As they unsuccessfully sought to fight back tears that marked the end of an historic baseball season, Duke’s players and coaches vowed at the same time that they’ve established a new normal.
Duke lost 6-2 Monday night at Texas Tech in the deciding game of their super regional series, falling one win short of the school’s first College World Series berth since 1961.
The Blue Devils went 45-18 this season, setting a program record for wins. They won 18 ACC regular-season games, another program record. They made the NCAA tournament field for the second time in three years -- after a 55-year absence that dated back to 1961 -- and reached the round of 16. Seven Duke players were selected in last week’s MLB draft.
“These guys that won’t be back next year, the seniors and the drafted juniors, leave a tremendous legacy in terms of what they’ve accomplished,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “Not just this year. But moving the needle over the last three years to get to this year. And then they took a big step this year. They built upon what they’ve already done.”
That said, having just completed his sixth season at Duke, Pollard insisted even more success is coming.
“If you look at our roster,” Pollard said. “There are a lot of really good young players coming back and we recruited really well. And we are going to continue to recruit well. We didn’t quite get there this year. But this wasn’t a load up on one year and take your shot. We’ve been building toward this point and we fully expect -- fully expect -- with the guys that we’ve got coming back and the guys we’ve got coming in to be an NCAA tournament team again next year and to take our shot again next year.”
Here’s a look at who Duke is losing, who it returns and who some of the top newcomers will be for the 2019 season:
Duke is losing the bulk of its starting lineup and two of the players who handled the back-end roles in the bullpen in solid fashion.
Senior Jack Labosky was Duke’s starting third baseman and its closer. He was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays. Senior Ethan DeCaster, a Detroit Tigers draft pick, also had a strong year out of the bullpen.
The other senior starters moving on are second baseman Max Miller along with weekend starting pitchers Mitch Stallings and Ryan Day. Michael Smiciklas, Duke’s designated hitter at times during the regular season and a bat off the bench in the postseason, was also a senior.
The juniors expected to sign contracts and move on to professional baseball are right fielder Griffin Conine (Toronto Blue Jays, second round), left fielder Jimmy Herron (Chicago Cubs, third round), catcher Chris Proctor (Detroit Tigers, 13th round) and shortstop Zack Kone (Pittsburgh Pirates, 13th round).
Starting position players returning
With Herron, Proctor, Kone and Conine no longer manning the top four slots in the batting order, look for Duke to build its lineup around Joey Loperfido, Chris Crabtree and Kennie Taylor.
Loperfido was among the nation’s top freshmen this season, leading Duke with a .315 batting average. He played first base last season but is versatile enough to move to the outfield to help replace Herron and Conine next season.
That would open up first base for Crabtree, who starred as Duke’s designated hitter in the postseason. The freshman from Durham’s Riverside High School was the Athens Regional most outstanding player with 10 hits in 14 at bats, including two home runs and three doubles.
Taylor will enter his senior season after starting 61 games in centerfield and batting .283. He’s a big reason why Duke’s defense was so reliable this season.
Bryce Jarvis and Graeme Stinson started the last two games of the super regional after making their impacts mostly out of the bullpen during the regular season. Stinson (5-1, 1.89 ERA, a lefthander, looks like he’ll be a strong weekend starter as a junior next season while the right-handed Jarvis (5-1, 2.45) moves into the rotation as a sophomore.
Left-hander Adam Laskey (6-4, 5.47) started 15 games this season as a sophomore this season and will give Pollard an experienced option next season.
Bill Chillari, Matt Dockman, Hunter Davis and Matt Mervis are also in line for higher-profile roles out of the bullpen next season.
Duke signed 12 players, all of whom are rated among the nation’s top 500 players by Perfect Game.
Kyle Salley, a left-handed pitcher and outfielder, was selected in the 40th round of the draft by Chicago White Sox but is expected to come school. Pitchers Jack Carey and Cooper Stinson (Graeme’s brother) will arrive ready to contribute as freshmen.
Infielder Jack Topolski could factor in to Duke’s plans as they look to replace three starting infielders.
Grad transfer Ben Gross, a right-handed pitcher, is ready to help Duke in a big way. Gross won four games and pitched to a 4.47 ERA for Princeton this season. He was selected by Houston in the 34th round of the draft.
With Proctor moving on after three seasons as Duke’s starting catcher, Michael Rothenberg will get a chance to take over the job. As a freshman this season, Rothenberg batted .253.
Sophomore Erikson Nichols played mostly as a defensive replacement for Labosky at third base this season, batting just .211.
Freshman outfielder Steve Mann batted just .182 in part-time action but his on-base percentage of .400 shows promise for better things with more playing time.
Outfielder Chase Cheek completed his sophomore season by starting in left field in Monday’s final game with Texas Tech when Taylor’s hamstring injury sidelined him. He doubled in the game but had just a .186 batting average this season.