Duke baseball faces stiffest test of 2017 with 3-game set at No. 2 Louisville
Update: Because of inclement weather expected Saturday, Duke and Louisville are now scheduled to play a Friday doubleheader starting at 3 p.m. before Sunday's series finale.
After dropping two of three games last weekend against a Boston College team that entered the series with losses in 14 consecutive conference games, the Blue Devils need a spark to get back on track.
However, finding one this weekend and avoiding a sixth straight conference series loss will be a daunting task facing the best team in the ACC on the road.
Following a mid-week 8-4 victory Wednesday against N.C. Central, Duke will travel to take on No. 2 Louisville this weekend at Jim Patterson Stadium in Louisville, Ky. The two teams will square off Friday at 6 p.m. before taking the field Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m. as the Blue Devils try to resurrect their chances of picking up an NCAA tournament berth by igniting a hot streak.
“We’re going to go out there and compete like crazy to win tomorrow night’s ballgame,” Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. “Seeing a really good club, it’s a great opportunity for our guys, a great chance for us to make a move in the standings and a move in the RPI.”
In order for the Blue Devils—No. 146 in RPI—to capitalize on the opportunity, Duke will need to be sharper on the mound. The Blue Devils (20-19, 7-11 in the ACC) allow their opponents to score more than five runs per contest, and have struggled with consistency out of the bullpen. Duke will need to locate its pitches on the mound and stay away from big innings against one of the nation’s most prolific offenses in the Cardinals (31-5, 15-3), who drive in more than seven runs a game to support a dominant pitching staff that sits fifth nationally with a 2.63 ERA.
Juniors Mitch Stallings and Ryan Day will try their best to hold the Louisville offense in check during their starts Friday and Sunday, as Saturday’s starter has not yet been determined due to the Blue Devils' inability to find a steady No. 2 starter. Day has been the team's ace so far and leads the team with a 2.23 ERA. The Phelan, Calif., native has allowed just three extra-base hits through 44.1 innings this season and is also one of just three ACC pitchers who have yet to allow a home run. He will be tested against a dynamic offensive unit featuring four players hitting .317 or better.
Although both the offense and pitching have shined at times for Duke, the two have struggled to produce simultaneously through the team’s first 39 games.
“When you have a great offensive output, you hope you can combine it with being solid and sound on the mound,” Pollard said. “You hate to have a great offensive output and then not be able to pitch well, and the opposite holds true too. We pitched great on Friday night against Boston College and we didn’t swing in it. You feel like you squandered a pitching performance that was good enough to win the ballgame.”
In order for the Blue Devils to take down the Cardinals, they will need to do what few have been able to do—limit star junior Brendan McKay, arguably the most versatile player in the nation.
McKay is viewed as the top player in college baseball by many coaches, including Pollard, and will not have to wait long for his name to be called in June's MLB Draft.
The Darlington, Pa., native powers Louisville on both sides of the field. McKay is a tough out offensively with his team-leading .398 batting average, and also is a threat to drive in runs with his seven home runs and 28 RBIs this season. Although he is a menace at the plate, McKay’s true talent may be on the mound, where he sports a 1.19 ERA and has struck out 76 batters in just 53 innings of work. The Blue Devils face McKay Friday night, and will need to fight for runs as the nation's top two-way player from a season ago goes for his fifth shutout of the season in just his ninth start.
Duke will likely need to rely on players other than stars Jimmy Herron and Griffin Conine to step up at the plate in order to break through against McKay and the home team's other steady starters. One potential answer could be outfielder Kennie Taylor. The sophomore is enjoying quiet success out of the No. 6 spot in the lineup this season, batting .303 with seven doubles and 13 RBIs in 23 starts this year.
“Kennie Taylor has really been playing well of late,” Pollard said. “He’s really playing high level, gap-to-gap defense, and providing a lot of punch with some gap-to-gap and doubles power. He’s been a spark, he’s been a key and I think he’ll be a key for us this weekend.”
Following this weekend’s series at Louisville, the Blue Devils will return to Durham for a mid-week game against Presbyterian Wednesday at Jack Coombs Field before hitting the road once again to take on Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., next weekend.