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Duke baseball aims to tame Nittany Lions

Duke hosts Penn State before welcoming defending national champion Virginia to open conference play

<p>Freshman Jimmy Herron is off to a fast start in his Duke career, leading the team with a .340 batting average and five stolen bases this year.</p>

Freshman Jimmy Herron is off to a fast start in his Duke career, leading the team with a .340 batting average and five stolen bases this year.

After a successful weekend at the DBAP, the Blue Devils will try to keep the positive momentum going as their first stretch of ACC play approaches.

Duke takes on Penn State Wednesday at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park at 4 p.m. The Blue Devils are coming off a three-game sweep of Toledo this past weekend, and things are trending in the right direction in anticipation of ACC play starting this weekend with No. 10 Virginia coming to Durham.

After falling last Wednesday on the road to Campbell, Duke returned home to beat the Rockets in a three-game set, 2-1, 6-1 and 3-2. Senior transfer Brian McAfee earned his first win on the mound as a Blue Devil, pitching seven innings and allowing one run on four hits with six strikeouts and a walk.

McAfee’s outing concluded a stellar weekend for Duke hurlers, as all three starters—Bailey Clark, Trent Swart and McAfee—recorded a quality start against the Rockets. The trio combined for a 0.86 ERA, 23 strikeouts and just two walks in 21 innings. How the Blue Devils manage their pitching rotation after a big weekend and before a huge matchup with the defending national champion Cavaliers will be important—Duke head coach Chris Pollard will need to attempt to save some of his rotation in order to compete with Virginia.

“We will make sure that we pitch in a way in the mid-week to have everybody ready to go Friday night,” Pollard said. “In other words, you won’t see [Nick] Hendrix in a two-inning save situation. I can’t imagine a situation where you’d see one of our relievers go more than an inning, and I think we may look to limit [Kellen] Urbon’s pitch count so we can have him available on the weekend.”

Hendrix and Urbon both finished strong against the Rockets to clinch the win in the series finale Sunday, with Hendrix ending the game on a fly-out to center. Urbon, a graduate student, pitched a scoreless eighth to set up Hendrix’s second save in three games.

Duke (8-4) was also successful at the plate Sunday, as all three of its hits went for extra bases and several others would have, too, if they were not directed right at Rocket fielders. Ryan Day and Evan Dougherty crossed home plate in the bottom of the second inning, with Day's run scored on a Dougherty triple and Peter Zyla's seventh RBI of the season knocking Dougherty home. 

Freshman Jimmy Herron stole his third base Saturday and notched two more the following afternoon. The Harleysville, Pa., native has swiped a team-high five bases on the season and has been a dynamic part of the Duke offense in the past couple weeks. Herron leads the team with a .340 average and has been impressive with his ability to get on base in the early part of his career.

“He’s altering the game with his speed, not only with the stolen bases but the pressure he puts on teams with the way he gets down the line,” Pollard said. “He’s even causing teams to pitch the guy behind him differently. Guys are getting pitches to hit behind him because teams are worried about him at first, and teams are getting so caught up in trying to hold him at first base that all of a sudden Jack [Labosky] is getting in good counts because the pitchers are missing their spots because they’re focused more on Jimmy than they are on making their pitch.”

Labosky, an infielder who also pitches, is one of a handful of young Blue Devils seeing significant time in the lineup. Although Duke’s starting rotation contains mostly upperclassmen on the mound, the lineup has featured four freshmen and five sophomores and their inexperience has been made apparent with the Blue Devils' inconsistent success at the plate.

Duke will try to stay hot against the Nittany Lions (3-7), who just broke their six-game losing streak with a gritty victory against UNC-Wilmington on Monday. Penn State won 5-4 to break a winless streak dating back to Feb. 21. Right-hander Justin Hagenman carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning and third baseman Willie Burger drove in four runs to upend the Seahawks.

The Nittany Lions, who also have two wins against Army, boast an ace starting pitcher in Hagenman with a 0.93 ERA and two wins under his belt. After last year’s leading hitter Aaron Novak and his .326 batting average was lost to graduation, junior Jim Haley has stepped in as the big slugger for Penn State and boasts a team-high .341 average through 14 games,

“I know [Penn State head] coach Cooper well, they do a great job. The Big Ten continues to get better and better,” Pollard said.

Ryan Hoerger contributed reporting.

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