Whenever Kellen Urbon is forced to field his position on the mound, he knows what type of “praise” to expect after a job well done.
“I get ‘nice play, old man,’ a few times,” the graduate student said.
Urbon has a chance to hear that Tuesday, as he’ll get the start for Duke’s ACC tournament opener against Wake Forest at 11 a.m. The winner of that matchup will join Louisville, Virginia and Clemson in Pool B for at least three more games Wednesday-Saturday.
Urbon, Trent Swart and Brian McAfee – Duke’s three ACC starters – are all grad students. Their age and experience stands in stark contrast to the rest of Duke’s regulars – the Blue Devils’ lineup features three freshmen, five sophomores and just one junior. The trio has embraced the status as the team grandpas.
“We like it,” McAfee said. “Nothing wrong with it for us.”
In fact, when coming up with nicknames for their shared rack in the weight room, Urbon, Swart and McAfee went with “AAR-Pump” and the “Assisted Lifting Center.” There are plenty of jokes about using bats as canes and walking sticks as well.
“We just like to say that we’re more wise,” Urbon said when speaking of his younger teammates. “Obviously there are some maturity differences, but we try and teach them a little bit. I have to cook for them sometimes, just to make sure they’re fed.”
It has been a combination of the old and young guys that allowed Duke to turn a 10-13 (1-7 ACC) start into a 23-8 (13-8) finish, with seven of those eight losses coming against ranked opponents. The Blue Devils were No. 116 in the RPI on March 29 and now stand at No. 23, positioning themselves for the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 1961 (the RPI, or ratings percentage index, is used to rank teams based on wins and losses and strength of schedule).
Between that threesome, you’ve got four Duke degrees and two Ivy League diplomas.
Duke coach Chris Pollard
Urbon and McAfee both graduated from Cornell and transferred to Duke for their final years of eligibility. The two have combined for 13 quality starts and lead the team in innings pitched (90 for McAfee and 82.2 for Urbon), which allows the Blue Devils’ bullpen to stay fresh.
“There’s not a whole lot of coaching that goes into working with Kellen and Brian and Trent,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “They’re self-starters, self-motivated, self-disciplined guys.
“Between that threesome, you’ve got four Duke degrees and two Ivy League diplomas. So, there is a lot of respect amongst the rest of the team for what that group has accomplished both on and off the field.”
It was the March 25-27 series at Wake Forest that served as the turning point for the Blue Devils’ season. During a 12-0 drubbing on Friday night in Winston-Salem, Pollard had plenty of time to think about what he needed to do to save the season. He and his staff met early Saturday morning, and their meeting produced several key changes. Sophomore Justin Bellinger moved to the cleanup spot and into the everyday lineup for good. Sophomore Jack Labosky moved to third base, freshman Jimmy Herron moved to center field and the leadoff spot and Urbon joined the weekend rotation.
Duke is treating Tuesday’s game against the Demon Deacons as a single-elimination tournament, opting to go all in for the win and then deal with the rest of the week as it comes – if it comes. It’s a familiar feeling for the Blue Devils, as they had to win their last two series against Florida State and at Pittsburgh just to make the ACC tournament field.
“It’s a one-game season,” Pollard said. “You cash all your chips tomorrow, and we’ll worry about Wednesday when Wednesday gets here.”
So for Duke, that means bringing back Urbon, who pitched Thursday at Pitt, on shorter rest. He skipped a typical midweek bullpen session to make it work, but grandpa isn’t worried about it.
“This is something we’ve been looking forward to all year, getting a chance to play for this,” he said. “I’ve been throwing a lot lately, so I’m not too worried about my touch.”