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After sweep, baseball takes on tough ODU

The Duke baseball team (18-18, 6-6) hopes to build momentum off a three-game sweep of Wake Forest when it faces Old Dominion (13-19) Tuesday night at Jack Coombs Field.

The Monarchs have struggled this year, losing eight of their last 10. Nonetheless, the Blue Devils, who lost to Old Dominion 10-8 in their only meeting last year, are not taking any chances with their Tuesday night foes.

"ODU's a pretty good school," outfielder Javier Socorro said. "We can't take things for granted; we've got to compete against them."

Socorro's hot bat is one of the reasons the Blue Devils are streaking into this matchup. The sophomore is in the midst of a career-high 12-game hitting streak that has buoyed his batting average to an impressive .398 clip. Socorro collected at least two hits in each game against the Demon Deacons as Duke enjoyed its first three-game sweep of a conference opponent since 1998.

Equally hot right now is sophomore catcher Brian Hernandez, who Monday became the first Blue Devil to win ACC Player of the Week honors since 2001. Hernandez had two game-winning hits in the series sweep against Wake.

"I think both Coach K and Coach G say that you're really only as good as your upperclass leadership," said coach Bill Hillier, who cited Hernandez as one of the big leaders on a relatively young Blue Devils squad. "And they're doing a very good job of that."

The Monarchs are led by one of the nation's top pitchers in junior Justin Verlander. The Goochland, Va., native is the reigning National Player of the Week after fanning 16 batters in a shutout victory over Virginia Commonwealth last Friday. Teams are batting just .193 against the righthander, who is already the Colonial Athletic Association's all-time strikeout leader.

"They have one of the top arms in the country," said Hillier of Verlander. "[He's] supposed to be the No. 1 pick or a first rounder, and they have really good arms.... [ODU head coach] Tony Guzzo is a very good friend of mine; I've known him for 15 years or so, and it's a solid program."

Meanwhile, on the offensive end, the Blue Devils will have their hands full with players such as senior Allen Strick, who knocked in three runs when these two teams met last February. Additionally, sophomore outfielder Steven Harris, who is among his team's top three in runs scored, hits, home runs, batting average and stolen bases, will be a load for Duke's pitching staff.

Strick and Harris will make it especially important for the Blue Devil bullpen to revert to better form in order to win the game. Duke's bullpen blew two multi-run leads in as many games against the Demon Deacons, prompting Hillier to groom starting pitcher Greg Burke into a closer.

"I wouldn't say they're weak; I just don't think they've been consistent," Hillier said. "That's one reason I moved Greg Burke to the bullpen."

Tuesday's game holds particular importance for the Blue Devils' momentum. Duke goes into an eight-day layoff after the Old Dominion game. The rivalry series with North Carolina--and the prospect of breaking above .500 in the ACC--lurks just beyond.

"We're going to do the same thing [we did against Wake]," Hernandez said. "We're going to pitch well and hit the ball, and we're going to continue with the momentum that we've had from this three-game series with Wake and carry it into the ODU game."


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