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Pitching staff must lead Blue Devils in 2015

Nick Hendrix is one of several Blue Devil pitchers competing for the  final spot in the starting rotation as the regular season nears.
Nick Hendrix is one of several Blue Devil pitchers competing for the final spot in the starting rotation as the regular season nears.

Drew Van Orden—the ace and leader of last year’s Duke pitching staff—graduated in May and is now a member of the Washington Nationals minor league system.

Senior Trent Swart, the No. 2 man in the rotation, underwent Tommy John surgery this offseason and will be forced to sit out the entire 2015 campaign.

Redshirt sophomore James Marvel, stellar in his four starts last season, fell victim to Tommy John as well, and will join Swart on the bench as a spectator for this coming season.

Three key pieces of last year’s pitching staff, which posted the lowest team ERA for the Blue Devils in 43 years, are either gone or unavailable for the entire year with no hope of stepping on the mound for meaningful innings.

What does that mean for the pitching staff as it gets ready to start the 2015 season this weekend against California? Well, it means two things.

First, the majority of the burden will fall on the right shoulders of junior Michael Matuella and senior Andrew Istler. Matuella was recently named a preseason first-team All America by Baseball America and the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2015 MLB draft by MLB.com. Istler has been a jack-of-all-trades throughout his career for Duke, serving as a reliever, closer, starter and even outfielder.

Second, the other eight returning Blue Devil pitchers along with the four new guns brought in with this year’s recruiting class will need to step up. One of those freshmen, southpaw Chris McGrath, was drafted in the 35th round of the 2014 MLB draft by the Seattle Mariners and figures to receive significant opportunities to live up to his billing early in the season.

The biggest question mark at the moment for this staff is who will hold the No. 3 position in the rotation and lock down Sunday afternoons for Duke. Head coach Chris Pollard said early in the preseason that a short list of five players are currently competing for that honor and this coming Sunday—the Blue Devils' first series finale in Berkeley against the Golden Bears—we might glean who the favorite is in Pollard’s mind.

McGrath, along with junior Nick Hendrix and sophomores Karl Blum, Bailey Clark and Kevin Lewallyn are the five pitchers that Pollard identified as his leading candidates and there is a different argument for each pitcher.

Both Blum and Clark showed promise in the few innings they threw during their rookie seasons, but Lewallyn was a regular out of the Blue Devil bullpen, posting a 2.41 ERA and a .194 batting average against in 18.2 innings of work. McGrath brings with him hype and talent but no experience at the collegiate level.

Hendrix has been a stalwart for Pollard the past two seasons in relief. He has posted a career 3.57 ERA and .255 batting average against with 73 strikeouts to his credit and an average of 26 appearances per season. The Arlington, Texas, native also showed a marked improvement between his freshman and sophomore campaigns, dropping his season ERA by 0.44 and allowing 16 fewer hits.

Duke’s pitching staff will be the focal point of the team this season and the lineup expects to feature several different freshmen and sophomores who may inevitably struggle as they adjust to the college game. Pollard said that “patience” has become a buzzword among the coaching staff in regards to the all the new talent on the team.

If the Blue Devils want to not only repeat what last year’s squad started—posting a winning ACC record for the first time since 1994 and just narrowly missing out on an invitation to the NCAA tournament—but also improve upon it, it will be on the shoulders of the pitching staff to get them there.

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