As the Tobacco Road Rivalry shifts from the basketball court to the baseball diamond, both teams will look to break recent slides.
Duke hosts rival North Carolina for a three-game series this weekend at Jack Coombs Field. The series opener will be played 6 p.m. Friday night, with first pitch scheduled for 1 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday. The Blue Devils enter the weekend having lost four consecutive ballgames, while the No. 18 Tar Heels have dropped four of their last five contests.
“I think that obviously we’re frustrated with the way that we’ve played over the last four games,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “But we’re still very understanding that we’re sitting in a good position in the ACC. We’re still in a very good place in the league three weekends in. We know we have a great opportunity [this weekend].”
Duke (14-12, 4-5 in the ACC) has struggled offensively during its recent rough patch, a stretch in which the Blue Devils were swept by Pittsburgh and suffered a 3-2 loss at Davidson. Duke has had plenty of scoring opportunities recently but has been unable to execute and drive runners in from scoring position. The Blue Devils have left an alarming 45 runners on base during their four-game skid—a poor recipe for offensive success that has led to just 10 total runs in those games.
“I think we’ve been too passive at times at the plate,” Pollard said. “We have to get an aggressive mentality back. We’ve put runners in scoring position—we just haven’t driven them in. Subsequently, we’ve left a lot of guys on base. I think it really boils down to a mentality: when you get up to the plate with runners in scoring position and you get a fastball, you’ve got to be ready to hit it.”
The offensive sledding will not get any easier for Duke against a talented North Carolina pitching staff that ranks second in the ACC with a 2.75 team ERA. The Tar Heels (15-9, 5-4) boast an impressive depth of quality arms, highlighted by sophomore Trent Thornton. The slender right-hander earned All-American honors last season, posting a 1.37 ERA as a freshman, and has shown no signs of slowing down in his sophomore campaign. Thornton has picked up five wins—including two shutouts—in his first six starts to begin the year, and has struck out more than one batter per inning, racking up 44 punch-outs in 42 innings pitched.
Against premier arms like Thornton, Pollard feels that it’s even more important for his hitters to be ready to swing when they dig into the box. North Carolina’s two other likely starters for this weekend—junior righty Benton Moss and freshman righty Zac Gallen—both hold strikeout-to-walk ratios of better than 3:1, an indication that the Blue Devils will not be able to walk their way into pushing runs across the plate. Facing opponents that attack the strike zone early in the count puts the pressure on the Duke hitters to jump on fastballs when they see them.
“The better the arm, the more aggressive you’ve got to be to the fastball,” Pollard said. “You may only get one good fastball an at-bat and you’ve got to be ready for it when you get it. Otherwise, against a good arm like a Trent Thornton, you’re not going to get a lot of good pitches after that.”
In addition to the heightened intensity that comes from any Duke-North Carolina matchup, this series carries heavy weight for the tightly packed standings in the ACC Coastal Division. With three other teams tied with the Tar Heels for second in the division, the Blue Devils—sitting in sixth place at just a game behind North Carolina—have a great opportunity to vault themselves toward the top of the standings. Pollard wants his team to come out and compete like any other ACC game, preferring them to focus on the conference implications of the series rather than the bragging rights associated with it.
“I hope that we take the same mentality into every weekend,” Pollard said. “They all count the same. I know it’s a great rivalry for our fans and for our students and our alums, but for us every ACC game is just as important as the next.”