Coming off a tough series loss to Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils need a strong showing in the conference tournament to put themselves in position to host an NCAA tournament regional next week

No. 4 seed Duke will face off against ninth-seeded Wake Forest Thursday and No. 5 seed Louisville Friday at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Pool D of the ACC tournament, with first pitch scheduled for 11 a.m. in both contests. Although the Blue Devils have the manpower and the home-field advantage to beat both opponents, the Demon Deacons have given Duke trouble in the past, while the Cardinals remain an unknown quantity.

The team with the best record within the pool will advance to Saturday’s semifinals—if all three teams are 1-1, the Blue Devils will advance as the highest seed in the pool, so they will only need to beat the winner of Wednesday morning's matchup between Wake Forest and Louisville..

“We're really comfortable at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park,” Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. “We've played a lot of ballgames there and we've done exceptionally well there this year, so I know our guys are excited to be back.”

Although Duke (39-18) struggled overall in its most recent outing, the Blue Devils’ season resume boasts a bevy of strong wins courtesy of a highly talented hitting and pitching staff.

2018 MLB Draft preseason top-20 prospect Griffin Conine has been lights out at the plate, hitting with a team-high .602 slugging percentage and contributing 15 home runs and 48 RBIs during the regular season. In last Saturday’s series finale against the Yellow Jackets, the junior outfielder rocketed two homers to push his team to a 12-5 win.

With six other starters boasting batting averages of .280 or better, Duke has a offense that can consistently keep up the pressure.

The Blue Devils also sport a seasoned bullpen, as senior closer Jack Labosky and graduate stopper Ethan DeCaster combined for a total of just six runs allowed and 14 saves. Although none of Duke’s three starting pitchers have an ERA better than 4.78, Labosky and DeCaster both hold a sub-1.00 ERA.

“What I like about our player composition is we've got some veteran guys at the front of the rotation who have had experience pitching in the ACC tournament, and we've also got some guys experienced in the postseason,” Pollard said. “We've also got some guys in the back of the bullpen with some really great stuff. So what they lack in experience they make up for in terms of their ability, so I like the combination.”

If the Blue Devils want a chance to advance through the ACC tournament, they will need to dial in their offense, starting against the Demon Deacons (25-30) Thursday.

The last time Duke faced Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons shut down its offense in a series win in April, limiting the Blue Devils to a combined five runs in their two losses. Wake Forest can attribute its stingy defense to pitchers Colin Peluse and Griffin Roberts. Peluse in particular has been a revelation for the Demon Deacons, posting a 6-1 record in 79 innings pitched. 

Rayne Supple has also proven to be a reliable reliever, contributing eight saves throughout the season. If Duke’s bats get cold, the Blue Devils will have to lock down on the mound, no easy task for a team that gave up 20 runs to Wake Forest in three games just a month ago.

“[Wake Forest] is a good club,” Pollard said. “They've got three power arms and obviously we don't know yet who we'll see, but any one of those three guys will feature power stuff. Low- to mid-90s fastballs. They've got a couple of guys in the back of their bullpen who have been really electric.... They've got a really good club and they played well this past weekend against UVA, so it's a tough matchup.”

Louisville (40-16) presents an even more challenging test for the Blue Devils’ defense, as the Cardinals boast one of the most efficient lineups in the ACC.

Coming hot off a three-game sweep of Notre Dame, Louisville sports five players with batting averages better than .300 and two players with slugging percentages exceeding .500. Logan Wyatt has been particularly explosive, knocking in 56 runs off 67 hits.

The Cardinals also sport an incredibly deep pitching staff, boasting four starters with a sub-3.00 ERA. However, if the Blue Devils can break through, Louisville may have trouble keeping Duke at bay—the Cardinals' bullpen has been shaky

If the Blue Devils can win their pool for the second straight year, they will continue their run Saturday in the semifinals.

“Our pool is the top RPI pool in the conference, and it's going to be that way year in, year out when take the four, five and the nine and combine those,” Pollard said. “We've got our work cut out for us with some good opponents.”