Nick Hendrix made his first career start March 17, 2015 against Columbia, tossing three innings and collecting three strikeouts in a 5-2 Duke win.
His season came to an end the next night on a freak accident.
The Duke southpaw was struck in the head by a foul ball in the second game of the series against the Lions at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, sending a chill through the ballpark. Two weeks later, he was declared out for the season.
“It was tough,” Hendrix said at the beginning of this season. “I lost a little bit of hearing.”
One year to the day removed from the accident, the injury remains on the minds of the Blue Devils, even though Hendrix has returned to the mound.
"I'll never forget the sound that it made. He was taken to the locker room immediately, and Nick's such a tough person, such a competitor, he didn't want to miss the postgame meeting," Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. "He came in for the postgame meeting, and I vividly remember, will always remember this—I'm talking to our team, scanning the room and I see him out of the corner of my eye. The look in his face, he was so withdrawn, I told [trainer Aldo Plata] 'We've got to get him to the hospital.' It was a scary time, and that was a long night."
Hendrix will be an option out of the bullpen when Duke faces No. 11 North Carolina in a three-game weekend series beginning Friday at the DBAP. After recovering from the head injury during the offseason, Hendrix has returned as one of Duke’s most consistent and reliable relief pitchers, filling the closer role left vacant by the departure of Sarkis Ohanian for the Cincinnati Reds organization.
Following the injury, Hendrix did not step into the weight room or onto the field for two to three months. Once Duke’s medical staff cleared him to return in the fall, he had to overcome any nervousness about once again being hit in the dugout or while on the mound.
“I was pretty gun-shy back in the fall, being in the dugout again. In the dugout, it crosses my mind when I see opposite-hand hitters in the box," Hendrix said. "Normally, I just move down the end of the dugout and get my glove ready. But you can’t worry about those things. There are more important things to think about.”
Hendrix’s freak injury and the season-ending Tommy John injuries to starters Michael Matuella, James Marvel and Trent Swart left the Blue Devils clamoring for answers on the mound last season. Prior to the accident, Hendrix was one of Duke’s top relievers, surrendering six runs on 17 hits in 13.2 innings. In 2014, the Arlington, Texas, finished 11th in the ACC in games pitched in relief, and tied for the team lead for the Blue Devils (10-7, 1-2 in the ACC) with 28 appearances on the mound.
Since his return at the beginning of this season, Hendrix has picked up right where he left off and shown no signs of any tentativeness on the mound. The senior is third among Blue Devil relievers in innings pitched and owns a 2.08 ERA and two saves.
"He's doing great now and obviously throwing great and it's so good to have him back," Pollard said. "Not only is he a great pitcher, but he's a tremendous leader on our team."
Duke will trot out its regular rotation of Bailey Clark Friday, Swart Saturday and Brian McAfee Sunday against the Tar Heels (14-2, 2-1), and will look to turn the ball over to Hendrix with a lead heading to the top of the ninth.
The last time both rivals met, the Tar Heels took two of three as Duke struggled to find an answer to North Carolina’s high-powered offense. Hendrix did not appear in the two losses but recorded two strikeouts in the Blue Devils’ 9-2 win.
The Tar Heels once again feature a strong offense, scoring at least 10 runs in seven of their last 10 outings. Led by center fielder Tyler Ramirez and infielder Brian Miller—who have a combined 51 hits—North Carolina has six hitters with at least a .300 batting average. The Tar Heels rely on both power hitting—with 10 home runs and a total of 44 doubles and triples—and small ball, and have stolen 34 bases on 42 attempts so far this season.
North Carolina’s ace, right-hander Zac Gallen—who is scheduled to start Friday—leads the team with a 1.19 ERA and 34 strikeouts, and has surrendered just 16 hits in 30.1 innings.
Ryan Hoerger contributed reporting.