In Montgomery County, Md., the public middle schools don’t allow baseball, but do field boys and girls softball teams.
And in eighth grade, my school had the misfortune of facing off against one of the top baseball players in the region, and certainly in our softball league: current Duke first baseman and pitcher Matt Mervis. Our pitcher surrendered a few bombs to the Potomac, Md. native before deciding to try a new, novel approach: bowling the ball across the plate to the eventual highest-ranked prospect in the state.
So far this season, ACC pitchers haven’t employed that strategy, and they have paid the price as the junior has had a breakout season, helping to lead the Blue Devils back to the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row and third time in four years. As Duke made the drive from Durham to Morgantown, W.Va., for Morgantown regional, Blue Devils head coach Chris Pollard reflected on the impact Mervis has made for his team this year.
“If Matt doesn’t step up in the way he has, we’re not even on this bus making a trip to West Virginia to play in the regional. He’s had an unbelievable season,” Pollard said. “He’s taking advantage of an opportunity that was presented to him at Virginia in the first ACC weekend [when] he stepped in at third base with very little time and not many reps over there and had a great weekend. And we haven’t been able to get him out of the lineup ever since.”
Finding his own at the plate
Indeed, Mervis has had a phenomenal year at the dish for Duke, slashing .283/.369/.439 in his first year as a consistent starter. His six home runs are tied for second most on the team despite joining the starting lineup nearly a month into the season.
As impressive as his performance at the plate has been this season, however, Mervis found few opportunities to break into the lineup in his first two years in Durham, spending more of his time coming in out of the bullpen. A two-way star at Georgetown Prep in Bethesda, Md., Mervis seemed to have found his niche for the Blue Devils in the pen, tossing 23 innings his freshman year and 25.2 innings last season with a fastball that sits in the low to mid 90s.
But following the departure of many key players to the draft last season and some injury troubles earlier in the year, the former top-ranked prospect in Maryland has exploded onto the scene offensively this season for Duke. Mervis has started in every one of the Blue Devils’ games since that first weekend of ACC play in Charlottesville, Va., and after taking several games to settle in, hit his stride in late March at home against Wake Forest.
His five-hit, 2-RBI performance in three games against the Demon Deacons sealed his place in the lineup just when Duke most needed a spark, with the Blue Devils in the midst of a 2-10 skid following a series of costly injuries and bad breaks. Duke dropped two of three against Wake Forest, but as Mervis began to settle into a groove at the plate, it won four of its next five ACC series to right the ship and build momentum heading into the postseason.
“The biggest thing I’ve had to do is understand how I’ve been pitched. Earlier in the year there wasn’t much information on me because I hadn’t played, so [pitchers threw] a lot of fastballs away to start off at-bats and work off of that, and tried to throw off-speeds in off-speed counts and see how I would react to those,” said Mervis. “More recently I’ve been getting a bunch of different pitching approaches, and I think my pitching background over the last few years has helped me understand pitch sequencing. The main adjustment this year has been understanding how I’m being approached instead of just trying to hit pitches that I think that I can drive.”
A summer to adjust
Making that adjustment, particularly to off-speed junk, has been a key component of Mervis’s progress this year and draws on lessons he learned last summer playing in the Northwoods League, a collegiate summer league stretching across the Upper Midwest. The summer league gave Mervis the opportunity he’d been missing for two years to get regular playing time against high-quality pitching—among the alumni of the league are Red Sox star Chris Sale and two-time Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals.
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“His ability to handle off-speed has improved dramatically. And that’s a product of going and playing last summer in Northwoods League. He had a great summer where he was able to go and finally be in the lineup everyday and get at bats, and as a product of that really learned how to develop his plate discipline and become less susceptible to off-speed,” Pollard said. “He came back and was much better for that experience last summer.”
Getting that regular playing time was also a welcome relief after two years of sitting behind a number of talented players, including current sophomore Joey Loperfido, who has since shifted to second base this year. For a player who was rated among the best third basemen in the country coming out of high school and even a late-round draft pick by the Nationals, the time on the bench and in the bullpen in 2017 and 2018 was an abrupt change of pace.
“Matt and I had some tough conversations his freshman and sophomore year, and they always kind of went the same way, like ‘Hey we’d like to get you more involved offensively, but right now you’re too valuable with what you’re doing in the bullpen,’” Pollard said. “And the funny part is the conversation has switched this year, which is ‘hey we’d like to get you more involved in what we’re doing from a pitching standpoint, but you’re just too valuable offensively.’ It’s a credit to him that he’s a versatile enough player that he’s been able to have such a positive impact in both areas for us.”
'He expected perfection': Mervis' improved mentality since high school
Mervis has still been able to find some time on the mound this season, tossing 8 1/3 innings entering Friday’s game to the tune of a 2.16 ERA. In spite of his success in limited opportunities on the mound, however, it is fair to assume he his future role for the Blue Devils is in the batter’s box.
“He’s always been a great hitter, and it wasn’t really until his sophomore year [of high school] all of a sudden I started getting phone calls and people were like did you see what he threw,” said Georgetown Prep head coach Chris Rodriguez. “I said ‘Matt, you’re going to have to deal with making those decisions down the road,’ but we kind of put it off as much as possible.”
Now, Mervis’ performance has seemingly made that decision for him. With a return to Durham likely in the cards for next season, Duke’s most improved player this year will not have to worry about breaking into the lineup again.
“Matt has always been a pretty good player to say the least, but when you got with him every single day and you saw the seriousness and how really intentional he was about his work I think that’s what was most impressive to me," Rodriguez said. "That’s going to sustain him a lot more than just his physical ability. He was tough on himself. He expected perfection.
"In high school it was probably one of the things we had to work on more than anything was Matt would beat himself up. I think learning and maturing to manage that has been a big change in his game. You fast forward into college and you have to sit a lot more than you ever have, that’s not always easy for guys. I think that really tested him so I’m glad he’s worked through that and I think it’s really starting to pay off.”