In 2018, the Blue Devils opened ACC play against Virginia with something to prove—Duke had not secured a series win against the Cavaliers in a decade, and sought to assert itself as a legitimate threat in the conference.
In the bottom of the 11th inning of the series-deciding game, Steve Mann hit a single through the left side, driving in Michael Rothenberg for the game-winning run.
From there, the Blue Devils established themselves as a powerhouse and made their deepest run in the NCAA tournament in more than a half-century, coming just one game short of the College World Series.
Duke and Virginia occupy much different positions in this year’s series to open conference play—the Cavaliers hope to return to relevancy after a disappointing 29-25 campaign in 2018, and the 22nd-ranked Blue Devils are now the favored squad. Especially after dropping both games to Penn on Tuesday and Wednesday in shocking fashion, Duke needs to re-establish itself as an ACC frontrunner as it travels to Charlottesville, Va., this weekend.
“We talked a little bit before the game started about when things happen, you have to learn from it, see what you can learn from it, build off of it and then become better because of it,” Blue Devil head coach Chris Pollard said Wednesday. “That’s going to be our challenge these last two days [before conference play], and that’s what we’ll focus on doing.”
Duke (9-4) will be in prime position to bounce back in the series-opening contest Friday night with Graeme Stinson set to take the hill. The 6-foot-5 southpaw has consistently mowed down opponents so far this season, and has yielded no runs and just two hits in his 12 innings of work.
With Stinson on the hill, the Blue Devils are nearly unbeatable, and they have outscored opponents 26-4 in his three starts, including a 14-0 win against Penn State last Friday, in which the Duke staff combined for a no-hitter.
“We go into every ACC series with one goal in mind, and that’s to win Friday night,” Pollard said. “So we’ll be singularly focused on getting ourselves prepared to go win Friday night.”
After the midweek series sweep at the hands of the Quakers, Duke enters the series against Virginia (7-5) with a sour taste in its mouth. Wednesday’s 3-1 loss to Penn was riddled with miscues. The winning run crossed the plate due to Blue Devil catcher Rudy Maxwell simply dropping the throw from left fielder Kyle Gallagher.
Sophomore hurler Matt Dockman was tagged for the loss, allowing four Quakers to reach base in the ninth inning.
“I thought Matt Dockman had some bad luck there,” Pollard said. “He didn’t give up a well-hit ball in the inning. It was just one of those quirky baseball things.”
Although the Cavaliers currently hover just above .500, a majority of their losses come from the season-opening MLB4 Collegiate Baseball Tournament, in which Virginia fell to No. 1 Vanderbilt, then-No. 17 TCU and then-No. 24 Cal State-Fullerton.
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Loud bats have paced the Cavaliers and a pair of sophomores—Tanner Morris and Brendan Rivoli—lead the way offensively. Morris sports a gaudy .409 batting average and a 1.214 OPS, and the 6-foot-2 shortstop checks in at No. 49 on Baseball America’s prospect list for the 2019 MLB Draft.
This weekend’s action could serve as a turning point for both programs. Should Virginia prevail, it could be an indication of a return to national dominance. But if Duke can escape Charlottesville with a series win, all fears stemming from its disastrous performance against Penn will be erased.
“It’s a challenge, but that’s all part of it,” Pollard said. “You have to be good not only at learning what you can from your mistakes, but putting it behind you quickly, focusing on the things that you need to clean up.”
After returning from Virginia, the Blue Devils will host East Carolina on Tuesday at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park as part of a long home stretch, and they will not leave North Carolina again until April 19.