Update: Due to inclement weather, this weekend's schedule has changed. The Blue Devils will take on Gonzaga Friday at noon before playing Oregon State at 4 p.m. On Saturday, Duke will face the Bulldogs again Saturday at a time to be determined before battling the Beavers Sunday as originally planned.
Last year, Duke defied everyone’s expectations during their run to the NCAA tournament.
This season, the Blue Devils face a more difficult task—proving it was not a fluke.
Duke will take the field for the first time this season when it travels to Surprise, Ariz., for the Sanderson Ford Spring Training College Classic, where they will take on No. 7 Oregon State, Indiana and Gonzaga. The Blue Devils will take on the Beavers Friday at 3 p.m., before a double-header against the Hoosiers and Bulldogs Saturday and a second matchup with Oregon State Sunday. All four games will be held at Surprise Stadium, the spring training home of the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals.
“As we start the season, a lot of guys are going to get a lot of opportunities and those roles are going to evolve and develop and hopefully, they will solidify as we go into ACC play,” Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. “We’re going to throw a lot of different guys and a lot of different guys are going to get opportunities to step up.”
Duke will meet a ranked team in its season opener for the third time under Pollard’s direction. In their previous two opening series against top-25 teams, the Blue Devils went 3-3, but they took two of three games against No. 10 California last season. The early tests will be good preparation for ACC play, where Duke will have to compete with nine other tournament teams from a year ago.
Despite returning every starting position player from last season’s team, the Blue Devils' success may be determined by how a relatively young crop of pitchers hold up after the departure of Duke’s core starters from a year ago.
James Ziemba, the Blue Devils’ opening day hurler for Friday’s game against Oregon State, made just three starts in his 19 appearances last season. Duke’s probable starter for Saturday’s ballgame against Indiana, junior Mitch Stallings, has also been a reliever during his Blue Devil career. To round out the weekend, Duke will give the ball to freshman Adam Laskey and junior Ryan Day, who did make 16 starts last season—at second base.
“We need to figure out how all those puzzle pieces fit together and put them in a position where they can be successful,” Pollard said. “Whether that means starting or whether that means relieving or long relief or whether that means we wind up looking at a lot of split-start type of ballgames, we’re open to seeing how to best use that depth.”
But while questions about its pitching remain unanswered, Duke will be counting on the return of several star position players to power through rough patches on the mound. Junior first baseman Justin Bellinger returns after batting cleanup for much of the year and leading the team in batting average and slugging percentage.
Although the early-season matchups could shed some light on some of the Blue Devils' highly-touted newcomers, Duke will also use this weekend's games to see how its plethora of breakout freshman players from a season ago develop as sophomores.
Outfielder Jimmy Herron paced the team in stolen bases as a freshman and was second in the ACC with 24 steals in 28 attempts. The Harleysville, Pa., native is joined by fellow returning starters Chris Proctor and Zack Kone at catcher and shortstop, respectively.
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“We’re going to be fast again, but this is a much better offensive club with regard to power. Some young guys have grown into power—guys like Griffin Conine [and] Zach Kone,” Pollard said. “Those two guys handled the bat for us as freshmen, but I think they’re going to grow into some additional power. I think Chris Proctor in his sophomore year will [also] grow into some gap-to-gap power.”
This weekend, the Blue Devils will have their hands full with Oregon State, who finished tied for third in the Pac 12 last season and are the coaches’ pick to take home the conference crown this year. KJ Harrison, Christian Donahue and Nick Madrigal, each All-Pac-12 honorees, return for the Beavers, who won 35 games and are a consensus top-10 team in each of the six major college baseball polls.
The Blue Devils have never faced Gonzaga, who was picked to finish second in the West Coast Conference. The Bulldogs will look to defend their conference crown behind the play of reigning WCC Player of the Year Jeff Bohling—a senior infielder who hit .298 last year and finished tied for 13th in the nation with 50 RBIs.
Before taking on Gonzaga, Duke will face an Indiana program that has been the class of the Big Ten since 2008. The Hoosiers have led the conference in wins during the span and have reached the NCAA Regionals four times. Although the Hoosiers are predicted to finish fourth this year in their conference, they return nearly all of their offensive production from 2016.
After their trip out west, the Blue Devils will have a quick turnaround before heading back to Durham to face off with N.C. Central Tuesday afternoon.