DURHAM — Senior pitcher Drew Van Orden had two opportunities to start his professional career last summer, but he turned down both to come back to Duke. Then he lost his spot in the weekend rotation, only to regain it when injuries left the Blue Devils with no other choice. So it was Van Orden who took the mound last Friday night against North Carolina, the perennial powerhouse that had won nine straight against the Blue Devils.
Van Orden delivered the performance of his career, striking out 12 and walking none in eight innings as Duke won 3-2, giving the seniors their first win against the Tar Heels.
That was just the start of the weekend. The Blue Devils climbed out of a five-run hole to win the second game 9-8 and won Sundays contest 6-4 to sweep North Carolina for the first time since 1994.
Were just being a lot mentally tougher, definitely, than we have been in years past and towards the beginning of the season, senior catcher Mike Rosenfeld said. Weve learned from our opponents as much as anybody. Weve been in a lot of close games, and just seeing how our opponents havent given up when weve had the lead, we learned from that, which is what you want to do in a loss, take as much as you can away from it.
When asked if any loss in particular served as a teaching moment, Rosenfeld chuckled and said, We had a ton in the first half.
Duke is 17-13, 7-5 in ACC play, but perhaps the most challenging losses have been on the personnel side.
All three of the Blue Devils projected weekend starters junior Trent Swart and sophomores Michael Matuella and James Marvel have missed significant time with injuries. Marvel is out for the year after Tommy John surgery. Matuella, Dukes best pro prospect with a fastball that has touched 97 mph, missed a month with a strained Latissimus dorsi muscle. And Swart is scheduled to pitch Saturday for the first time since Feb. 28 after straining the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow.
So Van Orden, who began the year as a midweek starter, was told the week Duke began ACC play that he would start the first game against Virginia.
I didnt like the way that it happened, with some of our guys doing down, Van Orden said. But I was excited to get the opportunity to go back out on weekends, having done that some my junior year and not done as well as Id hoped.
Van Orden showed last year that he could have been drafted in the 40-round MLB draft, if thats what he had wanted. But he told coach Chris Pollard he would tell teams he was returning to Duke.
But then he pitched well enough in the California Collegiate League (CCL) that the Boston Red Sox offered him a contract at the end of the summer.
And so I get on the phone with Drew, Drew what do you think? Pollard said. He said, Coach, Im coming back, Ive got unfinished business.
Van Orden pitched well in the fall and in the preseason, but not as well as Swart, Matuella and Marvel. But the injuries gave him another shot, and he has capitalized on it, posting a 2.88 ERA with 29 strikeouts against seven walks in ACC play. Opponents are hitting .239 against Van Orden, who throws a fastball, cutter and uses a change-up primarily against lefties. The Blue Devils rank second in the league in ACC games with a 2.64 ERA in their first 12 contests.
There was some thought put into it, but I wouldnt necessarily say it was a hard decision, Van Orden said of his return. I just really thought that we had a group of guys that could do something special this year and that we had a chance to make the ACC tournament and to make a regional.
The Blue Devils havent qualified for the ACC tournament since 2009, before any of the current players arrived on campus. The field expanded to 10 teams this year, and currently, Duke is in third place in the Coastal Division, behind Virginia and Miami. Theres reason to think this can be Dukes year to reach the postseason Pollard saw the most positive signs Sunday, after the Blue Devils comeback win.
It was probably the first time in my 20 months here where I watched our guys in pregame, and theres a real expectation that were going to win this game, he said. The way they carried themselves, their demeanor, their approach, there was an expectation for success instead of a hope for success.
Im watching them, and I looked at our assistants and said, I think theyve figured something out. Theyve kind of figured out who they are. Some days, theyve been like plain toast. They just dont have a personality. Now theyre really starting to find their personality as a team.