Corey Muscara’s phone buzzed. He thought he was being punked.

Have you ever heard of Chase Burns? He has interest in Wake Forest. Do you guys have interest in him? 

The text was from a friend named Jacob Turner, a top-10 pick in the 2009 MLB Draft who pitched in the major leagues from 2011-18 and is now a financial advisor.

Muscara had recently completed his second season as the pitching coach at Wake Forest. And, after flirting with a head coaching opportunity that he ultimately declined, Muscara was back in Winston-Salem, N.C., looking to restock his pitching staff after the Demon Deacons’ magical 2023 season that included an ACC championship and the school’s first trip to the College World Series since 1955.

“I called him right away,” Muscara said. “I just started laughing. I was like, ‘Of course we have interest.’”

Burns, a top prospect with an electric right arm, was in high demand after entering the transfer portal following his sophomore season at Tennessee. There were rumors about Vanderbilt, and he visited TCU and Georgia, but Burns made it known he was very interested in Wake Forest.

“It took us a couple of weeks to get him on campus,” Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter said. “But once we did, Corey Muscara and his team did a good job kind of putting together a player development plan for him and showing him what his development would look like if he decided to come here.

“The reality is he could have gotten more NIL opportunities at other schools, but he chose to come here because of the development piece.”

Burns was the final part of an offseason rebuild that, in theory, would keep Wake Forest among the nation’s elite. The Demon Deacons entered the 2024 season ranked No. 1 by every major poll on the strength of a roster that featured five players receiving buzz as potential first-round picks in the 2024 MLB Draft.

There was Burns, who struck out 38.4 percent of batters faced in 2023 — third nationally behind 2023 No. 1 pick Paul Skenes and former Wake Forest left-hander Sean Sullivan, a 2023 second-round pick.

There was first baseman Nick Kurtz, who hit 24 home runs with an OPS of 1.311 in 2023.

There was Seaver King, a transfer from Division II Wingate who earned a spot on the prestigious Team USA roster last summer and whose teammates and coaches compare to Mookie Betts.

There was Josh Hartle, a left-hander who struck out 140 in 102 1/3 innings as a sophomore weekend starter on the CWS team.

And finally, there was Michael Massey, a right-hander who dominated out of the bullpen in 2023 — his first season at Wake after transferring from Tulane — but was transitioning back to a starting role.

With five potential first-round picks and a No. 1 ranking, what possibly could go wrong?

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The low point occurred on the final day of March.

A 14-10 loss at home to North Carolina dropped Wake Forest’s record to 17-10 overall and 4-8 in the ACC. The 2023 Deacons navigated the entire season without losing a series; this year’s team lost three of its first four ACC series despite playing all but one at home.

“We felt like we were a lot better than our record,” Walter said a few weeks later. “But at the same time, we needed to play better too.”

Kurtz, who ranked No. 6 on Keith Law’s preseason MLB Draft board, was hitting .217 with only three home runs after going 0 for 5 in a 6-5 loss in the first game of the North Carolina series. Hartle, No. 27 on the board, allowed 26 hits and 19 earned runs in only 11 1/3 combined innings in his first three ACC starts.

For Kurtz, who hit .338 with 15 home runs as a freshman in 2022, it was the first time in his collegiate career that he was forced to deal with failure. Injuries contributed to his struggles — he missed six games in March with a shoulder issue — but it’s possible the pressure of the upcoming draft affected his play.

“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t any (pressure),” he said in April. “But it’s one of the things that everyone has to deal with. And it’s part of the game, and it’s fun at the same time — like you enjoy the pressure. You get up to the box, it’s just you up there, everyone’s looking at you.”

Kurtz’s struggles didn’t last. In an 11-game span — starting with Game 2 of the North Carolina series — the Pennsylvania native went 22 for 43 with 14 home runs and 30 RBIs to raise his average by 123 percentage points.

Kurtz shows great patience at the plate and he’s the rare college slugger who doesn’t strike out often. In 221 plate appearances in 2024, he has 66 walks and has struck out only 33 times. And his numbers aren’t inflated by playing in hitter-friendly David F. Couch Stadium; his OPS is 1.746 on the road compared to 1.129 at home. Law moved Kurtz up to the No. 3 spot in his second draft prospect ranking.

It’s been more of a mixed bag for Hartle, a Winston-Salem-area native who arrived at Wake Forest in the fall of 2021 as “definitely the most high-profile recruit we’ve ever gotten,” according to Walter, the Deacons head coach for the last 15 years.

Hartle appeared to be on the right track when he allowed two runs or fewer in three consecutive starts but was roughed up in losses to Florida State and Notre Dame in late April.


Josh Hartle allowed only four hits and two earned runs in six innings in his start against LSU in the 2023 College World Series. (Steven Branscombe / USA Today)

Muscara indicated that Hartle changed his delivery this season to add a few ticks of velocity to his fastball. There’s a lot that goes into it — “I don’t want to get too pitching nerdy,” he said — but the staff eventually decided that the changes were having a negative effect on the rest of his pitches with only a “minuscule” uptick in his velocity.

“We’re trying to find the right blend,” Muscara said in April.

Hartle was at his best last Sunday, allowing four hits and three earned runs while striking out nine with only one walk in six innings in a 13-3 win over Clemson.

There have been no midseason adjustments needed for Burns, who both Walter and Muscara admit has been better than even they expected.

With one week to play in the regular season, Burns is 10-1 with a 2.85 ERA with 156 strikeouts in 82 innings.

“He’s been really special,” Walter said. “He’s got four real pitches. He’s a competitor and he just keeps coming. And he’s such a good athlete. If you were going to design a pitcher that’s an elite athlete, that’s what he would look like.”

Muscara was quick to put to rest any talk of Burns — who left Tennessee after a falling out with the Vols coaching staff — being an issue in the locker room.

“He’s been one of the most fun kids ever to coach,” he said. “Twitter is out of control. The Tennessee fans are belligerent, and they hound him 24-7, no matter what happens, and about how he’s a bad teammate, he’s a cancer.

“Everyone here loves him. He’s always in a good mood. He loves to play the game. He loves to be coached. He’s very coachable.”

Burns has dealt with draft speculation since his days at Beech High School just outside of Nashville, Tenn. Nothing seems to faze him.

“I think I’ve done a good job with it,” he said of dealing with the pressure. “I’ve gone through it. Just trying to treat it like another year. Treat every game like it’s just another game. It’s kind of hard not to see it, with all of the social media, but at the end of the day, you just go out and try to win games.”

Burns started 14 games as a freshman at Tennessee in 2022 and was a starter for the first eight weeks last season but was shifted to the bullpen after struggling in his first four SEC starts. He thrived in his new role — most notably in the postseason — but was eager to get back to a starting role.

Wake Forest gave him that opportunity.

“There was nothing for me to prove,” he said. “I did it my freshman year. I don’t really need to prove to anybody that I was a starter. I know who I am. And I know how much work I’ve put in, so yeah, it was basically just a big reset. And being back in the starting position feels good.”

Burns arrived at Wake Forest after competing in the nation’s toughest conference for two seasons. King, however, spent two years in anonymity at Wingate, a Division II program just outside of Charlotte, N.C.

Basically unrecruited out of Athens (Ga.) Christian School, King first started to appear on scouts’ radar when he hit .411 with 11 home runs and 13 stolen bases as a sophomore in 2023. An invite to Team USA tryouts last summer — rare for a DII player — was a strong indication that he was a legitimate prospect.

He put his name in the transfer portal after Wingate’s season ended in late April. Wake quickly pounced.

“I’ll never forget, we were at UNC Wilmington,” said Bill Cilento, Wake’s hitting coach and recruiting coordinator. “So it was the first week of May, it was finals time. The first conversation I had with him, the kid’s electric on the phone, and shared the value system that we share. So we push our chips in pretty quick on him, and he actually came on a visit just after our Regional and committed on the spot.”

King made the Team USA roster and quickly found himself at home among the nation’s best.

“I step on the field not really knowing if I belonged,” he said. “And then first pitch, I was like, ‘All right, it’s time to go’ and kind of turned it on after that.”

King has settled in at third base for Wake but has also played second, shortstop and center field.

“When scouts ask me about him,” Cilento said, “I’m like, ‘I don’t know what Mookie Betts looked like (as an amateur), but that’s gotta be about what he looks like, right?’”

King ranks third on the team in hitting at .323 and has 15 home runs (more than he had in two seasons combined at Wingate). Most impressive: He has struck out only 27 times in 247 plate appearances.

Colleges with 3 first-round picks in same MLB Draft

School Year Player Pick

Vanderbilt

2015

Dansby Swanson, SS

1

Carson Fulmer, RHP

8

Walker Buehler, RHP

24

Miami

2008

Yonder Alonso, 1B

7

Jemile Weeks, 2B

12

Carlos Gutierrez, RHP

27

Rice

2004

Philip Humber, RHP

2

Jeff Niemann, RHP

4

Wade Townsend, RHP

8

Fresno State

1989

Steve Hosey, OF

14

Eddie Zosky, SS

19

Tom Goodwin, OF

22

Michigan

1979

Rick Leach, OF

13

Steve Howe, LHP

16

Steve Perry, RHP

25

Massey arrived at Wake Forest two years ago with very little fanfare after an unremarkable freshman season at Tulane in which he had a 5.03 ERA, a 1.397 WHIP and only 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings.

After some work with Muscara in Wake’s pitching lab — along with the natural progression a pitcher makes in his second year in college — Massey emerged as a key bullpen weapon in 2023. He lowered his ERA to 2.59 and his WHIP to 0.936 while dramatically improving his strikeout rate to 16.4 per nine.

“A lot of mechanical adjustments,” Massey said of his development. “My stuff had a big uptick. I like to say, freshman year I learned how to pitch and sophomore year I came here and developed my stuff.”

Muscara was a little bit less diplomatic about Massey’s progression.

“He didn’t have a slider (at Tulane),” he said. “Like his breaking ball was terrible. I think they hit like .370 off his break. It was bad. And I feel like I could teach a drunk monkey a slider. So I was like, ‘I can teach this kid a slider.’”

Massey’s transition back into a starting role has been a bit bumpy this season, mostly due to various injuries that have prevented him from going deep into games. As a result, he is no longer being discussed as a potential first-rounder — though that could change with a strong showing in the postseason.

“He’s got first-round makeup,” Muscara said. “He’s a first-round talent. When he gets his back in order, he’s going to get to the big leagues fast. He’s very talented. He just hasn’t been healthy.”


There’s no denying that Wake Forest’s 2024 regular season did not go as planned. But in college baseball, the best programs are not judged by what occurs from March through May. It’s about the postseason.

And the Deacs appear to be playing well at the right time. They enter the final series of the regular season with a nine-game winning streak, headlined by an emphatic sweep over then-No. 2 Clemson last weekend in Winston-Salem. Wake is 36-16 overall and 15-12 in the ACC and, with an RPI in the top 10, is in great position to be one of the 16 Regional hosts in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

What they do once they get there will very likely depend on what they get from their top-end talent.

“When you have talent, you have good team culture and chemistry, you have a shot and we do have a shot,” Walter said midseason. “We have the kind of team that can get (to the College World Series). It doesn’t mean we will. We’ve got to be playing our best baseball when it matters.”

Reaching the College World Series and winning a national title is the primary goal, but producing future major leaguers is also important for Walter and his staff.

“One of the things we’ve always sold here is our player development,” Walter said. “And if you look at our draft record, it’s really good.”

It’s about to be even better.

Wake Forest is almost certain to become the sixth school to have three first-round picks in the same draft — accomplished most recently by Vanderbilt in 2015 — and can expect to see five players picked in the first three rounds. This after having a program-record 10 players drafted in 2023, including five in the first three rounds. Law has Kurtz, Burns and King all going in the first round in his first mock draft, released Wednesday.

“That’s a huge statement about the program,” Walter said about the recent draft success. “We’ve become a destination school, which is what you want.”

(Top photos of Chase Burns, Seaver King and Nick Kurtz courtesy of Wake Forest Athletics)

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