Blue Devils ready for Wolfpack left-handers

lkeeley@newsobserver.comApril 10, 2014 

— With runners on first and second and two outs in the first inning Tuesday, Duke’s No. 5 hitter, Chris Marconcini, stepped to the plate. In a lefty vs. lefty matchup, the power hitter drove a sharp single to right field, driving in the Blue Devils’ second run in 25 innings.

Before N.C. Central’s Andrew Wilson was chased in the third inning, five other Blue Devils recorded hits against the lefty, and Wilson was tagged for seven earned runs. No, N.C. Central’s pitching didn’t match the level of Georgia Tech last weekend, and it wasn’t a simulation in terms of speed and movement for this weekend’s series against N.C. State (Friday at 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 1 in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park). But it was a chance for Duke to gain some confidence against what has been an Achilles’ heel this season: left-handed pitching.

“I think everyone in the country knows now that we haven’t had a very good approach in a long time against a left-handed pitcher,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “That’s been something that has really victimized us at points earlier in the year.”

During ACC play, the Blue Devils (18-16, 7-8 ACC), who start at least two and sometimes three left-handed hitters, are batting .123 (14-for-114) against southpaws, with 31 strikeouts against 12 walks. The Wolfpack (19-13, 5-10 ACC) might be struggling, but it will bring plenty of lefties to Durham, including four of its top seven pitchers in terms of innings pitched. Two are relievers (Brad Stone and D.J. Thomas). Patrick Peterson could start or join the other two in the bullpen, but one thing is certain: Carlos Rodon, considered one of the top prospects for the 2014 MLB draft, will start against Duke.

“His stuff is worthy of being the No. 1 draft pick,” Pollard said of Rodon, who has struggled at times this year (2-5, 2.44 ERA, 60 strikeouts, 12 walks in 551/3 innings). “We’ll need to be opportunistic because you’re not going to get a lot of chances to barrel the baseball off of him. When we do get our chances, we’ve got to take advantage of them.”

Second baseman Andy Perez summed the strategy against Rodon succinctly: hunt fastballs. At times this year, the Blue Devils have struggled to take advantage of their opportunities, passing up a fastball early in the count to end up regretting it later in the at-bat.

That won’t work against Rodon.

“We get too passive at times,” Pollard said. “We’re not aggressive enough to the fastball early in the count. And sometimes even when we are swinging at that pitch, it’s not the type of aggressive hack that is going to drive a baseball. It’s almost like a two-strike swing.”

There weren’t many defensive swings or wasted at-bats Tuesday against Central. Against the left-handed starter, Duke had few unproductive at-bats, with nearly every ball hit hard, and the Blue Devils recorded three sacrifice flies. By the time the Eagles went to the bullpen, the Blue Devils had relaxed, working out all the tension that built up at Georgia Tech, which ended with a Yellow Jackets’ sweep.

“We got some good hits in, got the confidence built back up from last weekend,” said Marconcini, who leads the ACC with seven home runs and is tied for third with 30 RBIs.

Duke will need that confidence this weekend.

“Our margin of error is real thin,” said Pollard, speaking of his team’s hitting. “We know that.”

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley

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