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Duke Cuts Magic Number To 2

Ian Soileau/Chronicle File Photo

The Blue Devils haven't made the ACC tournament since 2005 (not 1961, the year I egregiously came up with in a gamer a few weeks ago). Think about what's happened to this program since then. Steroid charges and an overall lack of success prompted former head coach Bill Hillier's firing. Sean McNally, an alumnus with no head coaching experience, was hired to resuscitate the program. Duke struggled through McNally's first season, finishing 15-40. But then in his second season, the Blue Devils went 29-25, and then last year, they barely missed the ACC tournament.

This year, though, it would be a shocker if Duke didn't make the league tournament, to be played in Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

With six games left, Duke's magic number to qualify for the tournament is down to two games over Virginia Tech, its closest competition for the eighth and final spot. The Blue Devils are 12-12 in the ACC--their most in-conference wins since 1994, when McNally was a senior--and the Hokies are 10-16 with one series left. So what does that mean? Any combination of two Duke wins, two Virginia Tech losses, or two Duke wins and Virginia Tech losses translates to a postseason bid for the Blue Devils. Virginia Tech squares off with No. 14 Virginia next weekend, while the Blue Devils travel to Charlottesville, Va. this weekend and and host No. 8 Georgia Tech in their regular-season finale next weekend.

The Blue Devils--led by slugger Nate Freiman, just four home runs off of Duke's career record--could even challenge for the No. 7 spot, which they hold right now. Boston College, the team that Duke beat 2-1 in its last ACC series, is 12-13 with a series against No. 1 North Carolina looming.

If Duke makes the ACC tournament--and if it goes, say, 4-2 in its last six ACC games, or wins a game at DBAP--it could qualify for its first NCAA tournament since 1961.

In an epic Towerview piece earlier this year, Tim Britton, a former baseball beat writer, explored the meteoric rise of the program under McNally's watch. If you have a few minutes to spare, it's worth a read. A quick teaser:

Kennedy admits now that McNally's on-campus interview was initially just a courtesy to the former Blue Devil. But McNally used his experience as a Duke student and as the team's academic adviser in 2003-2004 to craft a comprehensive plan to improve the team in the classroom. His time in the professional ranks-nine years as a player and three more as a coach with the Cleveland Indians organization-made up for his lack of college coaching experience.

"When his interview with the search committee was over and he left the room, one member of the search committee said, 'How can you not hire him?'" Kennedy remembers. "We knew how disciplined he was, how conscientious and hard-working, and those were all the things we wanted to see in the program."


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