Coming off perhaps their biggest series win of the season last weekend, the Blue Devils will have another opportunity to bolster their NCAA tournament resume Tuesday when they host a top-15 in-state rival.
After taking two games from then-No. 10 Florida State on the road last weekend, No. 8 Duke will have its work cut out if the Blue Devils hope to see their name in the top 10 for a second consecutive week. Duke will play host to No. 11 East Carolina Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Jack Coombs Field in the third of six consecutive matchups against ranked opponents.
The Blue Devils have ridden a lineup that has displayed the ability to score in bunches of late. Freshman Joey Loperfido has led the team this season with a .331 batting average at the plate, and highly-touted MLB Draft prospect Jimmy Herron has also been productive, hitting .300 while adding 15 stolen bases on the season. Despite having only two .300-plus hitters in the lineup, the Blue Devils have found a way to scrape together runs and big-time hits up and down the lineup.
“It hasn’t been the same guy...that’s been one of the things that’s been really cool about this team. Some days it's Jimmy Herron, some days it’s Chris Proctor, some days it’s Zack Kone, some days it’s Kennie Taylor,” Pollard said of the team’s uncanny ability to come up with clutch hits. “It’s been up and down the lineup that we’ve got different guys to step up.”
Duke's streaking offense will face a tough test Tuesday against an East Carolina team that boasts a star-studded pitching staff. The Pirates are led by junior righty Chris Holba, who holds an 8-0 record with a 1.52 ERA, but Duke will likely see Jake Agnos take the mound in the midweek showdown. Agnos is coming off an impressive shutout victory against Elon last Wednesday, where he improved on his 3.64 ERA while upping his blistering strikeout total to 34 in just 29.2 innings pitched.
At the plate, the Pirates have power and average dispersed up and down the lineup that has the potential to dismantle a pitching staff, starting with Bryant Packard. The sophomore ranks 15th in the nation with a .402 batting average and leads his team in home runs (nine), RBIs (32), total bases (78) and slugging percentage (.729).
Aside from Packard, the Blue Devil pitching staff will need to keep a close eye on second baseman Brady Lloyd both at the plate and on the bases. Lloyd boasts a .386 batting average and has been successful on nine of 10 stolen base attempts. Additionally, the Pirates have 12 combined home runs from Jake Washer and Connor Litton, two other players who have the ability to change the game with one swing of the bat.
Duke will especially need continued consistency from the bullpen, one the most surprising parts of this Blue Devils unprecedented season. Pollard claims his team's bullpen performance has provided “a shot in the arm” for this team. Ethan DeCaster has appeared in 13 games and pitched 28-plus innings, surrendering only one earned run, good for a ludicrous 0.32 ERA. Senior closer Jack Labosky has yet to allow a single run out of the bullpen, and sophomores Bill Chillari and Graeme Stinson have been nearly flawless as well.
“If you look at question marks going into this season, one of them was going to be our bullpen," Pollard said. "It’s actually been one of the strengths of this team. The bullpen has been very, very good.”
Tuesday's showdown will be the first game of the season on campus at Jack Coombs Field. The Blue Devils will remain in Durham this weekend to take on No. 4 N.C. State in a top-10 battle.
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