The Wake Forest Demon Deacons are the top overall seed in the Men's College World Series and were, without a doubt, the best team in college baseball during the regular season. The pitching staff, led by two-time ACC Pitcher of the Year Rhett Lowder and breakout All-America Josh Hartle, is the crown jewel of the program, though slugging corner infielders Nick Kurtz and Brock Wilken get plenty of national attention as well. But nobody seems to be talking enough about catcher Bennett Lee and the impact he's had on the team since his arrival in Winston-Salem.
"What a difference he's made in our ball club since coming here from Tulane," said Wake Forest Head Coach Tom Walter during the ACC Tournament at the end of May. "It starts with him."
In a powerful lineup that features the aforementioned Kurtz and Wilken duo, who each have well over 20 home runs on the year, it's easy to overlook Lee hitting towards the bottom of the lineup. His numbers aren't the flashiest (.304 average with 3 doubles and 7 homers), but what he does in the sport's most important position shouldn't be overlooked.
“Bennett is awesome. You can't ask for a better catcher back there," said Lowder on Thursday during Wake Forest's College World Series pre-tournament press conference.
Lee, who spent two years at Tulane while appearing in 104 games at catcher, is just two years removed from an impressive freshman season, when he hit .440 and garnered Freshman All-America honors from a number of national publications. He entered the 2022 campaign as one of the top catching prospects in the country, only to suffer from the dreaded sophomore slump offensively. He hit .255 in 60 games, and his OBP dropped 161 points to .366 from his freshman campaign. Even worse, Tulane struggled and fired their head coach after the season. Bennett knew it was time for a change of scenery.
"I love Tulane. I love New Orleans and all my teammates and coaches there," the junior said. "But then, when our coach got fired last year, Wake Forest was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. It has everything I was looking for: great coaches, great academics, great team, great friends. My best friend from high school is our closer, Camden Minacci. It was just the perfect match."
Being a catcher involves so much more than just hitting and catching pitches. The position is also expected to manage the pitching staff and set the tone defensively. In the Major Leagues, they're responsible for calling the pitch sequences as well. "With Rhett [Lowder] and Josh [Hartle], it’s easy to cruise a little bit and get into an auto-pilot mode," said Lee as he explained some of the extra duties that comes with being a catcher. "But with Keener and each guy coming out of the bullpen, I have to do a better job of pulling it out of them and making them believe in themselves. I’ve got to facilitate them and help."
With the need to bring a positive and confident energy to each pitcher, it's important for Lee to build a relationship with every pitcher on the roster, so that there's a foundation of trust in the pitching game. With so much going on behind the scenes, it makes for a difficult transition when having to learn an entire new roster of pitchers in a few months. That was no problem for Lee, however.
"He came in and wasted no time getting to know everyone," Lowder said about his catcher. "I feel like that's a big part--getting comfortable with all the guys. He knows the differences between each pitcher and what each guy needs."
The Tampa native had a rough start for the Deacs offensively, hitting .222 with just one home run in his first 14 games in the black and gold. He missed some time in March before returning April 1 against Clemson. Since his return, Lee has hit .340 with 6 home runs while playing stellar defense behind the plate. The pitching staff that he's handled is the best in the country. It's a big improvement on his sophomore season at Tulane. A year ago, he was announcing his transfer. Now, he's in Omaha.
"It's a dream come true," Lee said. "[I am] just trying to soak in all of this, it's beautiful."
Walter credits him with so much of Wake Forest's behind-the-scenes success on the field. "Bennett Lee does so many little things to help us win. He’s got an unbelievable relationship with the umpires, he’s got a great relationship with his pitcher... I just can't say enough."
Wake Forest makes its first appearance at Charles Schwab Field Saturday at 2:00 PM EDT against #8-overall seed Stanford. The game will be televised on ESPN.