"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

'Covers the campus like the magnolias'
"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

Baseball looks to fulfill high expectations

Demon Deacons have big shoes to fill after ranked preseason No. 1
With+so+many+new+names+and+several+familiar+faces%2C+we+have+the+names+you+should+know+and+keep+an+eye+on.
Cooper Sullivan
“With so many new names and several familiar faces, we have the names you should know and keep an eye on.”

Team 110 has a message: Make them feel you … again.

Five Preseason All-Americans. One Preseason Player of the Year. A unanimous preseason No. 1 selection amongst five different outlets. Name any measure of predicted excellence, and Wake Forest baseball has exceeded it.

The expectations are high, but not without reason — the Demon Deacons return with a handful of key pieces from last year’s College World Series run, along with talented transfer and recruiting classes. 

With so many new names and several familiar faces, we have the names you should know and keep an eye on.

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PITCHING

The date was June 19, 2023.

That was the day when Wake Forest beat LSU in the first game of the College World Series semifinals 3-2. Southpaw starter Josh Hartle showed off exactly what he had all season: a slippery slider, a hard-to-hit fastball and a devastating cutter that allowed him to fan nine batters through six innings.

Hartle has impeccable command in both his pitches and in the locker room. He was named team captain this year for a reason: not only will he lead the team as the Friday-night starter, but he’ll do so as one of the longest-tenured pitchers in the Demon Deacon program.

However, one pitcher on that same day went underlooked by most Wake Forest fans. While Hartle and the Demon Deacons were preparing for the matchup against the Tigers, they unknowingly found their future fireballer on the mound who also fanned nine batters in a relief appearance for the Tennessee Volunteers.

Enter stage right, Chase Burns.

Fiery. Electric. Burning. Regardless of the puns, Burns has shown time and time again that his arm is one of the hardest to hit in the nation due to pure velocity. After committing to the Demon Deacons in June, much hype surrounded how Burns could not only use his current arsenal of pitches but also how the renowned pitching lab could improve them.

Fast forward to now. In preseason scrimmaging, Burns has dealt triple-digit fastballs and changeups in the low 90s. He’s taking on a starting role once again after moving into a reliever role last season with Tennessee. He’ll be on the radar for Major League Baseball (MLB) scouts as a potential first round draft pick due to his incredible animosity and firepower. 

Speaking of firepower: Michael Massey.

The 6’5”, 230-pound right-hander has improved enormously since arriving in Winston-Salem from Tulane before the 2023 season. Massey had thrown for a 5.03 ERA with the Green Wave, in addition to 52 total strikeouts and 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9). 

Contrast that with last season’s statistics as a reliever: 16.6 K/9. 2.59 ERA. 76 total strikeouts.

Most of the improvement came down to a devastating duo of pitches: Massey’s fastball and slider. The former can reach between the mid-to-upper 90 mph range, meanwhile his offspeed carries sharp break, befuddling batters.

Massey pitched in some massive moments, too. He earned Winston-Salem Regional All Tournament team recognition for a scoreless appearance against the Alabama Crimson Tide and held LSU to a single run over two appearances in the College World Series semifinals.

Massey will take on a starting role for the first time since arriving in Winston-Salem. He’s gone deep into games before, pitching upwards of seven innings at a time for Tulane, which he’ll try to replicate this coming year.

Although Wake Forest’s pitching attack may appear like a three-headed monster composed of preseason All-Americans, reliever depth will also play a part on the road to Omaha. 

During a preseason press conference, Head Coach Tom Walter announced that experienced relievers like Cole Roland and Crawford Wade would miss the start of the season due to various injuries.

In the meantime, Maryland transfer David Falco Jr. has experience closing, accumulating nine saves over his past season for the Terrapins. The Demon Deacons also return experienced arms like William Ray and Joseph Ariola, in addition to Falco.

Some new arms may have a chance at breaking out, too. Walter’s most recent recruiting class features a list of highly-touted freshmen, including Blake Morningstar, Haiden Leffew, Andrew Koshy and Brody Shawn.

BATTING

The talent of Nick Kurtz isn’t hard to explain.

Ever since the start of the 2022 season, he’s been a mainstay. There was no Nick Kurtz without Wake Forest baseball, and more importantly, there is no Wake Forest baseball without Nick Kurtz.

That sentiment showed during last year’s playoff run. After getting drilled in the ribcage in last year’s Winston-Salem Super Regionals against Alabama, Kurtz was not the same, eventually being replaced by Jack Winnay in the final game of last year’s LSU series.

“He couldn’t rotate,” Walter explained before the series-deciding Game 3. “The young man is heartbroken, and I am heartbroken for him. He was in tears wanting to be in this game today and help his teammates.”

Our goal this year is, without a doubt, to go back to Omaha and [win a national championship].

— Nick Kurtz

After a full offseason’s rest, Kurtz is not only back to normal — but looks to exceed the precedents he set for himself.

If there was a way to describe Kurtz’s slugging at the plate the past two seasons, it would use a lyric known to most: “unrivaled by any.”

Last year, he was No. 9 in the country in slugging percentage (.784) and on base percentage (.525). He was on top of the team in fielding percentage (.998), too. 

Last season’s performances have led to high expectations for this year. Multiple outlets like Perfect Game and Baseball America have touted him as a Preseason First Team All-American, and the former named him Preseason Player of the Year.

As preseason accolades accumulate, all eyes are on the star first baseman, including the gaze of big league scouts. MLB.com lists him as the second best draft prospect in the country, just behind West Virginia middle infielder J.J. Wetherholt.

For now, Kurtz’s mission is to get back to Omaha, but that road starts in February.

“Our goal this year is, without a doubt, to go back to Omaha and [win a national championship],” Kurtz said in a preseason press conference. “But at the same time, we have to beat Fordham on [Feb. 16]. We have to take it one game, one pitch at a time.”

The team co-captain leads a revamped infield, with players like Brock Wilken, Justin Johnson and Danny Corona all departing in the offseason. The first two were each drafted in last year’s MLB Draft. Wilken was one of two first round draft picks from Wake Forest last year — selected 18th overall by the Milwaukee Brewers.

Although the losses were significant, one could say that the Demon Deacons have a stronger infield than last year — thanks in part to Wingate transfer Seaver King.

Don’t underestimate King because of his arrival from a Division II school. He slashed his way to a .411 batting average last season and, more importantly, managed to create the third-longest hit streak in Division II history with 47 games. 

King dominated the offseason, too. Not only did the infielder play for USA Baseball last summer but he was also featured as a name to watch in the Cape Cod League for the Harwich Mariners. His efforts on both teams earned him D1 Baseball’s Summer Breakout Prospect Award.

King, like Kurtz, is also on the docket to become a top pick in this year’s MLB Draft, ranked at No. 9 on MLB.com’s Draft Prospect board. 

Middle infielder Marek Houston is not to be overlooked, either. He may not be eligible for the 2024 MLB Draft like some of his infield counterparts, but the sophomore comes off a consistent year where he played 65 games for the Demon Deacons — a program record for a freshman.

Behind the plate, a hole was left by Bennett Lee, who was also drafted during last year’s MLB Draft (No. 170 overall, Detroit Tigers). Lee, a Tulane transfer, created one of the most memorable events in recent program history — a single to left field to knock a runner in scoring position (Corona) home in Game 1 of last year’s College World Series semifinals.

In his stead come graduate students Tate Ballestero and Cameron Gill. Both are equally accomplished in their own right: the former led the St. John’s Red Storm in RBIs (45) last year, and the latter slashed .368 for the Wofford Terriers, good for No. 2 on the team.

Another name to watch: Adam Tellier. The graduate transfer arrived in Winston-Salem via Ball State, where he took them to the Lexington Regional in Kentucky behind a .909 OPS and a team-leading 12 steals.

Finally, a familiar name transferred in from North Carolina: Austin Hawke. The sophomore looks to contribute to the same program where his older brother, Tommy, played for years before eventually being drafted by the Cleveland Guardians in last year’s draft. 

In total, lots of names can be expected to contribute this year — Chris Katz, Jack Winnay and Jake Reinisch, to name a few. Each have immense potential at the plate and bring experience to a dugout chock full of new players in the program.

Wake Forest Baseball starts on Friday, Feb. 16, as the Demon Deacons take on the Fordham Rams at David F. Couch Ballpark. Conference play starts against the Duke Blue Devils on March 8.

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About the Contributor
Sean Kennedy, Sports Editor
Sean is a junior from Long Island, N.Y. He is pursuing a Communications degree with a minor in journalism. An avid sports fan, he loves to watch any form of competition. He also serves as president of the Sports Analytics Club when not writing for the OGB.

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