Duke entered the NCAA tournament selection show a bubble team, head over heels to even have a spot in regionals.
Less than two weeks later, the Blue Devils are now two wins away from Omaha.
For the second year in a row, Duke worked its postseason magic into a super regional appearance, with a trip to its first College World Series since 1961 on the line. This time around, the Blue Devils will head to Nashville, Tenn., as heavy underdogs against No. 2 overall seed Vanderbilt, the three-game series beginning on Friday at 6 p.m. and continuing Saturday at 9 p.m. and—if necessary—Sunday at 3 p.m.
“I don’t think anybody’s given us credit for being [in the super regional] except ourselves,” head coach Chris Pollard said of his team’s underdog image. “And that’s fine with us. We believed in ourselves and believed in this team from the beginning. And I told them today ‘There’s a bunch of other programs that could’ve been in this position. But you were the ones that were tough enough when things got rocky there in the middle of the year, when we lost guys to injury.
"You were the team that was tough enough to not flinch in that situation because you stayed together and stayed committed to one another. Stayed in the fight—that’s an expression we use a lot.’”
If Duke (34-25) wants to keep playing past this weekend, it’ll have to get past a very tough opponent in the Commodores.
After missing the NCAA tournament every season from 1981 until 2003, the Vanderbilt baseball program has been revitalized under Tim Corbin. Since taking over as head coach in 2003, Corbin has led Vanderbilt to 15 NCAA tournaments, three College World Series appearances and one national championship.
While the Commodores (52-10) are typically a team defined by pitching and defense, this year’s squad finished the regular season fifth in the country in scoring, led by SEC Player of the Year JJ Bleday and All-SEC first team third baseman Austin Martin. Bleday led the nation in home runs with 26, a mark that also set Vanderbilt’s single-season record, while Martin finished sixth in the country with a .410 batting average.
The Commodores’ offense, however, is far from a two-man wrecking crew. Shortstop Ethan Paul and catcher Philip Clarke finished first and third in the SEC in runs batted in—with Bleday sandwiched between them at second—while first baseman Julio Infante smashed three home runs last weekend en route to regional Most Outstanding Player honors.
“[Vanderbilt] is so explosive offensively,” Pollard said. “They can beat you in a lot of different ways offensively. They’ve got great speed, they can apply pressure to you on the bases but as we know they obviously have some guys that can hit the ball out of the ballpark too. Really complete lineup.”
Power bats aren’t the only thing plentiful in Nashville. Starters Drake Fellows, Kumar Rocker and Mason Hickman allowed a combined four earned runs over 22.2 innings in the Commodores’ regional sweep, giving Vanderbilt enough of a cushion to push through the struggles of All-SEC first team reliever Tyler Brown, who allowed three earned runs in 0.1 innings of work.
The Blue Devils, meanwhile, will go with some combination of their usual three-man weekend rotation—Ben Gross, Bryce Jarvis and Bill Chillari. All three were magnificent in Duke’s surprising regional sweep, with Jarvis taking home regional Most Outstanding Player honors after his eight-inning, shutout performance against No. 15 seed West Virginia.
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And while most in the college baseball world are already counting Duke out yet again, Jarvis wants everyone to know that he and his teammates are taking these predictions with a grain of salt.
“One of the buzzwords that we throw around as a program and is on the back of our shirts is blue collar,” Jarvis said. “And I think that’s the way we’re perceived across campus. I think people see us as a gritty group of guys who don’t really care what people think of them. If they’re cheering for us cool, and if they’re not then we’re going to prove you wrong.”
On the other end of the field, the Blue Devils offense will embrace the return of freshman shortstop Ethan Murray, who was hit in the face less than three weeks ago but will be ready to play this weekend.
Duke may enter Nashville as a heavy underdog. But this team has been proving doubters wrong all year, and Pollard believes they can do just that yet again.
“We recognize that you look at this list of great teams, these 16 teams that are left, we’re the ones that [are] probably the biggest long shot to be there,” Pollard said. “But we’ll take it...It’s another brand new season. There’s 16 teams starting the year 0-0 trying to win two games to get to Omaha and that’s the way we’ll approach it.”