The pressure has dissipated for Griffin Conine, Duke’s power hitting outfielder, as the Blue Devils begin play Friday in the NCAA tournament Athens regional.
Conine has returned to having fun playing the game, and it shows in his performance over Duke’s last 10 games. He has lived up to preseason expectations during that stretch, hitting .514 with four doubles and seven home runs.
The recent turnaround came following a season-long hitting slump that dropped Conine from being Baseball America’s No. 11 college-eligible player for the Major League Baseball Draft in the preseason to No. 23 on the publication’s most-recent list. He went from being a likely first-round selection to possible second-round pick.
His junior season has been a two-pronged struggle for Conine.
“It’s really hard. It was really hard on him,” said Duke coach Chris Pollard. “He has so many external pressures. Everybody wanted to crown him a first-round pick before the season started, all these publications. And he has the additional pressure of being the son of a 17-year big-leaguer who was famous in baseball circles for being one of the best clubhouse guys of his generation. He has to carry that around with him.”
Jeff Conine batted .285 with 214 home runs over a 17-season major-league career that included two All-Star Game appearances while playing on Florida Marlins World Series championships in 1997 and 2003.
Yet there was one level of pressure Jeff never experienced during his playing career.
“He didn’t really have that pressure side of it because he was surprised he even got drafted,” Griffin said of his father, who was a 58th-round pick of the Kansas City Royals out of UCLA in 1987.
The younger Conine opened the eyes of major-league scouts this past summer when he earned the Cape Cod Baseball League’s McNeece Award as its top pro prospect. With that designation came expectations that Conine admits he did not handle well.
“I think there is always pressure, it’s just about how you can kind of silence that part and put it to the side,” Conine said following Thursday’s workout at Georgia’s Foley Field Stadium. “I don’t think I did a super good job of it early on. It was kind of heavy in my head.
“It went back to approach. I was trying to do too much up there. I was trying to hit 25 home runs. I felt like I would hit them right away, and they weren’t going to come naturally, which was a mistake. That led to a really slow start, which messed things up for me in my swing.”
Through 45 games, the 6-1, 200-pound Conine was sitting on a .217 batting average with eight home runs. Only a 497-foot home run --- believed to be the longest in college baseball this season -- against Gardner-Webb on May 6 gained Conine any kind of national attention.
With the assistance of Duke hitting coach Jason Stein, the left-handed hitting Conine made several mechanical changes, including moving his hands closer to his body, shortening his swing and steering outside pitches to the opposite field.
Then there was a mid-season conversation with his Dad about having fun playing the game. Things began to click during an April 29 game at Virginia Tech when Conine hit a changeup to the opposite field for a double, pulled a fastball for a home run and added a single in four at-bats.
Pollard said the experience of pulling through a slump will serve Conine well in professional baseball, and that is the message the Duke coach has conveyed to pro scouts about his star player.
“It took half the year for him to settle down and relax,” Pollard said. “He’ll be a better pro player by . . . learning how to deal with it and learning how to come out on the other side of it than if he had never had to go through that.”
Now Conine can relax and just play baseball.