Good things come to those who wait. Come Wednesday morning, that saying will come true for the Blue Devil seniors.
For the first time in their collegiate careers, Duke's seniors will look to secure a win in the ACC tournament as the Blue Devils take on Clemson at NewBridge Bank Park in Greensboro, N.C., Wednesday at 11 a.m. The Blue Devils are guaranteed three games of pool play in the tournament, and will play the winner of the play-in game between Wake Forest and Georgia Tech Thursday at 3 p.m. before wrapping up pool play against top-seeded Miami Friday at 11 a.m.
After amassing 18 conference wins in the last two seasons combined, Duke's 16 ACC victories this season gave the program its first winning regular-season conference record for the first time since 1994 and earned them a spot in the conference tournament for the first since 2009.
"I'm happy for the 14 seniors who have persevered through a lot over the three years," head coach Chris Pollard said. "They hadn't experienced a lot of success during their time here. But they stuck together, they trusted in each other, believed in Duke and this program and it's been really rewarding for me as a coach to see them experience this kind of success in their senior year."
The Blue Devils capped the regular season Sunday with a road win against No. 4 Florida State. Heading into the matchup, Duke (32-23, 16-14 in the ACC) could potentially have landed in Tuesday's play-in game, and therefore clinching the No. 4 seed with a victory against the Seminoles was key for the Blue Devils' confidence heading into the tournament.
"They showed a tremendous amount of toughness particularly because of everything that was on the line," Pollard said. "We knew there were significant ACC tournament implications, there were NCAA tournament implications. But also, nobody wants to feel like they've backed their way into the tournament. You want to have momentum.... With everything on the line to come out and compete and fight the way we did, I was very, very proud of our guys."
After climbing as high as No. 11 in the national polls, Clemson (34-22, 15-14) hit a midseason slump that eventually dropped the Tigers out of the top 25 following a May 11 loss to Notre Dame.
But the Blue Devils are not underestimating the Tigers. The first three batters in Clemson's lineup—center fielder Tyler Slaton, designated hitter Tyler Krieger and right fielder Steven Duggar—have combined for 53 stolen bases, making them a lethal on-base presence Duke will have to account for Wednesday.
"They've got great team speed," Pollard said. "They're probably the most athletic team in the conference—the first three guys in their lineup put a lot of pressure on you with their speed....You have to keep those first three guys in the lineup off the bases."
Taking the mound for the Blue Devils Wednesday will be sophomore Michael Matuella. The Great Falls, Va., native boasts a 2.61 ERA and has held opponents to a team-best .174 batting average. Matuella has not pitched since May 11 against Miami, but the time off has provided him a chance to rest and prepare for the Blue Devils' biggest three-game stretch of the year.
"I'm definitely looking forward to getting back out there," Matuella said. "This is the longest I've gone without pitching in a long time. But I threw a bullpen two days ago, I'm throwing a bullpen today, just making sure I'm staying strong."
Duke's success in the tournament may very well come down to their hitting in clutch situations, something that has been a area of instability this season. But the bedrock of this team may also be the reason it has a chance to win its pool—the pitching staff.
The Blue Devils have four pitchers in Matuella, Andrew Istler, Trent Swart and Drew Van Orden who can throw a gem on any given day. The quartet has amassed 20 wins this season and posted a stingy 2.65 ERA as a group. This depth, along with the fact that Duke has seen a rise in its success at the plate in the past month, gives the Blue Devils confidence heading into Wednesday's matchup.
"[Having a deep rotation] is huge," Matuella said. "I think that really makes us a solid candidate to win in a tournament setting and I think that's why we're feeling pretty confident with our chances. We like our bracket, we have a very deep pitching staff [and] clutch hitting. So we're liking our chance."