Duke baseball opens crucial road series at Virginia

Andrew Istler and the Blue Devils will be playing for their postseason lives this weekend in Charlottesville, Va., against the Cavaliers.
Andrew Istler and the Blue Devils will be playing for their postseason lives this weekend in Charlottesville, Va., against the Cavaliers.

After dropping its fourth consecutive ACC series and a midweek contest to East Carolina in late April, Duke knew its season was on the brink of spiraling out of control.

So the Blue Devils decided to start a new one.

In its final road series of the year, Duke travels to Charottesville, Va., for a three-game set with Virginia at Davenport Field. Friday night’s 8 p.m. game will be nationally televised on ESPNU and will be followed by a 4 p.m. start Saturday and a 1 p.m. first pitch Sunday. The Blue Devils are 5-1 since their new season began and have scored nearly six runs per game during that stretch.

“We started talking the Thursday before the Virginia Tech series about the fact that we were going to start a new season. It was going to be 2015 2.0,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “We’re halfway through the sprint to the finish and guys get that. They’ve embraced this challenge. We’ve got a nationally televised game tomorrow night against a program that was a handful of pitches away from winning the college world series last year. It won’t be hard to get our guys up to play this weekend.”

With less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, time is running out for Duke (27-19, 7-16 in the ACC) to earn a spot in postseason play. The Blue Devils currently sit in 13th place in the conference standings, with three teams and four games separating them from the 10th and final spot in the ACC tournament.

Fortunately for Duke, the Cavaliers (27-18, 10-14) are one of those teams—making this weekend a prime opportunity to make a move in the standings. Virginia trails Wake Forest by just a single game for the conference’s 10th seed with a series against No. 17 North Carolina on tap for the season’s closing weekend.

Like the Blue Devils, the Cavaliers have experienced more than their fair share of injuries as the season has worn on. They recently lost staff ace Nathan Kirby to a lat injury that will sideline the southpaw through at least the end of May. First-Team All-ACC outfielder Joe McCarthy only recently returned to the lineup following back surgery in late January, a procedure that has limited him to just 10 games and a .212 batting average this season.

Virginia is just coming off its final exam break, and Friday’s tilt will be the squad’s first game action in 10 days. Duke used its exam-week respite last week to get healthy and rejuvenated for the stretch run, and Pollard said he expects the same from a Cavalier squad that draws a lot of parallels to his own.

“They’re like us in that they’ve had a lot of injuries to deal with over the course of this year, so I’m sure they looked at the break as a chance to get some of their guys well,” Pollard said. “I think there’s a lot of similarities—it’s a little bit like looking in the mirror when you look at the two seasons and what they’ve gone through with injuries and what we’ve had to go through.”

Despite the loss of Kirby—who was putting together a fantastic junior season with a 2.28 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings prior to the injury—Virginia will have plenty of quality arms on the mound this weekend. The Cavaliers rank third in the ACC with a .238 batting average against and boast several power arms in the bullpen.

6-foot-3 sophomore Connor Jones—who Pollard tabbed as a first-round MLB draft pick for next year—has been a workhorse for the Virginia, tossing a team-high 66 1/3 innings and compiling a 5-2 record. Jones will take the mound Friday in the series opener opposite Duke senior Andrew Istler, who has anchored the Blue Devils staff with a 3.18 ERA across 73 2/3 innings pitched.

A pair of left-handers will square off in Saturday’s contest, with junior Brandon Waddell—a third-team All-ACC selection last year—opposing Blue Devil redshirt senior Dillon Haviland. Sophomore Bailey Clark will get the starting nod in Sunday’s series finale against a yet-to-be-named Cavalier hurler.

Offensively, Virginia has multiple sluggers in the middle of its lineup capable of inflicting damage at the friendly confines of Davenport Field. Cather Matt Thaiss has emerged as a dangerous bat in his sophomore season, with a .333 batting average and .437 on-base percentage to go along with his team-leading eight home runs. The Cavaliers have three other batters who have blasted at least four long balls and that depth—coupled with the return of McCarthy, who slugged six homers a year ago—means the Duke staff will have to tread carefully in order to keep Virginia from piling up runs in bunches.

Pollard noted the offensive similarities between the Cavaliers and Davidson, whose top four batters combined to go 9-for-20 in the Blue Devils’ extra-inning triumph Tuesday. The key, he said, was to make sure those hits were for singles and not extra bases—a feat Duke will have to repeat if it hopes to put together a winning weekend and climb back into the ACC playoff picture.

“Davenport is a hitter-friendly park, the ball carries, you’re going to see more balls leave the yard in a park like that. That doesn’t take anything away from the numbers but it is a park that plays a little more offensive, particularly than Coombs,” Pollard said. “You have to understand that going in, and good offenses are going to get their hits…The big thing is against a team that’s going to swing it, you don’t want to give them free offense. So you make plays, and you don’t walk people.”


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