A light rain drizzled down on Jack Coombs Field on Tuesday as a few Blue Devils waited in the dugout for it to clear. The pause gave them time to think about the opportunity ahead of them this weekend: Win the series at Pittsburgh and earn a spot in the ACC tournament and most likely the NCAA tournament, too, for the first time since 1961.
Duke (32-21, 13-15) took its only flight of the year to Pittsburgh to start the three-game series Thursday, and the Blue Devils opened with a 2-1 win in 10 innings. The Panthers (25-25, 10-17) are part of a glut of teams, including Duke, Boston College, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and North Carolina, that are hoping to finish among the top 10 of the ACC standings to earn a spot in next week’s tournament.
For Duke, though, it’s simple: Win and you’re in.
“We don’t need any help,” coach Chris Pollard said. “If we go and we play well, everything is there in front us of for the taking. The best thing that we can do is stay focused on ourselves and our preparation and not get caught up too much in the what-ifs.”
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Both Pollard and Kellen Urbon, Duke’s starter Thursday night, admitted to mentally running through possible postseason outcomes based on this weekend’s ACC series.
“Every time I catch myself doing it, I remind myself that there are a lot better things that I could be doing with my time, like preparing us for Pitt,” Pollard said.
Still, it’s human nature.
“Everyone has kind of been paying attention to that,” Urbon said. “There is an opportunity for us to do something that hasn’t been done in a really long time here, and everyone is excited for the chance to do something like that.”
Urbon, a graduate transfer from Cornell, is one of a few Blue Devils who have excelled when given expanded roles midway through the season. After six midweek starts, Urbon became a weekend starter, and he has posted a 2.02 ERA during those outings. And none of his performances were bigger than last Friday’s against then-No. 7 Florida State. Relying heavily on his change-up, Urbon went 6 1/3 innings in the Blue Devils’ 5-4 win. Another win the following day gave the Blue Devils their first series win against the Seminoles since 1994 and went a long way toward earning a berth in the NCAA tournament.
Both D1Baseball and Baseball America moved the Blue Devils into their projected field of 64 after taking the series from Florida State.
“Florida State, they crush ACC opponents like it’s their job every year,” said Aaron Fitt, a national writer at D1Baseball. “That’s not a series that you would expect Duke to win. They just dug deep.”
On paper, there’s not an obvious explanation for why the Blue Devils have had so much success. They don’t have any big, dominant arms (Bailey Clark had that potential at the beginning of the season but has struggled). Duke ranks among the bottom third of the ACC in nearly every offensive category, too. But they do have, in Fitt’s estimation, a “damn good” coach in Pollard, who has gotten the most out of his players.
We tried a bunch of things. We were digging very deep into the bag of tricks to try and put our finger on something that could jumpstart us or kickstart us. I don’t know that there was one specific thing that we did.
Duke head coach Chris Pollard
It took awhile to find the right combination. Duke started 2-7 in ACC play, losing series against Virginia, North Carolina and Wake Forest. Since then, the Blue Devils are 11-8 in conference play and 22-8 overall, with series wins against Virginia Tech and traditional powers Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida State.
“We tried a bunch of things,” Pollard said. “We were digging very deep into the bag of tricks to try and put our finger on something that could jumpstart us or kickstart us. I don’t know that there was one specific thing that we did.”
Moving Urbon into the rotation helped. So did moving sophomore Justin Bellinger into the lineup at first base and putting freshman Jimmy Herron in center field and in the leadoff spot. Herron leads Duke in batting average (.346), on-base percentage (.436), hits (65), doubles (22) and stolen bases (24). Bellinger is the only other Blue Devil batting above .300 at .317. And a combination of seven relievers has given Duke a stout bullpen, too.
“It’s just a bunch of guys that find a way,” Fitt said. “I know that sounds cliché, but that’s what it is.”
Should Duke lose the series this weekend, failing to get to 14 conference wins, then their postseason positioning would be in doubt. But after beating Florida State, the Blue Devils showed they can compete with the best of a loaded ACC.
“If we take care of business,” Herron said, “We should be fine.”