Coming off the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 55 years, Duke has no shortage of obstacles to overcome as it aims for an encore performance.
Head coach Chris Pollard will have to keep the clubhouse focused amid heightened expectations while the team tries to prove that last year’s success was not a one-hit wonder. He may have to get creative with his pitching staff, which lost a quartet of veterans who combined for 53 starts last season and has no obvious replacements. And, of course, the Blue Devils have to navigate the brutal schedule that comes with playing in college baseball’s best conference, which has seven teams ranked in the preseason top 25.
But one thing Pollard will likely not have to worry about most days is his lineup card—especially the two names he can pen down in the middle of it.
Led by juniors Jack Labosky and Justin Bellinger, Duke returns seven starters and three key reserves to its batting order. As the Blue Devils made their late-season charge toward the postseason, it was Labosky and Bellinger starting at the corner infield spots and anchoring the lineup in the No. 3 and No. 4 slots, which are traditionally reserved for a team’s best power hitters.
The duo combined to blast more than half of the team’s 27 home runs, and were Duke’s only hitters to record slugging percentages better than .500—a threshold often used to identify true sluggers. Playing defensive positions in which power at the plate is expected, Labosky and Bellinger fit the classic mold of brawny mashers that can change a game with just one swing of the bat.
“First off, they’re physically imposing—between the two of them, they average about 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds. They’re a physical presence, both offensively and defensively,” Pollard said. “But certainly from an offensive perspective, they are the two guys that supply the biggest amount of pop to the middle of our lineup with regard to power and potential slugging percentage numbers.”
After struggling as freshmen, Labosky and Bellinger took huge leaps forward in their sophomore campaigns and became two of the most complete hitters on the team. With another year to adjust to the quality of ACC pitching, both improved their plate discipline and increased their batting averages and on-base percentages significantly.
Labosky bats from the right side and Bellinger swings from the left, providing Pollard with the lineup versatility managers love. Alternating righty and lefty hitters prevents opponents from continually gaining the platoon advantage with relief specialists, and this balance—combined with Bellinger’s .300 average against southpaws last year—makes the meat of the Blue Devil lineup a nightmare for any visiting staff.
“You make yourself really tough to pitch to when you have all four of those things—a right-handed presence, a left-handed presence, the presence of speed and the presence of power,” Pollard said. “Obviously, they give us a good right-left balance in the middle, and they also provide some thump there in the middle of the lineup.”
Speedy outfielder Jimmy Herron helps out with the speed component of Pollard’s criteria—he stole a team-high 24 bases and returns as a table-setter atop the Blue Devil lineup—and was the only other regular with a slugging percentage higher than .400, leaving Labosky and Bellinger responsible for much of the team’s power output.
Labosky’s all-around contributions—he led the team in extra-base hits as a third baseman while doubling as a lockdown reliever—earned him second-team All-ACC accolades, but the going was not always so smooth for his teammate across the diamond.
Unlike his classmate, Bellinger was drafted out of high school by the St. Louis Cardinals and came to Durham as a highly-touted prospect. Yet after hitting just .227 as a freshman, he started last season on the bench, with Labosky sliding over to first and the versatile Max Miller manning the hot corner.
But with the team sputtering early on, Pollard turned to Bellinger for good in late March against Wake Forest—and the team never looked back from there, rattling off a 23-9 record as the Weston, Mass., native put up a monster .336/.417/.571 triple-slash line.
“We’re the corner infielders, we’re the guys that are supposed to get it done,” Bellinger said. “So we just work together and try to come up with the best approaches and plans that we can to get this team rolling. We’re the backbone of this team, we’re the big guys in the lineup, so we’ve got to make sure every day we show up and give the team the best effort we’ve got.”
Following Labosky and Bellinger’s breakout seasons, the Blue Devils are now hoping for similar outbursts from shortstop Zack Kone, catcher Chris Proctor and outfielder Griffin Conine—who all showed flashes but were overall inconsistent as freshmen.
Herron, Miller and juniors Peter Zyla, Ryan Day and Michael Smickilas have all contributed as offensive cogs in past seasons, giving Pollard plenty of options to fill out the lineup card every night. Duke has experience in abundance at the plate, and Labosky knows firsthand how much that can help the Blue Devils put up crooked numbers in bunches.
“Last year, we had good numbers—lots of games where we put up a lot of runs and I think that comes with experience,” Labosky said. “I remember my freshman year—the guys from my class, at least—we had a lot of trouble offensively making the jump from high school to college pitching. And now that our class is coming on three years of experience and the class below us is coming on their second year, I think offense will be our strong suit.”
Mitchell Gladstone and Michael Model contributed reporting.
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