Since the ACC tournament’s inception in 1973, eight schools have brought home the crown. Duke is not one of those schools.
But starting Tuesday night at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the Blue Devils will have an opportunity to rewrite history.
Seventh-seeded Duke will begin ACC tournament play in Pool B against No. 11 seed Notre Dame before taking on second-seeded Georgia Tech Friday. If the Blue Devils wins the pool, they will keep their ACC championship hopes alive and move on to the tournament semifinals on Saturday.
But for head coach Chris Pollard, the team is trying its best to only look forward one game at a time.
“We have got to keep our focus on tonight,” Pollard said. “And what we need to do to put ourselves in the best position to beat a talented Notre Dame team.”
Duke will be sending Bryce Jarvis out on the mound for its first meeting with the Fighting Irish on the year, facing off against Notre Dame’s Cameron Junker. Jarvis, whose eight starts place him fourth on the team, was kept in relief in the Blue Devils’ most recent series at Miami and should be well-rested to take on a Fighting Irish squad that ranks just 249th in the country in scoring.
While the Fighting Irish may not put runs on the board at a high rate, they specialize in one of the most fundamental parts of the game—Notre Dame ranks first in the ACC in sacrifice bunts this season.
“They use the bunt,” Pollard said. “We spent some time in practice yesterday really addressing the fact that they use the bunt for hit and they use the safety squeeze and the suicide squeeze, so the bunt game is a huge part of their offense. They have got 127 bunt attempts, got a couple of guys that can steal bases, got a couple of guys that can hit the ball out of the ballpark. So they have got some different ways they can pressure you.”
Junker, meanwhile, is one of the best starters the ACC has to offer. The junior righty ranks ninth in the conference with a 3.62 ERA and could potentially be selected in the higher rounds of this June’s MLB Draft.
“Junker is a power right hander,” Pollard said. “He is going to be a high draft pick. It is 90 to 93, it is a heavy fastball. He is mostly a two pitch guy—fastball, slider. [He] does not really throw the change, really relies on a heavy riding fast ball for success. We have got to make him throw that pitch in the zone. He struggled to throw strikes against Boston College and you know we got to be ready to take advantage of that if he is not commanding that pitch.”
Offensively, the Blue Devils are led by senior outfielder Kennie Taylor and freshman shortstop Ethan Murray. Taylor placed ninth in the ACC in doubles this year and was recently named to the All-ACC First Team, with Murray taking All-Freshman Team honors as well.
But even if that offense is able to get past Junker, an even stronger arm likely awaits them Friday in the form of Georgia Tech’s Connor Thomas. Thomas ranks sixth in the conference with a 3.11 ERA to go along with a 9-1 record, which places him second in the ACC in wins. The junior southpaw pitched seven innings of three-run ball against Duke two weekends ago, the second and deciding win in a series victory for the Yellow Jackets.
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“[Thomas] has been one of the best pitchers in our league over the last two years,” Pollard said. “He is really good at getting deep in the ball game so we have got to figure him out. I thought we took pretty good swings against him when they were at our place two weekends ago and we got to try to string together offense and try to get him out of the game as quickly as we can and get in their bullpen.”
Ben Gross will be the starter for the Blue Devils Friday and will look to avenge a rough outing of his own against Georgia Tech just over a week ago, a start that lasted just three innings and ended with five earned runs.
The Yellow Jackets’ offense is led by the power duo of Kyle McCann and Tristin English. McCann led the ACC with 22 home runs and placed third with 63 RBIs, while English’s 15 homers and 57 RBIs were good for fifth and eighth, respectively.
“They do a good job of setting the table for [those] two guys,” Pollard said. “They are really good with their top and bottom of their lineup and setting the table and getting on base for those two guys.”
Last year, Duke failed to make it out of its ACC tournament pool, yet still ended the season in the NCAA Super Regionals. Nevertheless, the Blue Devils need all the help they can in terms of NCAA tournament seeding, with current projections placing them in the bracket with No. 1 UCLA.