Duke baseball swings for NCAA fences

lkeeley@newsobserver.comMay 8, 2014 

— With two weeks to go in the regular season, Duke is in prime position to make its first ACC tournament appearance since 2009. But the Blue Devils are competing to end an even longer postseason drought: a 53-year absence from the NCAA tournament.

Duke last appeared in the main baseball postseason event in 1961. This year’s squad (30-18, 15-9) is squarely on the bubble. Perfect Game projects the Blue Devils in the 64-team field, while Baseball America, which had Duke as the last team in last week, projects it to miss the cut.

There is good news and bad news for Duke’s chances. The good news is wins in their final two ACC series should be enough to get them in the field. The bad news is that those series come against the division leaders, No. 5 Florida State (37-11, 17-7) and No. 8 Miami (35-14, 19-5).

The Hurricanes, winners of 22 of their past 24, willcome to Durham this weekend. Then Duke will close the season at Florida State, where the Blue Devils haven’t won a game since 1994 – a span of 24 games.

But you’re saying there’s a chance.

“The bottom line to me is, hey, they really do control their own destiny,” said Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt. “They’re not easy series, but that’s the advantage of having good teams on the schedule. If you win a couple of those games, you can really help yourself.

“Even if they lose both series, but don’t get swept, they’d finish 17 wins in the league. Even then, they’re probably still alive. They’re not going to have, in that case, a good enough RPI for an at-large bid, but they would be in a position to really help themselves in the ACC tournament.”

Since the the first wave of ACC expansion ahead of the 2005 season, just two ACC teams with at least 14 league wins have missed the NCAA tournament: 2006 Wake Forest (33-22, 16-13) and 2007 Georgia Tech (32-25, 15-14). Duke, like those teams, has a low RPI, done in by home losses to bad teams.

Duke is ranked 74th in the NCAA’s official RPI report – the target ranking is 45 or higher, Fitt said, with 50 the absolute lowest an at-large team can be with a realistic hope to make the field.

The Blue Devils’ problem has been home, nonconference losses to bad RPI teams. For example: Duke was ranked 61 in last week’s RPI report – but then the Blue Devils won just two of three games against Longwood, with a disastrous RPI of 207. That one home loss was enough to send Duke down 13 spots.

“You look at our body of work, we have some great wins, and we have some really weird losses,” coach Chris Pollard said. “I attribute some of that to some of our offensive struggles. If you backed me into a corner, I thought we were going to be a little better offensive team than we’ve been.”

Duke counters its tepid offense (a team batting average of .265) with a pitching staff that is as good as any in the ACC, Fitt said. Duke’s team ERA of 2.89 ranks just behind Virginia and North Carolina. That gives the Blue Devils a chance against Miami (No. 18 RPI) and Florida State (No. 3 RPI), and a chance to make some history.

Pollard said he keeps track of the latest field projections and RPI reports, but he doesn’t talk about them with the team. Third baseman Jordan Betts said many of the guys are tracking that stuff on their own anyway.

“It’s exciting,” Betts said, before thinking of the big picture. “There’s nothing bad that can come out of this, because no one expected it.”

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service