By Trey Williams
No one would’ve predicted the dazzling college baseball career Wake Forest junior Will Craig has put together, but fellow Science Hill alum and former Atlantic Coast Conference player Hanes Torbett is probably as unsurprised as anyone.
Craig, a first baseman/pitcher, was the ACC player of the year and a Louisville Slugger All-American last season after making the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American team in 2014. And he’s flirting with an ACC triple crown this season. The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder entered Tuesday’s game at Marshall tied for the league lead in average (.412) and home runs (15) and leads the league in RBIs by five.
Craig is a good bet to be a first-round major-league draft pick next month, and he’s a finalist for multiple national player of the year awards. His talent was obvious enough at Science Hill that Torbett gave him a glowing recommendation to North Carolina, where Torbett played two seasons after playing at Walters State and Science Hill (class of ’91).
Torbett, who went on to play in the New York Mets organization and now coaches with the Tennessee Crusaders travel teams, has been a hitting enthusiast since long before former MLB catcher Jeff Reed showed the switch-hitter how to get more power from the left side prior to his senior season at Science Hill. And he was instantly sold on Craig.
“Will had the perfect swing – hands inside the ball, tight,” Torbett said. “And it didn’t matter where you threw him in the cage – inside, outside, down the middle – he hit it where it was supposed to go… His swing is one of the most beautiful, perfect swings I have ever seen.
“I used to say Will was the best hitter in the state of Tennessee, but I was wrong. He’s the best hitter in the country. And I don’t say that lightly.”
So when Craig homered twice, walked five times, scored six runs, went 3-for-9 and got a win on the mound while helping Wake Forest sweep North Carolina (April 22-24) Torbett felt a mixture of frustration and pride, which he expressed via Twitter – #shouldhavetakenmyboyWill and #listentoHanesUNC – with a wink.
Hearing all this produces a chuckle from Wake Forest coach Tom Walter: “I’m glad Coach (Mike) Fox let him come to Wake.”
No one is better aware of what UNC missed on than the Tar Heels coach. Fox intentionally walked Craig with two out and none on with the score tied in the bottom of the ninth of the series finale. And Stuart Fairchild followed with an RBI double to clinch the sweep.
“The only other person I’ve ever seen that even be considered was Barry Bonds in the major leagues,” Walter said. “I’ve never heard of anybody doing that at the collegiate level. To see somebody get walked with (two) out and nobody on in a tie game in the ninth inning – and the kid pitching from Carolina (A.J. Bogucki) is real good, gonna be a high draft pick in his own right … What you’re saying is, ‘I’m gonna take my chances getting one of the next two guys out rather than try to keep Will Craig in the ballpark.’ … But again, you don’t see that at the college level, like, ever.”
Craig’s games at the college level have almost certainly dwindled to a precious few. The junior is a first-round fixture in numerous mock drafts.
But he has a laser-like focus on lengthening his junior season. Triple crowns, national accolades and the MLB draft, for now, take a backseat to a coveted NCAA Tournament appearance.
The Demon Deacons close the regular season by hosting No. 7 Louisville for a three-game series beginning Friday. Avoiding a sweep against Louisville, at the least, and a win or two in the league tourney would seem likely to clinch a berth.
“I haven’t really thought a lot about the awards at this time,” Craig said. “Right now, we’ve gotta at least win, like, one or two more games to be where we want to be going into the ACC tournament… If everything works out the way we hope it will, it’s looking pretty good for us.”
Craig leads the ACC with 62 RBIs (three are tied with 57) despite missing seven games with an oblique strain. And though he’s tied for the league lead in home runs, he’s hardly a free-swinging slugger. Craig has drawn 40 walks while striking out only 25 times, and his on-base percentage (.551) is second in the league to Miami’s Zack Collins (.560).
A hard-throwing right-hander, Craig is also 2-0 on the mound with a team-leading six saves. He has a team-best 2.11 ERA (among regulars) and opponents are batting .203 against him.
Consequently, Craig is among 18 players being considered for the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award. He’s also on the Golden Spikes Award watch list – not that Craig spends much time watching.
“Obviously, I’m honored and blessed to be able to say I’ve been named to those award lists,” Craig said. “But at the same time it’s like, ‘Well, all the awards are great, but my ultimate goal is for our team to go as far as we can and make it to the postseason.’”
Craig first caught Walter’s eye as a pitcher. He was a freshman, and relieved Daniel Norris against David Crockett.
“I’d noticed him as a third baseman – just as a freshman, the way he carried himself and the way he swung the bat,” Walter said. “But when he came in and pitched in that situation I was even more intrigued just because of how calm and level-headed he stayed in that situation. For a 15- or 14-year-old, it was just so impressive. … The next person that saw him was our pitching coach and he liked him on the mound. A lot of conversations in the early going were centered around the pitching part.
“I mean we knew the bat was there, too. We recruited him as a true two-way guy that could help us both ways, but as big of a focus as any was pitching. I tell scouts this all the time: if Will didn’t hit at all, he’d be a pretty high draft pick as a pitcher. I mean he’s that talented.”
Walter noted the devotion of Craig’s parents, Brad and Kim. They’ve been to California, New Mexico, Minnesota, New England and Nebraska to see him play. Kim rented an apartment two months for back-to-back summers while Craig played for the East Cobb Yankees.
“I can’t say for sure how many they’ve missed (at Wake Forest), but I know it’s not very many,” Walter said. “Two years ago we played up in Boston and I know they drove to Boston and back, which from Tennessee is not exactly a hop, skip and a jump. They’re incredibly devoted and they’ve made sacrifices for Will.”