Duke's Pollard: 'I really feel like we are playing our best baseball right now'
Duke faces anything but an easy week at the ACC tournament — even though it's playing at home.
The Blue Devils played 26 games at Durham Bulls Athletic Park this season, going 23-3 overall and 9-3 in the ACC in those games.
But, as the No. 4 seed in the tournament, the Blue Devils (39-14) will play in a pool with fifth-seeded Louisville and ninth-seeded Wake Forest.
The Cardinals (40-16) are No. 27 in the RPI, only 10 slots below No. 17 Duke. Wake Forest (25-30), which won two of three in its regular-season series with Duke, is No. 64.
“Our pool is the top RPI pool in the conference tournament,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “I think it’s going to be that way year in and year out when you take the 4, 5 and 9 (seeds) and combine those. They are always going to be pretty good RPIs. So we’ve got our work cut out for us with two good opponents.”
Duke, which plays Wake Forest at 11 a.m. on Thursday and Louisville at 11 a.m. on Friday, needs to win the pool to advance to Saturday’s semifinals.
This is already a record-setting season for the Blue Devils. They set a new school record for ACC wins, going 18-11 in league play. They’ve also joined the 1993 and 1996 Duke teams as the only ones in school history with 39 wins.
Here are three things to know about Duke heading into the ACC tournament:
Confidence is high
A Duke program that went from 1961 to 2016 without making the NCAA tournament has grown into a championship contender. A strong week of play at the ACC tournament would shore things up, but Duke is already in the conversation to be one of the top 16 seeds for the NCAA tournament.
Duke’s players expect to play well against any level of competition and in any situation. That’s new to the program.
Last Saturday’s 12-5 win at Georgia Tech is an example. Duke lost the first two games of the series 9-6 on Thursday and 20-7 on Friday. Pollard called the Friday loss the team’s worst performance of the season.
“We laid an egg, probably as bad of an egg as we’ve laid all year,” Pollard said.
But the Blue Devils recovered to play a solid game in Saturday’s regular-season finale, beating Georgia Tech 12-5 and breaking a three-game losing streak to enter the postseason with positive momentum.
“Not only did we come out and play well the next day but we came out and played relaxed,” Pollard said. “I didn’t see our guys pressing at all. This group is as consistent with their approach as any team that I’ve coached.”
The defense is trustworthy
Duke plays a clean game of baseball because errors are rare.
The Blue Devils led the ACC in fielding percentage this season at .981. Duke committed the fewest errors (39) and turned the most double plays (50) among ACC teams.
Watch how the right side of Duke’s infield handles its chances. First baseman Joey Loperfido has committed just three errors this season and has a .994 fielding percentage. Second baseman Max Miller has only two errors and a .991 fielding percentage.
In the outfield, speedy centerfielder Kennie Taylor has just one error and has shown the ability to track down fly balls in either gap. Left fielder Jimmy Herron has just one error and has thrown out four runners attempt to advance.
Right fielder Griffin Conine has three outfield assists.
The pitching needs to bounce back
Duke finished No. 6 in the ACC in team earned run average (3.77), a number that was even better before Georgia Tech scored 34 runs in three games against the Blue Devils last week.
Ryan Day (5-3, 4.78 ERA) and Mitch Stallings (3-4, 5.25) each had their worst games of the season against the Yellow Jackets. Pollard hasn’t decided who will start against Wake Forest and who gets the ball against Louisville, but those two will start Duke’s two ACC tournament pool play games.
The Blue Devils need them to be at their best.
Stallings gave up nine hits and seven runs in 2 2/3 innings against Georgia Tech Thursday night. Day was tagged for nine hits and nine runs in 4 ⅓ innings on Friday.
Just a week earlier, they combined to pitch 11 ⅓ innings, allowing just three earned runs, to help Duke to a pair of wins over the tournament’s top seed, North Carolina.
Pollard said their struggles in Atlanta had more to do with the Yellow Jackets than anything Stallings and Day did poorly.
“Honestly I give a lot of credit to Georgia Tech,” Pollard said. “They swung the bats well. That was the best offensive team we had played all year. They did a good job of extending at bats. They had a lot of two-strike hits. They did a good job of extending innings. I’ve got a lot of confidence in those guys going forward.”
If Stallings and Day can pitch Duke into the semifinals, the Blue Devils have Adam Laskey (5-4, 5.25 ERA), Graeme Stinson (4-1, 2.38) and Bill Chillari (6-1, 3.82) available for starts in the semifinals and championship games Saturday and Sunday.
No. 4 Duke vs. No. 9 Wake Forest, 11 a.m. (Fox Sports South)
No. 5 Louisville vs. No. 4 Duke, 11 a.m. (Fox Sports South)