In football, there is an old cliché that goes, “If you have two starting quarterbacks, you don’t have one.” And although pitcher James Ziemba suggested the exact opposite would be the case for this year’s Duke pitching staff, early returns indicate otherwise.
After making the NCAA tournament for the first time in 55 years last season, the Blue Devils will enter the 2017 campaign with seven of their starting position players back in the fold. But despite an abundance of familiar bullpen arms, last year’s four primary starting pitchers are gone from Durham—leaving Duke head coach Chris Pollard to figure out who will fill their shoes this season.
“We don’t [have any projected starters],” Pollard said at the team’s first spring practice. “Right now, we really value our depth—this is a really deep staff and a very talented staff—but we don’t have many defined roles yet. And what that likely means for us is, 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.”
In 2016, Pollard brought in a pair of graduate students—Kellen Urbon and Brian McAfee—to round out his rotation with redshirt senior Trent Swart and junior Bailey Clark. The foursome combined to start 53 of the Blue Devils’ 57 games, tossing nearly 60 percent of the team’s total innings as the weekend trio of Swart, Urbon and McAfee posted a combined 3.47 ERA.
After Clark was selected in the fifth round of the 2016 MLB Draft by the Chicago Cubs, though, it became clear that Duke would be looking for an entirely new batch of starters come 2017.
And so began an offseason that saw the Blue Devils search for a core group—one that could hopefully provide some semblance of continuity following one of the best Duke rotations in recent memory.
“What we decided to do in the preseason is through the first two weekends, continue to stretch everybody out as if they were going to be guys that extended, regardless of what we thought their role might be,” Pollard said.
In Arizona this past weekend, the Blue Devils started Ziemba, junior Mitch Stallings—last year’s closer, who racked up nine saves and three wins in a team-high 27 appearances—freshman Adam Laskey and junior Ryan Day. None of the four lasted longer than 5.1 innings, with each surrendering at least three runs and five hits.
Stallings, the most experienced hurler remaining from last year, struggled mightily in his season debut vs. then-No. 7 Oregon State. The Beavers tagged the Atlanta native for five second-inning runs before tacking on a sixth the following frame to send Stallings to the showers after just 58 pitches.
It was certainly not the start the 6-foot-2 southpaw had expected.
“In the past as a closer, I was a little bit more particular in terms of the strike zone,” Stallings said before the season opener. “Really, the biggest part of that difference is throwing—you can work out in the weight room all you want to, you can run all you want to, but if your arm’s not in shape, you’re not going to handle it. The biggest change is making sure you get the innings you need to get on the mound.”
Ziemba’s third season began on an equally sour note. Gonzaga battered the Hillsborough, N.J., native in less than five innings of work, as he quickly surrendered three runs in the first inning.
Friday was just the fourth start of the 6-foot-10 lefty’s collegiate career, though, and like many of the Duke arms, adjusting to a new role has had its ups and downs.
“You’re always trying to perform whatever Coach is asking you to do,” Ziemba said. “Coach Pollard has been really good with letting us know that if your role is to go out there and throw three good innings and hand it off to somebody else, that’s what you’re going to do. And once we finally get into a routine, everything will go from there.”
Although the Blue Devil starters will be a question mark from game to game, Pollard does have plenty of combinations to tinker with. On top of Stallings and Ziemba, Duke’s nine other relievers are all back in the mix, giving the Blue Devils a veteran bullpen with just five first-year pitchers in addition to Laskey.
The most familiar face in the group, however, might be the multi-talented Jack Labosky. A junior, Labosky typically batted third for the Blue Devils in 2016, giving his team some big-time pop with eight home runs and a .518 slugging percentage as well as manning the hot corner.
But the 6-foot-3 third baseman also made 24 appearances on the mound and was one of Pollard’s most reliable weapons in relief—opponents batted just .238 against the righty as he tallied a team-high 32.2 innings out of the bullpen.
“The reality is the two best ways to have [Labosky] involved on the mound that minimize the impact that pitching has on him offensively and what he can bring to the table at third is to have him pitch either at the beginning of the game or the end of the game,” Pollard said.
With the season already underway and a tough ACC slate just on the horizon—one that features road series against top-20 sides Louisville, North Carolina and Miami—Duke’s pitching issues remain unsettled and its dearth of starters showed during the team’s first weekend.
Ziemba, nonetheless, expressed optimism that time will heal the Blue Devils’ early-season woes.
“You understand that, especially in the way college baseball is, you get a lot of ups and downs,” Ziemba said. “My freshman year, we were the fourth-best team in the ACC and didn’t make the regional—like who expects that to happen? It’s kind of the same thing where if you’re not there in March, there’s always a chance you’re going to be there in June.”
Michael Model contributed reporting.
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."