With pitchers and catchers reporting to major league camps all across the country this week, the Blue Devils are getting ready to lace up their spikes for games that will actually count.
Duke begins its 2016 campaign this weekend at its new full-time home—the Durham Bulls Athletic Park—playing host to No. 9 California for a three-game series. Junior Bailey Clark will take the ball for the Blue Devils in the season-opener, opposing Golden Bears ace Daulton Jeffries in a 4 p.m. tilt Friday. Southpaw Trent Swart—who missed all of last season due to Tommy John surgery—returns to the mound for Saturday’s 1 p.m. game and graduate student transfer Brian McAfee will make his Duke debut on the hill in Sunday’s 11 a.m. finale.
This marks the second straight year these two teams have squared off to begin the season, with the Blue Devils taking two of three on the West Coast in 2015. The ACC boasts six schools ranked in the preseason top 25, so facing a top-of-the-line California squad right away should be a measuring stick for Duke as it tries to improve on last season’s .500 mark in ACC play.
“It will be a good litmus test of where we are and what we need to work on. When you play against an opponent like Cal, they’re going to expose your weaknesses and they’re going to quickly points out the things you have to get better at before ACC play,” Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. “That’s not to knock at anybody we’ve played in the past, but sometimes when you play a mid-major opponent and you win those games, they hide some flaws—those wins hide some flaws or mask some flaws that tend to show up in ACC play.”
The Blue Devils posted a 31-22 overall record in 2015—Pollard’s third year in Durham—but many key cogs from that squad will be missing from the field come Friday. Duke will have to adjust to life without mainstays Kenny Koplove, Andy Perez and Mike Rosenfeld—a veteran trio of captains who also served as the team’s defensive linchpins.
The offensive cupboard was not left bare, though, and the Blue Devil offense should receive a boost from playing 36 games a year at the DBAP, a park known for its hitter-friendly dimensions. Right fielder Peter Zyla—who led the team in hitting with a .331 batting average as a freshman last season—returns as a force in the middle of the lineup, and classmates Max Miller, Evan Dougherty and Justin Bellinger were all at least semi-regular fixtures on Pollard’s lineup card.
For a team that lists just 11 of its 35 players as upperclassmen, the continued development of Duke’s sophomore hitters will be essential to producing runs on a consistent basis.
“I’ve been very encouraged by the progression of our 2014 class from their freshman year to their sophomore year, especially our positional players,” Pollard said. That’s a group we’re going to rely on heavily for this year’s team.”
On the mound, the Blue Devils bring an odd mix of age and experience to the table. The staff has plenty of innings to replace, with the rotation losing all three of its opening weekend starters from last season—Michael Matuella, Andrew Istler and James Marvel—and relief aces Koplove and Sarkis Ohanian departing as well. But Duke re-gained an ace with Swart’s recovery and added McAfee, who Pollard called “arguably the best pitcher in the Ivy League for the last three years” at Cornell to supplement a stable of younger hurlers that are ready to toe the rubber.
For Swart—who posted a sparkling 1.76 ERA in 2014 but did not log a single inning last year—the road back to the mound has been a long one. Saturday’s start will be the first time in 21 months he has pitched in a live game, but he said everything is all-systems-go heading into Saturday's start.
“Certain days it feels like exactly where I was [before the surgery], certain days I have to work to get there,” Swart said. “I’ve really only had three live outings coming back, but all the work I put in with my bullpens and simulated games and everything, we’ve made it as real as we can. I’m definitely ready to go, I don’t have any worries about the health of my arm or anything, so I’m looking forward to getting back out there.”
The Golden Bears are projected to be one of the top contenders for the national title this year, after coming close to a College World Series berth last season before falling 3-1 to Texas A&M in the deciding game of the College Station Regional. Although the Blue Devils will be utilizing many new faces this weekend, California returns nearly all of its core group, with seven starting position players and all three weekend starters from last year’s team set to suit up for another year.
Jefferies—a junior who headlines the Golden Bears' rotation—has been raking in preseason honors this month and was tabbed the No. 24 overall prospect for the upcoming 2016 MLB draft. Jefferies received the season-opening nod against the Blue Devils last year, but Duke harassed the right-hander into one of his worst starts of the season—four runs and six hits in 4 2/3 innings, plus four walks and four wild pitches.
Duke would love for another uncharacteristically wild performance from Jeffries Friday afternoon, but even if that turns the Blue Devils’ way—no piece of cake given his pedigree—the rest of the California roster will give Pollard’s squad all it can handle to open the season.
“They’ve got a ton of guys back,” Pollard said. “They are a trendy pick to go to Omaha, and I understand why.”
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