At 6-4 and 220 pounds, Chris Crabtree looks the part of a left-handed power hitter.
In Athens, Ga., where he powered Duke out of the loser’s bracket and past host Georgia to win an NCAA regional for the first time, he played the part.
Getting there, though, meant hours hitting and training alone. While Duke was posting its first 40-win season this spring, Crabtree logged just 14 regular-season at bats in a frustrating freshman season.
Last week, between the ACC and NCAA tournaments, Crabtree headed back to Durham’s Riverside High School, where he was the PAC-6 Conference’s player of the year with a .600 batting average one year earlier.
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No one else was around, except Riverside coach Doug Simmons riding a mower cutting the baseball field's grass.
Simmons opened the shed to let Crabtree get some balls so he could head to the batting cage to hit as he waited for his chance to come with the Blue Devils.
“He was a little bit down in the dumps about it,” Simmons said. “You give him the pep talk to keep plugging away.”
The trip did Crabtree some good.
“I was able to get a little work in,” Crabtree said Tuesday, after the triumphant Blue Devils returned to campus from Georgia. “Just going back to your roots a little bit. That’s always a good time. Going back to Riverside, that was just revisiting where I came from. I love Duke and normally I train here. But sometimes going back to your high school field, reliving those memories, is always nice.”
Now Crabtree has a whole bunch of new memories to cherish.
Entering the tournament as a pinch-hitter for injured designated hitter Mike Rothenberg in the ninth inning of an elimination game with Campbell and delivering a three-run double on Saturday night was just the start. He added four hits -- with two home runs and five RBI -- in Sunday’s 15-6 elimination game win over Troy.
On Monday, when Duke beat No. 8 national seed Georgia twice, 8-5 and 8-4 to win the regional, Crabtree added three more hits in five at bats over the two games.
At one point, Crabtree, the same player who had just four hits (all singles) in 14 regular-season at bats, was intentionally walked.
When the intentional walk was happening, Duke junior left field Jimmy Herron turned to Blue Devils coach Chris Pollard with a hypothetical.
“Coach,” Herron said, “if I’d have told you coming into this regional that Chris Crabtree was going to be intentionally walked at some point during the course of the regional, would you take those odds?”
Pollard offered an honest answer.
“Jimmy,” Pollard said, “I’d have put my house on those odds.”
That’s not to say that Pollard had no faith in Crabtree. Another freshman, Joey Loperfido, beat out Crabtree for the starting first base job when the season started. Pollard figured Loperfido would go through an expected freshman slump and open the door for Crabtree or another first baseman to get some playing time.
But it never happened as Loperfido batted a team-best .308 with six home runs.
Crabtree had his first two collegiate hits in a mid-week game with Richmond on April 3. His only other two regular-season hits came on May 19 against Georgia Tech when a finger injury shelved Loperfido
Still, Crabtree kept plugging away in the batting cages -- usually at Duke, but sometimes at Riverside High.
“Just sticking to my process, training every day,” Crabtree said. “When you get the reps on your own, you tend to build up confidence in your swing, You feel good about everything. Even if it’s not live reps in a game, you continue to get your work in and figure out how to hit baseballs.”
Last Saturday night in Athens, Duke stood two outs from elimination. Having trailed Campbell 8-1, the Blue Devils fought back and had the bases loaded with one out in the ninth inning.
Campbell still lead 8-6 when Crabtree put Duke in front for good with his ringing double down the right field line.
“We were two outs away from going home with the bases loaded,” Duke’s clean-up hitter, junior right fielder Griffin Conine said. “A ground ball and our season is over. That at bat was huge and I think that was the turning point. To keep it going and power us through those next three games was awesome. It was fun to watch. I’m happy for him.”
Back in Durham, plenty of people at Riverside were just as thrilled.
“Your kind of like a proud papa watching your son,” Simmons said. “We are all extremely proud of him over here.”
Conine said he saw the work Crabtree put in even while not playing. He knew something good could happen
“He was always ready, I know he was,” Duke junior right fielder Griffin Conine said. “He was always ready to hear his named called to step up. We saw it at Georgia Tech. That was just a little taste.”
Pollard noticed how Crabtree acted differently than some freshmen do when they aren’t getting regular game action.
“You see a lot of freshmen, when they don’t play, they reach a point in the year when they check out mentally,” Pollard said. “But he is a guy who was really consistent with his approach and really worked at making adjustments as we went through the season.”
Now, Duke baseball has taken its season deeper into the NCAA tournament than the program has gone since 1961 when it made the College World Series.
The Blue Devils (44-16) head to No. 9 national seed Texas Tech this weekend, needing two wins in the three-game Super Regional series to make it back to the College World Series for the first time in 57 years.
Crabtree is now a major part of Duke’s offense, which has averaged 11.9 runs during its current four-game winning streak.
“He’s one of those kids you are just proud to coach,” Riverside’s Simmons said. “Grades, talent, work ethic. The example is there for everyone to see.”’