Duke and No. 1 Miami took turns crushing balls all over downtown Durham this weekend in a three-game series that included 42 runs on 59 hits.
But offense might be at a premium Tuesday as the Blue Devils head back out on the road.
Duke travels to Lynchburg, Va., to take on Liberty in the third meeting between the two teams, with first pitch scheduled for 6 p.m. at Liberty Baseball Stadium. The Flames beat Saturday starter Trent Swart and the Blue Devils in a 1-0 duel back in February in a neutral-site contest, but Duke evened the season series three weeks ago, besting Liberty 6-1 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
In that March 29 contest, six Blue Devil pitchers combined to fan 10 Flames hitters as part of a stretch during which Duke won six of seven games. Duke head coach Chris Pollard said after Sunday’s 9-0 loss to the Hurricanes that he would take the same approach on the road, splitting up the game between a small army of pitchers to keep relievers fresh with a road series at Virginia Tech looming this weekend.
“A lot of guys will throw an inning apiece—maybe a handful of guys might throw two,” Pollard said. “A lot of guys are going to throw one inning to get ready for the weekend and then we’re going to shuffle our rotation this weekend.”
Graduate student Kellen Urbon has been the Blue Devils’ mid-week starter for most of the season, but has been splitting Saturdays on the bump with Swart for the past two weeks. Urbon did not pitch against the Flames (20-17) but boasts a 2.24 ERA—the best on the team among hurlers with at least 25 innings pitched—that could put him in line for more work on the weekend.
Duke (20-17) will start redshirt sophomore James Ziemba against Liberty for the second time this season. Ziemba has seen much of his action as a reliever and currently holds a 3.18 ERA in 22 2/3 innings. In his March ouing against the Flames, the southpaw struck our three batters in two scoreless innings.
Ziemba and the Blue Devil pitchers will have to keep Liberty’s D.J. Artis off the base paths. The leadoff hitter leads the Flames with a scorching .381 batting average and has swiped 16 bases—good for third in the Big South—on 18 attempts. Artis sets the table for the heart of the Liberty order and first baseman Andrew Yacyk, who has clubbed six homers and driven in 34 runs.
Artis and Yacyk went a combined 0-for-6 with one walk and one hit by pitch against Duke at the DBAP—the Flames managed just three hits as a team. But Liberty is much more dangerous at home, posting a 14-5 record within the friendly confines of its home park compared to a 3-11 road record.
“They’ve got a couple of veteran bats in the middle of their lineup. They are a lot better at home—you look at their winning percentage at home [and] they’ve played a lot better in that ballpark. Their offense is kind of tailored to that ballpark so we’ve got our hands full,” Pollard said. “Those are the kind of midweek games that make you better, playing against those type of opponents. They’re a team that’s been to a regional two out of the last three years. They’re a veteran club, so we’ll be tested in the midweek and that’s what helps get you get ready for the weekend.”
In the other dugout, Duke has put together quality at-bats with the consistency that it lacked early in the season, a sign of a young team beginning to figure things out. Although that did not translate to the scoreboard Friday and Sunday against Miami—when the Blue Devils were outscored 23-2—Pollard said he was pleased with the resolve of his lineup, which featured three freshmen and five sophomores in the series finale.
Those three rookies—Jimmy Herron, Zack Kone and Chris Proctor—lead Duke in batting average, and Herron extended his hitting streak to 12 games with a pair of base knocks from the leadoff spot Sunday. Proctor has delivered timely hits from farther down in the order this season and Kone launched his first career home run Saturday as part of a 7-for-12 weekend.
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“[Herron is] a tremendous competitor. He’s got a football mentality out there on the baseball field,” Pollard said. “I would add Chris Proctor into the mix as well—they’re all playing really well for us.”
Liberty’s pitching staff sports a team ERA of 4.64, but it is unlikely the Blue Devils will see either of the Flames’ top two arms—Evan Mitchell or Victor Cole—during the mid-week contest. Cole surrendered just one hit in five scoreless innings in Liberty’s shutout win against Pollard’s squad Feb. 27 in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
After trying to take the season series from the Flames, Duke will head to Blacksburg, Va., to take on the Hokies, continuing to fight an uphill battle to get back into the thick of things in the ACC.
Mitchell Gladstone contributed reporting.