Duke will have a chance to avenge one of those early-season defeats Tuesday when it welcomes UNC Greensboro to Jack Coombs Field at 6 p.m. Coming off a sweep of ACC foe Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils will step outside of conference play looking to pick up their sixth consecutive victory.
"Some of it is the law of averages in baseball. You play a lot of close games, those things have a tendency to even themselves out," Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. "We've got some guys that are finally starting to heat up, and therefore we're getting some key, clutch hits."
The Spartans (17-18) defeated the Blue Devils 9-8 Feb. 18 thanks to a three-run bottom of the 12th inning after Duke (24-17) struck for two runs in the top half of the frame. The two teams combined to use 15 pitchers in that game, as both managers looked to give their respective staffs some innings to get comfortable on the mound early in the season.
That February afternoon was indicative of the struggles of the Blue Devil offense during the first half of the season, as Duke left 18 runners stranded. Able to set up scoring opportunities seemingly at will, Pollard's team could not capitalize.
But the last five games suggest that the Blue Devil bats are rounding into form—powering three narrow victories as well as two blowouts. Duke has outscored its opponents 40-17 in that stretch and has been able to come up with clutch at-bat after clutch at-bat when needed.
Aaron Cohn started the heroics with a walk-off single April 13 against N.C. State to complete an improbable comeback after Duke trailed 10-4 in the eighth inning. The Blue Devils haven't lost since, doing the little things right on offense to scrap for as many runs as possible. Against the Hokies Sunday, Duke was held to just seven hits but manufactured its runs on a sacrifice fly and a squeeze bunt to walk out of Blacksburg, Va., 2-0 winners.
Pollard said he feels his team is starting to fire on all cylinders but stressed the importance of taking things one day at a time.
"The old saying in baseball is that momentum is only as strong as the next day's starting pitcher," Pollard said. "As long as we continue to pitch like we have, now that the offense is heated up, I think this is a team that's very capable of rattling off a good stretch."
Luckily for Pollard, Duke's biggest strength all season has been its performance on the mound where the Blue Devils lead the ACC in strikeouts with 356 and rank third in ERA at 3.02. Pollard will send right-hander Andrew Istler to the hill Tuesday for the Blue Devils.
Barring any setbacks, the junior will be throwing to Mike Rosenfeld to complete the other half of the Blue Devil battery. Normally a stalwart in the lineup, the captain has missed Duke's last four games due to injury. Tied for second on the team with 22 RBIs, the redshirt junior will be a welcome addition to the Blue Devil lineup, both at the plate and behind it.
"Not only is he a guy that's got a .400 on-base percentage, but he's been so good for us defensively," Pollard said. "He's a fiery guy and a leader and someone who our team really responds to. It's going to be a big shot in the arm to have him back in the lineup."
UNC Greensboro has been bogged down of late due to weather. The Spartans have had three of their past four games canceled due to rain and haven't played since suffering a 7-6 loss in extra innings to Davidson April 17.
In the early-season matchup between the teams, UNC Greensboro got its offensive production from the top four slots in its batting order, which accounted for all eight Spartan RBIs. UNC Greensboro's best hitter, third baseman Sean Guite, went just 1-for-5 but leads the team with 54 hits and is batting nearly .400 on the season.
"They've got a lot of balance offensively, meaning from both sides of the plate, so they can create some matchup problems," Pollard said. "They've thrived on ACC wins. They've beaten Wake Forest twice, and they beat us earlier in the year, so they get up for big games like this."