DURHAM — Throughout the season, which has been rather successful by historic standards, Dukes offense has made slow and steady progress. But the Blue Devils can envision a sprint to the finish.
There are just nine ACC baseball games left, and 13 games total, in the regular season. Duke (25-17, 12-9) is tied for fifth with Wake Forest (26-18, 12-9), the team the Blue Devils will play this weekend in a pivotal series. Duke will close its conference slate with two of the three best teams in the league: Florida State and Miami.
The Blue Devils pitching has been stellar all year, ranking third in the league with a 2.88 ERA and .230 opposing batting average, and first with 371 strikeouts. Still, coach Chris Pollard doesnt want his team relying on the staff.
Duke hits .260 and has scored fewer than four runs in 13 of 21 ACC games (62 percent) and scored at least five on five occasions.
At times, I think our team has been too reliant on the pitching, Pollard said. Sometimes its like, Weve scored three runs, weve done our job because the pitching staff is going to hold them. I keep imploring to our guys that you cant expect to continue to win that way. At some point, you have to step up and win some games with your offense.
Duke has done that in key spots this year. On March 29, Duke trailed North Carolina but rallied for a 9-8 win in 12 innings. Two weeks later, in the deciding Sunday game against N.C. State, Duke rallied from a six-run deficit in the eighth for an 11-10 win, taking both series from its local rivals for the first time since 2009.
Last weekend at Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils had 17 hits en route to a 13-3 win, part of their first sweep on the road.
Hitting is a little contagious, third baseman Jordan Betts said. One guy gets a big knock, everybody is getting a big knock. Weve been right there all year. We know the pitching is going to be there, but we have a lot pride in ourselves as a lineup as well. If we do our part, there are a lot of teams that should be scared to play Duke.
Betts, who is hitting .321 with a team-high 43 hits, is one of the most consistent Blue Devils and has a great feel for his swing, hitting coach Mark Hayes said. He is healthy now, after missing the Pittsburgh and UNC series because of an injury.
Betts can hit for power, too, as can Chris Marconcini, who is second in the ACC with seven home runs and tied for the conference lead with 39 RBIs. At the top of the lineup is Mark Lumpa, the national leader in walks (40) and walks per game (1.0).
Duke ranks second in the league in walks per game (5.0).
Midway through the season, Hayes moved Lumpa closer to the plate, putting him in position to cover more of the strike zone and drive balls instead of just slapping them. Lumpa leads the team and ranks fourth in the ACC with a .466 on-base percentage.
Ive always been pretty patient. The key for me is knowing my strike zone, not expanding away or up, which has been a problem in the past, said Lumpa, who is listed at 5-foot-7. But Ive done a lot better with that this year.
The biggest difference in Dukes offense over the past few weeks has been the No. 8 hitter, Andy Perez. Over his past nine games (including six conference games), he is hitting a team-best .455 (15-for-33). That stretch includes three doubles, six walks, six RBIs and seven stolen bases.
It has been quite the turnaround from his .165 mark though his first 29 games.
My swing was looking a little different than it did in the past, said Perez, who led last years starters with a .316 average. I wasnt being as aggressive as I am typically, thats how Ive had success in the past, so just getting back to that helped me a lot.
Perez also spent time with Hayes in the film room, watching what he did last year compared to the beginning of this season. Hayes found two small differences that, when corrected, have made a huge difference.
It was very close to the same swing he had, it was just a tick off here and there, Hayes said. Part of that was his hand placements, part of it was his bat angle. Once we fixed those two, then it was just a timing issue, getting his timing down and his confidence back.
The uptick in offense, combined with the year-long pitching success, has Duke feeling good about making its first ACC tournament since 2009. Before Wednesdays practice, just like he does every day, Pollard yelled as his team took the field, Today is the most important day of the year.
Hes right in that every game counts the same. But meaningful baseball this late in the season can put an extra hop in the step or, as Duke hopes, an extra pop in the bat.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley