DURHAM — It’s a fitting end for Duke’s large senior class: the ACC tournament, for the first time in their careers.
The No. 4 seed Blue Devils (32-23, 16-14) will open their first taste of the postseason since 2009 against No. 5 Clemson (34-22, 14-16) at 11 a.m. Wendesday in Greensboro.
“For them to have really lived through three tough years, not experiencing a ton of success, at least in terms of wins and losses,” Chris Pollard said, “to have things come together this way for them in their senior year, it’s been very gratifying for me as a coach.”
Duke had a nice appetizer for the main event over the past two weekends, facing two of the best teams in the country in Miami and Florida State. The Hurricanes swept Duke two weekends ago in Durham – the Blue Devils led in just four of the 27 innings – and dropped the first two games at Florida State before facing a high-stakes finale Saturday.
Lose, and the Blue Devils would have had zero momentum and a high probability of landing in one of Tuesday’s play-in games. Win, and clinch the No. 4 seed and end a losing streak in Tallahassee that stretched to 1994.
Duke was able to pull out the 7-5 win, using a recipe that has been successful all season: strong starting pitching. Junior Trent Swart went eight innings, giving up three runs on six hits, walking three and striking out three.
Ask opposing managers what is different about this year’s Duke squad, and they will point to the guys who take the mound.
“If you pinned me down and I had to say one thing, I’d say their pitching was really, really the main focal point,” Florida State coach Mike Martin said. “That’s obviously where it all begins.”
Added Clemson coach Jack Leggett: “They’ve been a little bit inconsistent, but at the same time, very dangerous. Their starting pitching is the equalizer for them.”
Duke, which ranks fourth in the league with an opposing batting average of .233, will throw its best pitcher, sophomore Michael Matuella, on Wednesday morning against Clemson’s Matthew Crownover. Matuella, who did not pitch this weekend in preparation for the postseason, has a fastball that hit the 94-97 mph range, along with a solid curveball, slider and change-up. Crownover will be the latest in the line of left-handers sent to the mound against Duke (the Blue Devils hit significantly better against right-handers).
Senior Drew Van Ordenleft-hander will pitch Thursday, as he is one of five significant contributors who have exhausted their eligibility. Fourteen Blue Devils received degrees at graduation – three regulars who are redshirt juniors (first baseman Aaron Cohn, catcher Mike Rosenfeld and outfielder Chris Marconcini) could choose to come back. Even if they do, it would be hard to top the experience from this year, when Duke baseball remerged as a competitive threat in postseason play.