Duke baseball travels to ACC tournament needing title run to extend season

<p>Griffin Conine was a second-team All-ACC selection this year and leads the Blue Devil lineup into the ACC tournament.</p>

Griffin Conine was a second-team All-ACC selection this year and leads the Blue Devil lineup into the ACC tournament.

A year ago, Duke—even with a 14-15 ACC mark—was well on its way to an NCAA tournament appearance thanks to 33 regular-season wins.

But this time around, the Blue Devils will likely need to win this week's ACC tournament if they have any hope of making a return trip.

With a new 12-team format, No. 9 seed Duke will face off against fifth-seeded Clemson at 7 p.m. Tuesday before taking on No. 4 seed Virginia at 11 a.m. Thursday in the pool play games at Louisville Slugger Field in Louisville, Ky. The winner of the Blue Devils' Pool D will advance to the semifinals Friday evening.

With Duke hovering just around the .500 mark for the season and 96th in the most recent RPI rankings, the Blue Devils will need to put together two strong performances against a pair of teams currently in the top 20.

"We're realistic about where we are," Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. "We understand that based on our total body of work for the year that we need to go into Louisville with the expectation that we are going to have to win the ACC tournament if we're going to continue playing."

After the Blue Devils dropped their ACC tournament play-in game to Wake Forest last season and failed to advance to the round-robin portion of the event, the ACC eliminated the play-in games this year by adding two more teams and two more pools to the event. But Duke will have to pull a pair of upsets against the Tigers and Cavaliers to move on—if all three teams in a pool tie at 1-1, then the highest seed among the three teams will move on to the semifinals.

"I really like the new format," Pollard said. "I give a lot of credit to the coaches and the league. We worked together to present this to administrations and we're very appreciative of the league for taking our format and running with it.... This new format guarantees everyone there at least two ballgames."

The Blue Devils (28-27) will send southpaw Mitch Stallings to the hill for its postseason opener Tuesday night against Clemson's own left-handed standout Charlie Barnes. The Tiger junior leads Clemson's rotation with a 2.81 ERA and a 5.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

But Stallings has shown that against some of the league's toughest offenses and opposite many teams' top starting pitchers, he can be a game-changer for Duke.

"At the end of the day, you've still got to go out and throw the baseball," Stallings said. "You try to take it one step at a time and not let it get too big. You've still got to go out and compete and make pitches to get the win."

The Tigers rank fourth in the ACC in team batting average at .289 and blasted 65 home runs, led by outfielder Reed Rohlman. The redshirt junior is hitting .380 with 33 RBIs and is slugging nearly .600 on the season.

But Rohlman is not alone—Clemson (39-17) has a pair of 14-homer, 50-RBI sluggers in Seth Beer and Chris Williams, who will also challenge Stallings and a Blue Devil bullpen that has slowly gained consistency throughout the season.

"I threw against them twice last year," Stallings said. "They're a strong offensive team. They're going to look to score some runs, so we've got to do our best to keep them from getting on the board."

After Tuesday's opener, Duke will then turn its attention to Virginia (41-13), which took two of three games from the Blue Devils when the two sides met in Charlottesville, Va., in late March. Duke will send junior right-hander Ryan Day to the hill to try to contain the Cavalier offense, which tops the conference in batting average at .325, led by a .400 mark from two-way talent Adam Haseley.

In the teams' series opener, however, Duke exploded for 19 runs. The Blue Devils got multi-hit performances from seven players that night, and if sophomore Jimmy Herron—who went 4-of-6 with three runs—can spark Duke's offense from the leadoff spot, the Blue Devils may be able send shockwaves throughout the league and advance to the weekend two wins away from the NCAA tournament.

"We're playing our best baseball right now," Herron said. "If you look at this past weekend, we had an awesome college baseball series with North Carolina.... I'm pretty happy with how we're playing, and our bullpen looked awesome."

Hank Tucker contributed reporting.

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

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." 


Share and discuss “Duke baseball travels to ACC tournament needing title run to extend season” on social media.