Different levels of championships are attainable for Duke baseball over the next six weeks.
First up is the ACC Coastal Division crown, which could be determined this weekend when No. 4-ranked North Carolina plays a three-game series with the No. 13-ranked Blue Devils at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
UNC (33-14, 18-6 ACC) has a 2.5 game lead over Duke for the division entering Friday's game.
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Both teams have six league games left to play, meaning Duke (36-11, 15-8) needs to sweep the series against the Tar Heels if it wants to win its first Coastal Division title.
Neither team needs to win the ACC tournament, which starts May 22 at the DBAP, to advance to the NCAAs. But both want to be one of 16 host schools for the NCAA tournament regionals that run June 1-4.
This is the best baseball team the Blue Devils have fielded in five decades. After Duke reached the College World Series in 1961, it failed to make the NCAA tournament again until 2016 when it lost both of its tournament games.
Here are three things the Blue Devils must do to beat UNC:
1. Be up at the end of the sixth
Duke has yet to lose a game this season when it has led at the end of the sixth inning. The Blue Devils are 28-0 when leading after six innings, 29-0 when leading after seven innings and 32-0 when leading after eight innings. So if the Blue Devils take a lead late, they’re a pretty good bet to hold it. In high-leverage games — like the ones against UNC and in the upcoming ACC and NCAA tournaments, protecting late leads is a huge advantage.
Duke’s bullpen is anchored by senior Jack Labosky, who leads the team with eight saves and has yet to allow an earned run this season. He’s pitched 25 ⅔ innings over 17 appearances, striking out 19 batters while walking just three. His earned run average? 0.00.
But that’s only slightly better than graduate Ethan DeCaster, who has five saves. DeCaster’s ERA is 0.70, having allowed three earned runs in 38 ⅓ innings over his 19 appearances. DeCaster has 39 strikeouts against three walks.
2. Play with confidence
Duke stumbled the last time it faced this level of competition. Between April 17-21, Duke lost once to No. 14 East Carolina and twice more to No. 7 N.C. State. It was the first time this season Duke had lost consecutive games, and all three were at Duke’s on-campus stadium, Jack Coombs Field. The losses led to an April 22 team meeting that proved to be a turning point for the Blue Devils.
“We had a really good meeting,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “That was really the first chance they had to show how tough they could be in the face of adversity. We handled that moment really well.”
Duke beat N.C. State 11-2 in the third game of their series and has only lost one game since then — a 4-3, 11-inning loss at Virginia Tech on April 28.
The Blue Devils carry a five-game win streak into the series against UNC.
“We’re playing our best baseball right now,” Duke junior outfielder Griffin Conine said. “Coach keeps saying it. We all believe it. We have been waiting to get this point where we are playing like a complete team — pitching, defense, hitting. I think we are there right now. We are in as good a position as we’ve been in all year. We are ready to go.”
3. Get the offense going early
This won’t be easy against UNC’s power pitching, starting Friday night against Tar Heels' junior pitcher Cooper Criswell (3-2, 3.00).
But Duke has outscored its opponents 43-19 in the first inning this season. The only inning Duke has scored more runs this season is the eighth (53).
The Blue Devils are 19-3 when they score in the first inning and 36-3 when they score three or more runs in a game.
Duke has scored seven or more runs in three of its last four ACC games, beginning with the 11-run outburst against N.C. State on April 22.
Paired in the middle of Duke’s batting order, Conine and freshman infielder Joey Loperfido provide the bulk of Duke’s power as both have slugging percentages over .500.
Conine leads Duke with 10 home runs and 38 RBIs while compiling a .509 slugging percentage. Loperfido has six homers and 35 RBIs while leading the team in slugging (.529) and batting average (.331).
Duke is third in the ACC in stolen bases (76) and the Blue Devils like to use their speed to pressure opposing defenders. Junior outfielder Jimmy Herron leads Duke with 20 steals and has only been thrown out once this season.
Duke vs. UNC
Where: Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Durham
Schedule and pitchers:
Friday (6 p.m.): Duke's Mitch Stallings (3-3, 4.66) vs. UNC's Cooper Criswell (3-2, 3.00)
Saturday (1 p.m.): Duke's Ryan Day (4-2, 4.12) vs. UNC's Austin Bergner (5-1, 4.37)
Sunday (1 p.m.): Duke's Adam Laskey (6-3, 4.77) vs. UNC's Tyler Baum (3-1, 4.26)