Under the bright lights of the big leagues, it looks a little something like this: the bullpen door swings open and the reliever, fresh off his final warm-up tosses, trots across the warning track before breaking into a light jog. The stadium's stereo system blares Metallica's "Enter Sandman," Guns n' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle," AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" or something of that ilk and the flamethrower settles in on the mound, ready to do his bidding as the crowd rises to its feet.
For this group of Blue Devils, it's been far from that.
Yet without much fanfare, Duke has developed arguably the best and deepest bullpen in the ACC—if not one of the top units in the nation—and behind an eclectic mix of experienced hurlers and young stars, this crop of Blue Devil relievers has helped carry the team to its highest ranking ever.
"Last year, there were a lot of freshmen in there, so just having the year of experience helps them, so they can grow after being thrown into the fire," graduate student Ethan DeCaster said. "We’ve kind of settled into these different roles and we feed off one another. Just like hitting is contagious, pitching is contagious too—after one guy goes, it becomes easier to transition to the next and we can kind of feed off each other’s energy."
Ironically enough, DeCaster wasn't even a part of last year's team. The sidearming 6-foot-3 righty spent his four years as an undergraduate at Creighton in Omaha, Neb., working as both a setup man and a closer for the Bluejays and earning second-team All-Big East honors in his senior season.
With one remaining season of eligibility, the Minnesotan reached out to several programs and ultimately found a strong connection with Duke head coach Chris Pollard before committing to play his final year of college baseball in Durham.
Ever since, DeCaster has been almost perfect, logging the most innings of any Duke pitcher without a start while surrendering just one earned run with a stellar 0.67 WHIP. But success for the veteran hurler hasn't come out of thin air.
"Having those experiences, you look back on them and grow from them," DeCaster said. "My first year at Creighton, you just get thrown into it and you don’t know how to adjust to the college grind of a longer season. So now, having been through a few seasons of this, I can just help all the younger guys—get them on board quicker and just relay some of the things I’ve learned over my time to help them grow."
Of all the relievers that DeCaster has impacted most since joining the Blue Devils, senior Jack Labosky has potentially benefitted most. Labosky, Duke's everyday starting third baseman, also fills the role of the closer and has yet to allow an earned run on his way to six saves in 12 appearances this season.
Part of this is due to the fact that DeCaster is now absorbing some innings that Labosky might have thrown last season, and, as Labosky explained, some of it is simply due to luck. Pollard also said the Blue Devil closer has continued his growth through the development of his arsenal.
"One of the things that’s allowed him to make a jump in terms of the level of his success was the development of a slider," Pollard said. "That’s a pitch he didn’t have last year. For his first three years at Duke, he’s tried to pitch like Trevor Hoffman—fastball and changeup. Now, he’s got a third pitch, and that’s really helped him have a pitch that moves away from righties and that he can move in toward lefties."
Pollard has gotten plenty of help from his assistants—in particular, former pitching coach Pete Maki who was hired by the Minnesota Twins this offseason to become a minor-league pitching coordinator.
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That move ultimately led to Duke's hiring of Dusty Blake, who helped Division III Pfeiffer to its first back-to-back winning seasons since Pollard left that program back in 2004. And what Maki started, Blake has only continued—Pollard used the word 'hyperindividualization' in the sense that Blake has developed strong bonds with his young pitchers, even in a short period of time, allowing the Blue Devil throwers to take "a lot of ownership in what they do."
"He knows all his stuff," Labosky said. "Mechanics-wise, he’s helping guys left and right increasing velocity or if they might be on the road to having an injury, he knows how to correct that with different exercises to keep them healthy. For me, he’s kind of just let me go, which is nice. If things are going right, he doesn’t try to impose his philosophy on them too much."
Blake's influence has stretched well beyond just Labosky and DeCaster. In fact, the seven Duke relievers that have made double-digit appearances this season have combined to hold opponents to just 98 hits in 162 2/3 innings with a 1.72 ERA. Of that group, freshman Matt Dockman ranks third in ERA behind the Blue Devils' shutdown tandem of DeCaster and Labosky and sophomore Graeme Stinson has 47 strikeouts, trailing only starter Mitch Stallings.
Perhaps most importantly, Dockman—a highly-touted freshman southpaw out of Hilliard, Ohio—has remained steady, throwing in big situations time and time again and adding more depth to a group that has more weapons than it can really use in any given game
"When you see him out there on the mound, he carries himself like a junior or senior—not like a freshman," Pollard said of Dockman. "From the day he walked on campus, you could see there was a level of poise in everything that he does. Because of that, you can ask him to do some very advanced things and in particular, we ask him, as a true freshman, to come in with runners on base and pitch on the inside part of the plate with his fastball. And that’s a really advanced skill, but he’s able to do it."
All of this is not to say that Duke doesn't have the dominant starting pitching you'd expect from a top-ranked team.
But the Blue Devils also don't have a definitive ace or go-to starter. Sophomore Adam Laskey and seniors Mitch Stallings and Ryan Day all have ERAs higher than 3.80, and the trio averages less than six innings per start.
That means plenty of opportunity for the Duke bullpen to continually prove why it can be the Blue Devils' most reliable unit.
"We’re pretty deep. You just look at the roster and the sheer number of guys with relief appearances," Labosky said. "Even guys like Hunter Davis, who’s a really good pitcher, hasn’t gotten a lot of innings because we’re so deep.... If need be, our bullpen can carry the team."
The question remains: how far? Duke made the NCAA tournament in 2016 for the first time in 50 years, and last Friday, Baseball America projected the Blue Devils as one of the top 16 seeds for this season's tournament, which would make Duke a host for the postseason's opening weekend.
But the Blue Devils want more, and if they play themselves all the way to the College World Series in Omaha, it would make for a "surreal" full-circle moment for DeCaster—who played his first three collegiate seasons on that same field.
"Growing up, we’d even go down there for travel baseball tournaments when I was younger, and then having the opportunity to play there for college was just really special," DeCaster said. "Omaha has a dear place in my heart, so it’d be really special to go back and play in that event, but we’ve got a long way to go and we’ve just got to take it one game at a time."