Bill Hass on the ACC: Deacons Try to Repeat Tournament Magic from Last Season
May 20, 2008
GREENSBORO, N.C. - If the idea is to be playing your best baseball going into the post-season, then Wake Forest is right where it wants to be.
Heading into the ACC Championship at The Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville in Jacksonville, Fla., the Deacons have won eight of their last 10 games overall and six of their last seven ACC games. They needed that kind of finish to qualify for the eight-team field.
As the No. 7 seed, Wake is in the Division `B' bracket on, grouped with No. 2 Florida State, No. 3 North Carolina and No. 6 Virginia. The Division `A' bracket consists of No. 1 Miami, No. 4 NC State, No. 5 Georgia Tech and No. 8 Clemson.
In the round-robin format, the Deacons open Wednesday with a 5 p.m. game against Florida State, have an off day Thursday, then meet North Carolina at 8 p.m. Friday and Virginia at 8 p.m. Saturday. The championship game, matching the winners of the Division `A' and `B' brackets, will be played at 1 p.m. Sunday.
"We want to get as deep as we can in this thing and play good every game," said Wake coach Rick Rembielak. "You know you've got three games for sure and a fourth game would be a bonus."
That's exactly what the Deacons did last year as the No. 8 seed. They won the division, with the help of tiebreakers, and advanced to the title game before losing to UNC. Everyone in the starting lineup, except freshman Steve Brooks, plus most of the pitching staff is back from that experience.
"Without a doubt, it's got to be a benefit," Rembielak said of last year's run. "They're ready and they feel very confident with the last few weekends."
Last season the Deacons played their way into the NCAA Tournament with their ACC showing. This year, the numbers suggest they will have to win the ACC to make the big field. Wake is 24-29 overall and even making the championship game would probably not be enough unless they win it.
Still, as Rembielak indicated, confidence is high after Wake's good finish. And, if you look at the tournament as the proverbial "new season," the title is up for grabs, even with all the star-studded teams in the field.
Carolina is ranked No. 1 in all three major polls at the end of the regular season, after winning its weekend series with the Hurricanes. Miami is ranked second in two and third in the other; and Florida State third in one and fourth in the other two. NC State ranks between 20th and 22nd in all three and Georgia Tech is 24th in USA Today.
With a veteran team, expectations at Wake were high this season and the overall record is something of a disappointment. Rembielak said one reason was poor performance, especially on the mound, in the non-conference mid-week games. It amounted to a snowball effect - the Deacons would fall behind early, which took away from their running game and affected their hitting.
A groin injury to Brett Linnenkohl also hindered the offense. He was perfect in 15 stolen base attempts in the early going.
"When he went down, looking back, it was a time where we lost a little spark in the offense," Rembielak said. "We struggled to get guys on base, and guys get tentative and don't want to get thrown out when you're down four or five runs in the third inning.
"We had some ugly scores mid-week and it really affected everybody's confidence. We just could not get the momentum we needed. Either way, guys feed off of each other, negatively and positively."
After losing the first two games against Georgia Tech, the Deacons sat at 7-15 in ACC play, their tournament prospects looking dim. But they beat the Yellow Jackets in the third game, which set up a sweep the next weekend against Duke and winning the first two the final weekend against Boston College to qualify for the tournament.
Winning a couple of mid-week games in that stretch didn't hurt, either. The Deacons finally seemed to adjust to Linnenkohl's absence (he has been available as a pinch-hitter) and their starting pitching came around.
"It was a domino effect," Rembielak said. "Everyone in the lineup started swinging the bats well, we got very good pitching and it cured everything. Allan Dykstra, Mike Murray and Willy Fox picked everybody up. That's the heart of the order and that gives confidence to the other guys.
"Our starting pitching has gotten us deep into the game and that determines how fast and how early you get into your bullpen. That saved us the last couple weekends, those guys going deep. It meant we didn't have to use our top guys out of the pen as much."
Bullpen depth concerns Rembielak for the tournament. He needs starters Ben Hunter on Wednesday, Charlie Mellies Friday and Brad Kledzik Saturday to go as deep as they can. With starter Garrett Bullock out for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury, Kledzik has moved into the rotation, which takes a top guy out of the bullpen. Alex Wiesner and Phil Negus will be the horses in the pen and everyone else will have to be ready when called.
Offensively, Dykstra supplies the power (.322 average, 14 homers, 45 RBIs), with help from Fox (.319-6-42) and Murray (.309-6-36). Dustin Hood provides steady help at .324. The main base-stealers are Fox (15 of 17) and Ben Terry (18 of 22).
It's a formidable task facing the Deacons, but as last year proved, nothing is out of the question.
"When we started coming back, we got some decent outings, the heart of the order started swinging well, momentum kind of came back and everybody started feeding off of that," Rembielak said.
"Last year we played our best ball in the tournament. You've got to have some luck. However you get (to the tournament) is one thing, but you've got to play baseball during that time."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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