Wake Forest baseball coach Tom Walter wasn’t surprised by Will Craig’s impressive freshman season this year.
Craig first got Walter’s attention when he was a freshman at Science Hill in 2010. Walter was at Cardiinal Park to see touted junior Daniel Norris pitch against preseason Big Eight Conference favorite David Crockett, which had players such as Clinton Freeman, Drue Deloach, Chris Marti, Sam Tarlton, Joe Ganger and Ty Shipley.
The Hillltoppers trailed the Pioneers 2-1 through five innnings when Craig relieved Norris. Craig allowed two runs in two innings before the Hilltoppers rallied for a 5-4 win the bottom of the seventh, but Walter noted the 6-foot-3 Craig’s size and, more importantly, poise.
“That’s when we first saw Will, when I was in there to see Daniel Norris pitch,” Walter said Wednesday evening. “They pitched Norris and the thing that impressed me about Will is they brought Will in ... here comes a freshman in after Daniel Norris, and he ended up giving up a couple of runs, but I was so impressed with his composure, you know, as a freshman to come in to that situation and throw strikes and handle it so well. He just really stood out.
“And I liked his bat and I liked him at third. I was really impressed with how advanced he was as a freshman.”
Walter could say the same thing about Craig after his rookie year at Wake Forest. Craig led the Demon Deacons in home runs (eight) and finished second in RBIs (36) and slugging (.439) while hitting .280 (fourth on the team).
“I expected to do well, but I felt like I exceeded my expectations,” Craig said Wednesday night after playing a game in Thunder Bay, Canada for the St. Cloud Rox in the wooden-bat Northwoods League. “It really helped that I had a lot of seniors pull me in right away and, like, help me go in the right direction to start off the year.”
Craig started the ACC schedule with a bang. He was the conference player of the week after hitting two home runs while helping Wake win a series at Georgia Tech for the first time since 2001. Craig went 6-for-10 with six runs, two home runs and three RBIs in the series.
“We were on the road and ... and it just seemed like every ball he hit he squared up,” Walter said. “And Georgia Tech’s got some good arms. You never know how your freshmen are gonna adjust to conference-level pitching. … And for Will to go out there in his first-ever conference weekend and have that type of a performance was, you know, as good as any performance I’ve seen.”
Wake Forest had its moments in 2014. One of Craig’s favorite was winning the series against top-ranked Virginia thanks, in part, to an improbable rally in the opener.
“We were down by three in the last inning,” Craig said, “and our senior shortstop (Connor Keniry) ... hit a home run … and they took their reliever out and brought their closer (Nick Howard) in who throws upper 90s. The first pitch was, like, 99 and (Ben Breazeale) doubles in the gap and then the next pitch was 97 and (Nate Mondou) hits a home run and we tie it, 5-5. And then we end up winning, and the same senior shortstop got the game-winning hit on … Senior Day. So it was really a special moment for everybody, especially beating the No. 1 team in the nation the first game.”
The series also secured a spot in the ACC tournament for Wake, which went 30-26 overall and 15-15 in the league. The Demon Deacons were a combined 4-2 in the regular season against Virginia and Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets won the ACC tournament, which they started with a 5-3 win that eliminated Wake Forest from the tournament and, essentially, NCAA regional consideration.
“It’s frustrating, because I mean, we beat them two out of three games at the beginning of the year,” Craig said. “And Maryland, who played against Georgia Tech in the finals, we beat them two out of three as well. So we know we had an opportunity … to win most of the games in the tournament and help us get a regional berth.”
Craig was otherwise pleased with his debut season.
“It’s pretty cool going out there,” Craig said, “and facing a guy like Carlos Rodon or Trea Turner for NC State or Trent Thornton for UNC or Jake Stinnett from Maryland – all potential top few-round picks – and knowing my coach has the faith in me … to go out there on a daily basis and perform at a high level. It’s just a great feeling knowing that he believes in my abilities as much as I believe in my abilities, if not more.”
Craig said Stinnett gave him the most difficulty. He went 1-for-4 with a line-out against Rodon.
“Stinnett threw, like, 95-96 two-seam (fastball) with a really good slider,” Craig said. “He was, overall, really good. I thought Carlos Rodon, who’s supposed to be the No. 1 or No. 2 overall pick this year, was pretty good, too. … I faced probably 15-plus guys that … are at least 92 (mph) or above.”
Craig’s relatively steady play at third base was less expected than his prowess at the plate.
“We were worried we were gonna have to play him over at first, but he did a nice job at third,” Walter said. “Again, I don’t know that it was a surprise by any stretch, but we were glad that we were able to keep him at third. And then as far as the offense goes, I mean you know, from day one in practice we knew he was gonna be an offensive force and only continue to get better.”
Craig also pitched in seven games, compiling a 1-0 record and a 4.05 ERA in 13 1/3 innings.
“We knew fatigue would become an issue,” Walter said, “and if we pushed the envelope too much on the pitching end as a freshman, we felt like we’d lose the bat. And we just couldn’t afford to do that, because he was … if not our best, one of our two or three best run producers.
“We just didn’t feel like we could go to the pitching well too much without sacrificing too much of the bat. Now, by the time his sophomore year rolls around, that won’t be a problem. So we expect him to be a big part of our plans on the mound.”
Walter appreciates the non-nonsense approach of Craig, who was pitched more carefully as the season unfolded.
“Will’s just kind of a quiet, unassuming – I mean, he just goes out there and does his business,” Walter said. “I think he’ll develop into a leader for us as he matures. But Will was kind of one just to go out there and play the game the right way, and somebody that we could always count on.”
Walter wanted Craig to play in the Northwoods League this summer because of the number of games on the schedule (72 in the regular season). Next year Craig will likely play in the Cape Cod League.
Craig is looking forward to playing all over the upper Midwest.
“It’s a blessing every day I wake up and get to play baseball,” Craig said. “It’s a great thing, going up to Canada, down to Atlanta, all the way up to Boston. I’ve been more places this year than I have been my whole life. It’s just a great experience and I’m blessed and thankful that God’s given me the ability to do so.”