going to end up having enough supporting cast around them where they can just go out and do a good job."
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2008 Wake Forest baseball team:
Wake Forest returns all four infield starters from last season. Highlighting the group is junior first baseman Allan Dykstra, who should once again be one of the top sluggers in the country. Dykstra earned second team All-ACC honors and was a Golden Spikes semifinalist in 2007. As a sophomore, he hit .310 with 18 home runs and 60 RBIs. Dykstra tied for the league lead in home runs and finished among the leaders in walks, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and RBIs.
"Allan is going to be the marquee guy in the lineup again, and it's very important that he has a supporting cast around him," said Rembielak. "We don't need to rely on him, or think that we need to rely on him all the time. I think that relieves him to where he doesn't feel as if he has to swing the bat all the time. The supporting cast around Allan is going to be very important, and I think we've got the guys in place to be successful."
Senior second baseman Andy Goff returns as a fourth-year starter and a second-year team captain. Goff is the Deacons' most experienced player with 157 career starts. As a junior in 2007, he hit .274 with a pair of homers and 31 RBIs. He also was third on the team with 12 doubles.
Goff combines with junior shortstop Dustin Hood to give Wake Forest a steady defensive presence up the middle. Hood has been the Deacons' starting shortstop since day one of his freshman campaign. Last season, Hood started all 63 games and led the team with 72 base hits. Hood, who was named to the All-Tournament Team at the 2007 ACC Championships, finished the year hitting .278 with 42 RBIs.
Junior Tyler Smith enters the season as Wake's starting third baseman after taking over the role early last year. Smith, who has proven to be one of the Deacons' most clutch players at the plate, started 46 games and hit .258 with nine home runs and 31 RBIs. Smith is solid defensively at third base and has the ability to make the spectacular play.
Fourth-year junior Nathan Frazier returns as a solid infielder off the bench. Frazier played in 26 games with 10 starts last season. He hit .281 and was a sub in a team-high 16 games.
Incoming freshman Courtney Morgan and redshirt freshman Ryan Bouton will challenge the veterans for playing time in the infield. Morgan, a talented recruit out of San Diego's Mission Bay High School, has the ability to play anywhere on the infield. After redshirting last season, Bouton will serve as a utility man for the Deacs and could see time at a number of positions on the field.
Willy Fox can also play in the infield and could fill in at first base, second base and third base if needed. Last season, Fox saw action at third base and at second base.
Freshman Ryan McGrath is a two-way player who could factor into the infield rotation as well this season. McGrath will see most of his action on the mound but could prove to also be a solid fill-in at first base.
Wake Forest finds itself with a glut of talented and experienced outfielders, a problem that most coaches would love to have. The Deacons return all three starters and then some. Brett Linnenkohl, Evan Ocheltree and Ben Terry made most of the starts last season, but Willy Fox and Eric Williams also saw significant playing time in the outfield.
"We've got some competition in the outfield. We have extra guys out there that we can end up inserting into the lineup," said Rembielak. "We have matchups, righty versus lefty and lefty versus righty, so we can interchange some guys in the lineup. It's a little more challenging for us as a staff to decide who should be out there daily, which is a good problem to have. We want that competition out there."
Linnenkohl is a three-year starter in the outfield and brings a combination of power and speed to the lineup. He started 53 games last season, most of which came in leftfield and as the leadoff hitter. Linnenkohl hit .292 with eight homers and 50 runs scored. He also led the team with 10 stolen bases in 13 attempts.
Terry returns as the Deacons' starting centerfielder after transferring from Furman prior to last season. The senior from Cincinnati is a scrappy player who can always find a way to get on base. In 2007, he hit .269 with 47 runs scored and also finished with 26 HBPs. Terry is expected to be at 100 percent after having Tommy John surgery over the summer.
Ocheltree, a junior from Richmond, Va., has been a regular in the outfield since he arrived on campus. Last season, Ocheltree started 57 games and hit .282 with seven home runs and 35 RBIs. Ocheltree plays a great defensive rightfield and is one of Wake Forest's most athletic players.
Williams, a fifth-year senior who transferred from Arizona State in 2006, is expected to compete for time in the outfield after starting 34 games a year ago. Williams scored 22 runs and committed just one error last season. Fox is the Deacons' regular designated hitter but may see some time in the outfield as well. The senior saw outfield action in seven games last season.
Incoming freshman Steven Brooks should see significant time in the outfield in his first season on campus. Brooks was highly-recruited after coming out of Seton Hall Prep (N.J.), which was the No. 1-ranked high school team in USA Today's final top 25 poll last year. Brooks is described as a five-tool centerfielder whose best attribute is his speed.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Semeniuk will look to compete for playing time in the crowded outfield. Semeniuk is coming off an outstanding summer campaign in the Valley League. He was the starting rightfielder for the North All-Stars and was listed by Baseball America as the league's sixth-best professional prospect.
Wake Forest enters the season with three players who could potentially win the starting catcher role. Senior Austin Jones returns with the most experience, having started 72 games over the past two years. However, sophomore Mike Murray and freshman Ian Tomkins should push Jones for innings behind the plate.
"I can see all three of them getting some innings in behind the plate," said Rembielak of his trio of backstops. "We have to decide, what is the best matchup from an offensive standpoint, and what do we want to do offensively. I can see all three of those guys getting substantial innings this year. Someone is going to sit eventually, but it will come down to who is playing the best baseball at that particular time."
Since transferring from Yavapai Junior College in 2006, Jones has split time behind the plate each of the past two seasons with Dan Rosaia, who has since graduated. Last season, Jones was the Deacons' primary backstop and finished the season with three home runs and 17 RBIs. Defensively, he made just four errors and tallied two pickoffs.
Murray saw most of his action last year at designated hitter but still managed to log eight starts behind the plate. Murray finished with two home runs and 16 RBIs in 39 games total.
Tomkins was a late signee with the Deacons and comes in with a reputation as a solid defensive catcher. A graduate of Loyola Academy, Tomkins was ranked as the No. 1 catcher in the state of Illinois.
Wake Forest has a number of players who could see time at designated hitter this season, but the majority of the at-bats will likely go to senior Willy Fox. The Scottsdale, Ariz., native was the Deacons' primary DH a year ago but was limited to 48 games due to a leg injury. Fox led the team with a .332 batting average and was second in the ACC with a .430 average in conference games.
Despite missing 15 games, Fox still managed to finish second on the team in RBIs (42), doubles (15), triples (3) and stolen bases (9). His cleanup spot in the lineup is key, as he normally provides protection for slugger Allan Dykstra.
"There are certain guys that need to be in the lineup everyday, and I think Willy Fox has to be in the lineup," said Rembielak. "He's versatile--he can end up going out in the outfield, he can play three of the four infield positions and he can certainly DH."
Fourth-year junior Weldon Woodall returns as a viable option at designated hitter. Woodall, who is one of the veteran leaders of the team, played in 22 games with nine starts last season. He was the Deacons' starting DH for its NCAA Tournament games against Brown and against Texas. As a pinch hitter, Woodall went 3-for-11 on the year.
Sophomore Mike Murray will also compete for time at designated hitter this season. A catcher by trade, the lefthanded hitter made 17 starts at DH a year ago.
Wake Forest returns nine pitchers, including six who started at least six games last season. Heading into the preseason, the Deacons are set on starters but still have question marks in the bullpen.
Hunter made the transition from closer to starter in April last season. The senior righthander was an All-American closer in 2006 and could possibly reach that status as a starter this season if he is able to pick up where he left off last year. In eight starts, Hunter went 5-1 with a 2.52 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 50.0 innings pitched. He earned an ACC Tournament victory against Miami and an NCAA Tournament victory against Brown.
Bullock emerged as Wake Forest's top starter last season, as he moved into the Friday role midway through. The lefthander went 4-3 with a 5.12 ERA in 19 games, including a team-high 15 starts. Bullock possesses one of the top pickoff moves in the country and used it to record an ACC-best 13 pickoffs in 2007.
Fifth-year senior Charlie Mellies returns this season 100 percent healthy after missing portions of 2006 and 2007 due to elbow surgery. Mellies was the Deacons' top starter in 2006 before being sidelined with the injury. He returned in April last year and made five appearances on the season. He started four games, including the ACC Tournament title game against North Carolina.
With set-up man Eric Niesen and closer Josh Ellis gone, junior Brad Kledzik will look to solidify the back end of the bullpen. Kledzik, who has been a weekend starter for the Deacons each of the past two seasons, went 4-4 with a 5.01 ERA in 20 games, including 15 starts, in 2007. He has made 28 starts in his career, including the starting assignment against Texas in the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
Rembielak will look to a pair of sophomores in Phil Negus and Alex Wiesner to fill the set-up role in front of Kledzik. Negus appeared in 25 games last season, all out of the bullpen. The righthander went 1-1 with a 4.45 ERA in 32.1 innings pitched. He tied for fourth in appearances on Wake Forest's freshman single-season list.
Wiesner appeared in 19 games with seven starts a year ago. The lefthander went 1-1 and walked just 16 batters on the year. He tied for 10th in appearances on Wake Forest's freshman single-season list.
"We have Phil Negus and Alex Wiesner that we're going to rely on for middle relief," said Rembielak. "Last year as freshmen it was tough, but I think they've shown signs so far of being more mature and understanding their approach and what needs to be done in that capacity. From the bullpen side, we won't need to rely on a young guy to fill up some innings in middle relief. I think Negus and Wiesner are going to carry the brunt of that role. They've shown very good signs that they can do that."
Redshirt sophomore Joel Ernst returns as a mid-week starter for the Deacons. Ernst, who made 19 appearances with six starts last season, will split time as a starter and reliever. The righthander went 1-2 and pitched 52.0 innings on the year, including 23.0 innings of relief. He tied with Wiesner for 10th in appearances on Wake Forest's freshman single-season list.
Highly-touted freshman Mark Adzick will likely play a major role on the pitching staff this season. Drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 18th round of last year's draft, the lefthander from Haverford, Pa., is expected to begin the season as a mid-week starter and also see some innings out of the bullpen.
Several other incoming freshmen should also log significant innings this season. Righthander Ryan McGrath is expected to play a prominent role in the bullpen. The Newtown, Conn., native is a submarine-style pitcher who will give opposing hitters an alternate look on the mound.
Lefthander Ryan Burke could play a swing role for the Deacons as a starter or as a reliever. Burke, a New York City native, is a durable pitcher out of Poly Prep Country Day School.
Fellow lefty Eli Robins is a local product who played at Winston-Salem's Glenn High School. Robins, who is lauded for his work ethic, will likely see time out of the bullpen.
Junior Matt Hammond returns for his fourth year with the Deacons. Hammond, who went 1-0 in four appearances in 2007, will provide depth on the pitching staff.
Fellow fourth-year junior Greg Young will also give the Deacons relief help. After transferring from Tulane, the lefthander appeared in 12 games in 2006 but missed all of last season due to shoulder surgery.
Incoming freshmen Chris Hulton and Brandon Johnson will look to provide the pitching staff with depth out of the bullpen, especially during the mid-week. Hulton is a tall lefthander out of Marion, Mass., while the righthanded Johnson is local product from Davie County High School.
Wake Forest's 56-game schedule features 25 contests against teams that participated in the 2007 NCAA Tournament and 23 games at Hooks Stadium. The Deacons will open the season Feb. 22-24 with four games in Malibu against traditional baseball power Pepperdine. The Deacs and Waves have never met previously on the diamond.
Wake Forest will play its home opener against in-state rival Appalachian State on Feb. 27. In all, the Deacs will play 20 games against in-state competition, including non-conference matchups with UNC Greensboro, High Point, Charlotte, Elon, UNC Asheville, UNC Wilmington and Davidson.
After facing the Mountaineers at home, Wake Forest will travel to Dothan, Ala. for four non-conference games in a round-robin tournament hosted by Troy Feb. 29 - March 2. The Deacs will play Kennesaw State, two against Troy and wrap up the trip with a contest against Big Ten foe Penn State. Wake Forest opens ACC play at home against Clemson March 7-9. The Deacs will also host ACC rivals Maryland (March 14-16), Florida State (March 28-30), Virginia Tech (April 11-13) and Duke (May 9-11).
The Deacs will play conference road series at Miami (March 21-23), NC State (April 4-6), Virginia (April 18-20), Georgia Tech (April 25-27) and Boston College (May 15-17).
Georgia Tech is back on Wake's schedule after a two-year hiatus in the series. However, the Deacs will not face Tobacco Road rival and 2007 College World Series runner-up North Carolina this season. Unless Wake and UNC meet in the postseason, it will mark the first time since the 1950s that the two teams have not met on the diamond.
Wake Forest has 26 non-conference games scheduled, 18 of which will come on the road and 10 of which are against 2007 NCAA Tournament participants. The Deacs will play home-and-home series with Appalachian State, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Davidson, High Point and UNC Greensboro. Of its 14 non-conference foes, Wake Forest has never faced Kennesaw State, Pepperdine or Troy.
The 2008 ACC Baseball Championship is scheduled for May 21-25 in Jacksonville, Fla. at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. The top eight teams from the regular season will advance to the conference tournament. NCAA Regional play is slated for May 30 - June 2 at campus sites. The NCAA Super Regionals will be held June 6-9 at campus sites, and the 2008 College World Series will follow on June 14-25 in Omaha, Neb.