DURHAM — When Duke was looking for a new baseball coach last summer, plenty of college baseball people questioned how attractive that job could be, noting the challenge involved with turning around the long-struggling program.
Chris Pollard, who had built Appalachian State into a perennial 30-win team, heard those questions. And he accepted the job.
“The most important part of coaching is being able to recruit,” Pollard said. “And the most important part of recruiting is do you have a school that people want to go to? And obviously with Duke, the answer is yes.”
Pollard’s first recruiting class will arrive on campus for the next school year. For now, the Blue Devils have more than a month left in the season and have already exceeded last season’s win total. And Duke (22-17, 8-10 ACC) has a shot to qualify for the ACC championship tournament for the first time since 2009.
The Blue Devils’ success has mainly come from pitching and defense.
All Pollard knew about Duke’s weekend rotation when he arrived on campus was that it no longer had Marcus Stroman, who the Toronto Blue Jays drafted in the first round.
Sophomore Trent Swart took over the Friday role. Robert Huber, who battled nagging arm injuries in the fall, recovered and pitches on Sundays.
Huber used what Pollard called a “deceptively quick” fastball about 75 percent of the time in back-to-back shutouts against Boston College and Georgia Tech.
“It’s not an overpowering fastball,” Pollard said of Huber’s 88-90 mph pitch. “But for some reason, it just kind of misses barrels.”
For the Saturday spot, Pollard converted Drew Van Orden, who had been relegated to middle relief, into a starter. The key for him was working with new pitching coach Andrew See to develop a cutter, giving him a breaking ball he can throw for a strike in all counts.
The No. 1 priority for Duke’s pitchers is to throw first-pitch strikes. Keeping the ball down in the strike zone is imperative too. And when the Blue Devils do that, they win games against quality competition.
The Pollard era started with a win at Florida, and the ACC schedule began with a series win over Miami. It was the first time the Blue Devils beat the Hurricanes twice in a season since 1966.
The series that served as a wake-up call to the rest of the ACC came against Georgia Tech, one of the top hitting teams in the country. The Yellow Jackets were shut out twice and scored just two runs in three games as Duke won the series.
“Nationally, the two wins over Georgia Tech and the way we won, in terms of limiting their offense, really validated what we had down to that point,” Pollard said.
A sweep at Florida State last weekend halted a streak of eight wins in nine games for Duke. But Pollard didn’t dwell on the losses, opting instead to keep the atmosphere loose.
“It’s not something where we’ve been putting a lot of pressure on ourselves this year,” right fielder Jeff Kremer said. “Coach Pollard has really had us focused on showing up, enjoying the game, and just having fun. And winning is fun, so we want to come out and do that.”
Keeley: 919-829-4556 Twitter @laurakeeley