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Despite recent success, Duke baseball looking to avoid ‘destination-itis’

Switch-hitting catcher Michael Rothenberg will be a pivotal piece for the Blue Devils in 2020.
Switch-hitting catcher Michael Rothenberg will be a pivotal piece for the Blue Devils in 2020.

In the past two seasons, Duke has gone from a team that had not been to a super regional since 1961 to coming up one game short of the College World Series in back-to-back years. 

This season, the 15th-ranked Blue Devils are again expected to be a national contender, meaning Duke’s familiar underdog narrative is beginning to grow stale with the national attention. 

With a pair of preseason All-Americans in Bryce Jarvis and Thomas Girard, lofty postseason goals and the return of most 2019 starters, it can be easy for Duke to get caught looking into what the future has in store, resulting in costly mistakes in the present. According to junior catcher Michael Rothenberg, head coach Chris Pollard keeps the team on track by warning them of getting diagnosed with “destination-itis.” 

Don’t go rushing to look up destination-itis on WebMD—this diagnosis is merely a way for Pollard to communicate to his players to take this long season one day at a time, appreciating every moment for its worth. Missing the present is a tale as old as time, so Pollard makes sure to whisk his players’ heads out of the clouds and back into the present when the College World Series chatter begins.  

“You have to work really hard to stay focused on the day at hand.... We talk all the time about the expression, ‘Bury your head in the moment,’ meaning do not come up and look and see what is on the horizon,” said Pollard. “Do not worry about what is behind you; it has already happened. Just stay really locked into what is happening in the present moment.” 

While catching a case of destination-itis may be benign in some areas of life, the college baseball season is no place to come down with it. Duke knows all too well the importance of every game, ending both of its last two seasons just short of its desired destination: Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series. 

“Not letting that—he calls it destination-itis—not letting that Omaha destination cloud what you’re doing in the moment,” said Rothenberg, recently named the fourth-best catcher in the nation by D1Baseball.com.

It is no small task to put Omaha in the rearview mirror and focus solely on the present, but the Blue Devils are going to need to this season. The ACC is as loaded as ever, with eight teams earning top 25 rankings and Duke drawing an unfavorable schedule early on against the top tier of the conference. 

There will be minimal time to work through the early-year growing pains, such as finding out who will complement Jarvis and southpaw Bill Chillari to make up the starting pitching staff. Multiple names have been floated around, but there is no concrete plan for the starting rotation as well as the bullpen pecking order.  

Regardless of who Pollard pencils in, Jarvis has a mindset much like the rest of the squad going into this season. 

“No one moment is more important than the other, except for the moment that you are in now. So I think that whatever you are doing in that moment, whether it’s practice, whether it’s a scrimmage or whether it’s a game, just putting everything you have into that one moment and not getting caught up in what is next is the big thing,” said the junior pitcher. 

Jarvis ensured he would not get caught with destination-itis over the summer by making some significant additions to his game. The Franklin, Tenn., native added a 12-6 curveball to his arsenal and got some extra velocity on his fastball, making him a four-pitch guy who throws in the mid-90s.  

It will be more difficult than ever before for the team to avoid being diagnosed with destination-itis, considering that Duke has been a stone’s throw away from Omaha each of the past two years. 

In the 2018 season, the Blue Devils had their hearts broken by perennial powerhouse Texas Tech, losing the rubber match of the super regional. A year ago, Vanderbilt, the eventual champion, stole the last two games of the super regional, closing the book on the Duke Cinderella story. 

Despite these experiences not being enjoyable, senior captain Chase Cheek has a unique outlook on the outcomes of the past two seasons. 

“We’re really poised. Before we were kind of new to the whole scene…. Now, we have been there before, we have been there back-to-back [years], so we are excited for the season, but we are not that new kid on the block,” said the outfielder.  

I’m not sure what the right prescription to cure destination-itis is, but the Blue Devils will need to get vaccinated immediately, as Army will roll into town Friday to start off Duke’s 2020 season. 

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