Chris Pollard glad Duke Blue Devils “played ourselves back into position” to make NCAA tournament
Joey Loperfido knows the excitement, the thrills that come with NCAA tournament baseball.
It was only last June, part of a standout freshman season, when Loperfido helped Duke win a regional and advance within a win of the program’s first College World Series appearance since 1961.
“We really meshed well, everybody on the team,” Loperfido said. “We just kind of felt like we had nothing to lose and everything to gain. We played as hard as we could and let the results happen.”
When the Blue Devils began this season ranked among the nation’s top 25 teams, a return to the tournament seemed the least of their goals to attain.
Loperfido’s February wrist injury changed that but, after missing 23 games, the sophomore lead-off man and second baseman is back trying to help push the Blue Devils back to the postseason.
Because of Duke’s struggles in his absence, the Blue Devils have plenty of work to do.
A 13-6 win over No. 16 Texas Tech — the team that ended Duke’s season a year ago — on Tuesday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park helped. It gave Duke (21-16, 8-10 ACC) seven wins in its last eight games.
It’s no coincidence the surge started after Loperfido returned on April 3. Duke lost 6-1 that night at No. 12 East Carolina but swept an ACC series from Pittsburgh the following weekend in Loperfido’s first league games of the season
The win over Texas Tech gives Duke a 12-2 record with Loperfido in the starting lineup.
“He just get on and he makes things happen,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “He gives us such competitive at bats.”
Loperfido is batting .333 with an impressive .460 on-base percentage. He reached base three times, on two hits and a walk, against Texas Tech on Tuesday night. He was on base during run-scoring rallies in the first, third and fourth innings.
Senior centerfielder Kennie Taylor, who bats second, checks in with a .337 batting average and a .401 on-base percentage. That’s a potent top of the order for the Blue Devils.
“Having him in the lineup, knowing you are always going to get a great at-bat to lead off the game and throughout the game,” Taylor said, “I think it’s really helped the team. It’s also helped me as well.”
Ranked No. 22 by Baseball America in the preseason, the Blue Devils stayed in the polls until the middle of March. A stretch of 11 losses in 13 games from March 15 until April 2 -- including suffering a three-game sweep at No. 17 North Carolina -- knocked Duke from the polls and put its postseason hopes in peril.
After Loperfido’s return sparked the three-game sweep of Pittsburgh, Duke followed that up with wins in two of three games during an ACC series against Virginia Tech last weekend.
“It was definitely tough watching us struggle a little bit,” Loperfido said. “Throughout everything, I just tried to channel things to be a better teammate. I talked to the guys in the dugout to try to pick them up. But it was tough, it was hard watching the games going on and not being able to play. I was ready to go and I knew that we were going to be able to make a run. It was only a matter of time.”
With the ACC tournament at the DBAP five weeks away, time is quickly running out for the Blue Devils to build an NCAA tournament-worthy resume. Beating Texas Tech boosted Duke’s RPI to 72, but that’s still far from good enough to merit an at-large bid.
More chances are available to improve that number. Including Texas Tech, the Blue Devils close the regular season with 10 games against ranked teams among their final 18 contests.
That includes a three-game league series at No. 23 Clemson starting Friday.
“The cool thing is we’ve played ourselves back into position where we kind of control our fate down the stretch,” Pollard said. “We have to take care of business. That wasn’t necessarily the case a couple of weeks ago when we dug ourselves a hole and we needed some help. But we’ve played really good baseball. Credit to our guys. Nobody panicked. Now we look up and we are in a good position over the last 15 or so games of the season.”