While last year’s Duke team is remembered for going on one of the deepest postseason runs in program history, the Blue Devils were just two outs away from bowing out quietly.
After going down easily to Troy 6-0 in its first game of the 2018 Athens regional, Duke trailed Campbell 8-5 in the top of the ninth inning, with its season on the line. But a monstrous 11-run rally—punctuated by Chris Crabtree’s go-ahead three-run double—gave the Blue Devils a comfortable 16-8 lead, and Duke won its next three games on its way to its first-ever regional championship.
A year later, the Blue Devils hope to make it consecutive regional titles.
This weekend, Duke will head to West Virginia for the Morgantown regional, hosted by No. 15-seed West Virginia. This is the Blue Devils’ third NCAA tournament appearance in the last four years, and they will compete against the Mountaineers, Texas A&M and Fordham in a double-elimination bracket for the opportunity to advance to the super regional. Duke will open play against the Aggies Friday at 4 p.m.
For centerfielder Kennie Taylor—one of the few returning starters from the 2018 squad—the key to capturing the same success this spring is simple.
“It’s a one-game season—everybody’s starting 0-0 right now, so everything’s up for grabs,” Taylor said. “We just need to play our best baseball.”
Last season’s NCAA tournament success was thanks in large part to one of the best bullpens in the country. Herculean efforts in relief, such as Ethan DeCaster’s 4 1/3-inning outing against Troy in the regional semifinal and Graeme Stinson’s 4 2/3-inning, eight-strikeout appearance in the regional final, powered the Blue Devils to victory.
But with DeCaster now in the minor leagues and Stinson sidelined since March 15, Duke (31-25) has needed to turn elsewhere to bolster its bullpen. With arms like Thomas Girard and Hunter Davis each sporting ERAs below two in more than 35 innings of work, the Blue Devils’ relievers are set to once again make an impact.
“When you lose an All-American [in Stinson] and a guy that should have been an All-American [in DeCaster], you have to have guys who step up and assume big roles when they didn’t have those last year,” head coach Chris Pollard said.
Duke will have its hands full against Texas A&M (37-21-1), which is led by some of the best pitching in the nation, as its 3.04 team ERA ranks third in the country. John Doxakis will likely start for the Aggies Friday afternoon, and the 6-foot-4 left-hander enters the postseason with a 1.84 ERA in 97 2/3 innings pitched. Ben Gross will take the mound for the Blue Devils against Texas A&M.
West Virginia (37-20) and the Rams (38-22) also sport strong pitching staffs, ensuring the Morgantown regional will not be easy for Duke’s bats. Fordham ace John Stankiewicz allows just a .186 opponent batting average, and the Mountaineer’s top duo of Alek Manoah and Nick Snyder each won eight or more games while striking out more than 11 per nine innings.
The Blue Devil offense will be short-handed, with normal starters Chase Cheek and Ethan Murray each out for the regional, due to a season-ending knee injury and a facial injury sustained from a hit by pitch, respectively. Freshman right fielder RJ Schreck and sophomore shortstop Wil Hoyle are set to start in their place.
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“We’ve embraced the next man up mentality,” Pollard said. “We’ll miss [Cheek and Murray]. Would we rather be going into this event with all of those guys? For sure. I’d want for them to be able to compete in this, but I know this: our guys will play hard for them.”
Advancing out of a regional is no easy task, requiring three or four wins in a four-day stretch against some of the strongest competition in college baseball.
Crabtree, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2018 Athens regional, boils down last season’s success to something easy.
“We were prepared for every moment,” Crabtree told GoDuke.com. “We were just playing loose, enjoying every game as we went along, and we have the same energy this year.”
Whether Duke can topple Doxakis and the Aggies Friday will determine the Blue Devils’ next matchup. If Duke wins, it will take on the winner of the matchup between the Mountaineers and Rams with a chance to secure a spot in the regional final, and if the Blue Devils lose, it will play the loser of the other opening contest in an elimination game.
Correction: This story was updated Friday morning to correct a line that stated 2018 marked the Blue Devils' deepest postseason run ever. The Chronicle regrets the error.