When most sports fans hear “Duke,” they think perennial basketball powerhouse. Maybe in the last couple years, some even think of an up-and-coming football team, but few think of Duke baseball, a program that has reached the NCAA tournament only once in the last half-century.

But there is an unusual buzz surrounding Jack Coombs Field this year, which has attracted the attention of both national baseball writers and MLB scouts alike. With higher expectations than ever, head coach Chris Pollard’s Blue Devils, ranked in the preseason top 25 by multiple national polls, have a shot at laying the foundation for what could be a nationally-competitive program for years to come starting Friday at 4 p.m. at Hawkins Field against No. 18 Vanderbilt to open a three-game series. 

After a disappointing 30-28 season that struggled to build on a historic NCAA tournament appearance in 2016, the Blue Devils return nearly their entire lineup in addition to weekend starters Adam Laskey, Mitch Stallings and Ryan Day. Pollard’s lineup will likely feature three seniors and five juniors, all of whom were a part of Duke’s tournament team in 2016. 

The Blue Devils' lineup boasts two of the best outfielders in the nation in Griffin Conine and Jimmy Herron, who batted .298 and .326, respectively, a year ago. Conine, a projected first-round MLB Draft pick, has been tabbed as a preseason first-team All-American by Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball, D1Baseball and Perfect Game/Rawlings in addition to being named to the Golden Spikes watch list. 

In addition to Conine and Herron, Duke will be led by senior captain Max Miller and senior Jack Labosky, who ranked second on the team last year with 43 RBIs, behind Conine’s 56. 

“It’s exciting kind of looking up and down [the lineup] and not see a whole lot of easy outs. There have been times in the past where you get to certain spots and you don’t know what’s going to happen, but that’s just not the case this year,” Miller said. “At the same time, we know we have to go out there when the lights turn on and perform in big spots and come up with key hits, and it’s going to take one through nine to do it.” 

Pollard is particularly optimistic about the versatility of the lineup this year, featuring both speed and power from top to bottom. 

“We want to continue to be aggressive in terms of taking advantage of our team’s speed. We’re still by and large going to be faster that just about everybody we play...but we need to push the envelope in terms of our speed," Pollard said prior to starting his sixth season with the Blue Devils. “I think we have a good combination of power and speed.” 

Duke will be battle-tested early with a challenging opening series against a Vanderbilt team, led by head coach Tim Corbin, that has made 12 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, including a national championship just four years ago. Friday night, the Blue Devils will likely face Vanderbilt ace Patrick Raby, a junior who posted a 10-4 record and a stellar 2.73 ERA last year.

 The Commodores' lineup is led by infielder Julian Infante, who tallied 11 home runs as a sophomore while maintaining a .315 batting average. For a Blue Devil team that has received heaps of national praise and anticipation, they will have their hands full early. 

“We’re not a secret anymore and that’s exciting, but it also comes with that added pressure of you've got to perform in big spots,” Miller said. “You're not just going to be the team that sneaks up on people anymore.”