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Duke baseball looking to solidify first place in Coastal with top-10 series at Florida State

The last time Duke played a game in Tallahassee, Fla., it emerged victorious. But against one of the ACC’s powerhouse programs, road wins like the one in the 2014 series finale have been few and far between.

With hopes of staying atop the conference’s Coastal Division, the Blue Devils will need to continue their recent run of success against the Seminoles as they hit the road for the third time in their last four series.

Despite dropping two of three to Wake Forest last weekend, Duke remains ranked 10th, setting up a top-10 clash with No. 9 Florida State at Dick Howser Stadium. Adam Laskey and Mitch Stallings will make their usual appearances as the Blue Devils’ Nos. 1 and 2 starters for the Friday opener at 6 p.m. and Saturday afternoon’s contest at 2, but it remains up in the air as to whether Ryan Day—who missed his start last series with an injury—will return to the hill Sunday at 1 p.m.

Regardless, Duke will have its hands full with the reigning ACC tournament champion Seminoles—a veteran group that advanced to the College World Series last June—and a sold-out crowd that is expected to pack the stands Saturday after Florida State’s spring football game concludes across the street.

“They’re good at home, they’re good anywhere—they’re a talented club,” Blue Devil head coach Chris Pollard said. “That’s a common theme throughout our league this year, though, that teams are really good at home and don’t play as well on the road.... We don’t have anybody that’s been down there yet, so it’s new for coaches, for all of our players. Crowds like we’re going to have there are what make college baseball fun.”

Offensively, the Seminoles (24-10, 8-7 in the ACC) are buoyed by their power-hitting tandem of catcher Cal Raleigh and third baseman Drew Mendoza. Raleigh, a 6-foot-3 junior, leads Florida State’s regulars with a .924 OPS, and Mendoza isn’t far behind at just less than .900.

Yet, the Seminoles have struggled in the pitching department—they are in the bottom half of the conference in both ERA and opposing batting average, and Florida State pitchers have surrendered more homers than every other team except Virginia Tech.

So what does that mean for Duke (28-7, 10-5) and its star slugger Griffin Conine? A chance to get back on track, though Pollard might feel otherwise about the junior’s recent woes.

“I try to really deemphasize batting average because it’s a stat that I wish would go away in baseball,” Pollard said. “It’s not used a whole lot at the major-league level anymore, and too often at levels below the majors, teams key on that to try and determine whether a guy is dong well or not. If you look at [Conine’s] OPS numbers, and specifically his OPS numbers in the league, he’s played really well.”

Against the Demon Deacons, the Blue Devil outfielder hit just 2-of-11 with a lone run and a pair of RBIs, but on the season, Conine’s .228 batting average tops only that of cleanup hitter Jack Labosky, who sits at .214.

For a player who entered the year as a projected first-round pick in the 2018 MLB Draft, struggles like Conine’s could derail most teams without another true star. Duke, however, has gotten consistent production throughout its lineup with five starters batting better than .290, led by freshman infielder Joey Loperfido’s .342 mark.

Still, with Wake Forest’s pitching on its A-game, the Blue Devils couldn’t muster enough offense against the Demon Deacons—something Duke will have to do against a Seminole team that has no choice but to score given its inconsistency on the mound.

“I don’t think we played all that poorly,” Pollard said. “Wake Forest has been really good at home. They haven’t lost a conference series at home all year, they’ve got three conference series wins against top-10 teams.... They’ve got three really good pitchers and a strong back-of-the-bullpen guy, so if their starters are throwing well, they can make it a short ballgame.”

The last time the Blue Devils played Florida State in an ACC series, Duke took two of three at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in a mid-May set in 2016, ultimately cementing the Blue Devils’ place in the NCAA tournament.

But a series win this weekend could mean a whole lot more and would certainly put Duke in a strong position for its first-ever Coastal Division crown with just more than a month to play.

For a player who entered the year as a projected first-round pick in the 2018 MLB Draft, struggles like Conine's could derail most teams without another true star. Duke, however, has gotten consistent production throughout its lineup with five starters batting better than .290, led by freshman infielder Joey Loperfido's .342 mark.

Still, with Wake Forest's pitching on its A-game, the Blue Devils couldn't muster enough offense against the Demon Deacons—something Duke will have to do against a Seminole team that has no choice but to score given its inconsistency on the mound.

"I don't think we played all that poorly," Pollard said. "Wake Forest has been really good at home. They haven't lost a conference series at home all year, they've got three conference series wins against top-10 teams.... They've got three really good pitchers and a strong back-of-the-bullpen guy, so if their starters are throwing well, they can make it a short ballgame."

The last time the Blue Devils played Florida State in an ACC series, Duke took two of three at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in a mid-May set in 2016, ultimately cementing the Blue Devils' place in the NCAA tournament.

But a series win this weekend could mean a whole lot more and would certainly put Duke in a strong position for its first-ever Coastal Division crown with just more than a month to play. 


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." 

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