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Youth movement: Underclassmen-laden lineup sparks Duke baseball in historic season

<p>Sophomore Jack Labosky&nbsp;led Duke in home runs during the regular season with eight.&nbsp;</p>

Sophomore Jack Labosky led Duke in home runs during the regular season with eight. 

Although the Blue Devils’ lineup featured eight underclassmen for most of the season, they made sure it was no rebuilding year despite a slow start.

After three of Duke’s four top hitters from the 2014-15 team graduated or turned professional, sophomores Jack Labosky and Justin Bellinger came into their own during the second half of the season and freshman Jimmy Herron provided the missing piece of the puzzle to help carry the team to its first NCAA tournament berth since 1961.

The sophomore class made up the core of the lineup, with Labosky and Bellinger becoming key cogs in the batting order at the No. 3 and No. 4 spots during the last two months of the season and classmates Michael Smiciklas, Peter Zyla and Max Miller adding production at the bottom of the lineup.

“Everyone on the offensive end is doing a lot more than we had last year, and guys are kind of stepping into leadership roles throughout the lineup,” Labosky said. “Everyone’s just kind of following each other’s footsteps, and it’s more of a team aspect, rather than one single captain.”

Other than Zyla—who hit a team-leading .331 as a freshman—none of the five sophomores who became mainstays for the Blue Devils showed much star potential at the plate during their first year in Durham.

Bellinger led the team with 63 strikeouts and batted just .227. Labosky had just three extra-base hits—all doubles—in 98 at-bats, and Smiciklas and Miller did not fare much better. In head coach Chris Pollard’s third year, Duke seemed to take a step back, finishing with a 10-19 ACC record and failing to qualify for the conference tournament.

All five in the quintet started at least 20 games as rookies, but their experience did not turn into wins until Labosky and Bellinger became breakout stars midway through the 2016 campaign.

Following a 12-0 loss to Wake Forest that dropped the Blue Devils to 1-6 in ACC play, Labosky was batting just .224. But Pollard inserted Bellinger into the starting lineup for good the next day after the 6-foot-6 first baseman started just three of Duke’s first 22 games, and the duo formed a formidable tandem in the heart of the order for the rest of the year, sparking the Blue Devils’ 23-9 finish to the regular season. 

“You look at guys like Labosky and Bellinger and the growth that they’ve made from last year to this year as players—a huge part of that has to do with Jason Stein, our hitting coach,” Pollard said. “It took time. It didn’t necessarily show up right away at the beginning of the season, but he stayed patient with them.”

Labosky and Bellinger combined for just one home run during their freshman season, but that number catapulted to 14 this year, with 13 coming after the blowout loss against the Demon Deacons. Bellinger led the team with a .336 average during the season, and Labosky took advantage of better pitches to hit with Bellinger behind him in the order during the second half of the year to raise his average to .296.

The tandem also led the team in RBIs—combining for 77—in large part because like Labosky and Bellinger, Herron hit better than .330 after the lineup change and the entire lineup raised its batting average by more than 40 points to create more opportunities with runners in scoring position. 

Herron had a remarkable finish to the season after taking over the leadoff spot in the order for good during the Wake Forest series, tying the league lead with 22 doubles and finishing second in the stacked ACC with 24 stolen bases. 

“That was the point where we said, ‘Look, let’s get this guy in the leadoff spot, leave him alone and let him go play,’” Pollard said. “There is a peace of mind and a comfort level and continuity when they show up at the ballpark knowing where they’re going to be.”

In 11 straight games from April 12 to April 29, Herron reached base as the first batter of the game for Duke, and he often used speed to get into scoring position right away with a stolen base following a walk or a single. The Blue Devils scored in the first inning of six out of those 11 games, going 7-4 during that stretch, including a 12-5 win against then-No. 1 Miami April 17.

“He puts a lot of pressure on the defense, and therefore, guys like Labosky and Bellinger get more fastballs to hit, so it’s been a good spot for him,” Pollard said. “Because he’s been in that [leadoff] spot, he’s made the rest of our lineup better.”

Herron belted five doubles in a series win against then-No. 7 Florida State May 13-15 that helped Duke lock up spots in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, a series that also featured the first career home runs for Smiciklas and Zyla.

The other underclassmen in the lineup had their shining moments as well. 

Freshman Zack Kone went 5-for-5 to highlight the win against the Hurricanes and played impressive defense all year at shortstop, earning recognition on the All-ACC freshman team.

Miller had multiple hits from the No. 9 spot in the order in series-opening wins against then-No. 18 Clemson, the Seminoles and Pittsburgh.

Freshman Chris Proctor batted second down the stretch and rattled off two separate hitting streaks of at least six games, alternating between catcher and designated hitter with junior Cris Perez.

“From a standpoint at the plate, their pitch selection, balance and everything, figuring out ACC pitchers is just incredible,” said graduate student Brian McAfee, a member of Duke’s pitching rotation. “It’s a big jump coming from high school and going right into the ACC, but as the season goes along, I think the record shows how well they’ve adjusted.”

The entire lineup will likely be back next year, and there is reason to believe an NCAA tournament appearance is just the beginning for this group at the end of Pollard’s fourth year.

Thirty-two years ago, Mike Krzyzewski made his first NCAA tournament appearance in his fourth year in Durham with an elite sophomore class featuring Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and Jay Bilas, with freshman point guard Tommy Amaker setting his teammates up for success like Herron did this year.

That team turned around a program that had suffered two straight losing seasons with a strong second half of the conference schedule, winning eight straight games down the stretch and upsetting then-No. 1 North Carolina in the ACC tournament. When that team’s core players were all upperclassmen, they made it all the way to the national title game in 1986.

That group of players represented the beginning of a tradition of excellence that has become expected under Krzyzewski, and the next two years will determine whether Labosky, Bellinger and company will be looked upon the same way for Pollard and Duke baseball.

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