Not all .500 records are created equal. If you take a glance at the gauntlet that has been Duke’s schedule, you will understand why.
The Blue Devils faced off against yet another ranked opponent this past weekend, hosting No. 10 Georgia Tech in a three-game series at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. After being soundly beat Friday and Saturday night, Duke clung on to win 9-7 Sunday behind the bats of Peter Matt, Wil Hoyle and Michael Rothenberg to avoid being swept for the first time this season.
“We talked about embracing discomfort. I don’t think anybody felt great with the way we played the first two games and the way our offense had performed,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “But I told our team I wanted us to lean into that, to be comfortable being uncomfortable, that going through this would make us better and that there was no doubt in my mind we would break out of it.”
As difficult as the Blue Devils’ schedule has been thus far, there does become a point when Duke (10-10, 5-7 in the ACC) will have to figure out how to come out on top in some of these high-profile series, and Rothenberg’s offensive display Sunday against Georgia Tech (13-7, 10-5) is as good a place to start as any.
After being named a third-team preseason All-American by D1baseball, the senior catcher has struggled at the plate and came into Sunday’s game hitting below .200 on the year. Rothenberg has not been the only Blue Devil struggling with the bat, though, and it appeared Pollard was ready to try something new when he opted to shake up the batting order Saturday and Sunday.
“I can’t tell you that this is the lineup we're going to use for the next 20 games or even the next five games, but it worked for today,” Pollard said Sunday. “We got great production out of the bottom for whatever reason, Rothenberg out [of] the eight-hole, and that’s what he needed to get hot.”
Pollard’s decision did indeed pan out Sunday, with Duke’s offense exploding across the board. Rothenberg paced the club with his three extra-base hits, and whether or not he can use this performance to jumpstart his offense for the rest of the year will factor heavily into how well Duke fares as a team.
“Obviously I’ve been struggling a little bit through the start of the year, not really feeling myself in the box, but just stuck with it, focused on the things I could control—keep trying to be a good teammate, keep catching well, helping my guys on the mound and just knowing it’ll come,” Rothenberg said. “Just tried to feel really loose in the box today, tried to just not press and not get too tight and let rhythm take over for me.
While Rothenberg used this weekend to get himself on track, Matt and Hoyle continued their hot starts. The former went 5-for-11 on the weekend and the latter recorded a hit in every game as well as a team-high three RBIs Sunday.
"[Matt] just hits the ball so hard," Pollard said. "He just consistently produces the loudest exit [velocities] of anybody on our team. And when you hit the ball that hard consistently, a lot of those are gonna fall for hits."
In contrast to Sunday's impressive offensive performance, the Blue Devils only managed to scratch two total runs across in the first two games of the series. An even bigger concern for Duke was the second-inning departure of ace Cooper Stinson due to muscle tightness Friday night, though Pollard said after Sunday's game that Stinson is “on track to make his start on Friday at Miami.”
Elsewhere in the Blue Devils’ pitching staff, sophomore Henry Williams logged his best outing of the season in Saturday's loss, going 7.0 innings and giving up two unearned runs. Duke's bullpen also performed well all weekend outside of a couple runaway innings.
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Something that plagued Duke throughout the series was taking care of the baseball. Rothenberg and Hoyle may have lit it up with their bats, but the two failed to connect on two separate stolen base throwdowns, and Saturday’s mishap cost Duke a run in what was then a one-run ballgame.
“We’re on time to the bag in both situations. We just have to handle the baseball better. We just have to execute the catch. The rule there is ball first, tag second,” Pollard said. “You have to have ball security before you execute the tag and both those should be outs and so we've got to do a little better job handling the baseball in that situation.”
Sunday’s showing was overwhelmingly encouraging for Duke’s future, but the same could have been said after the Blue Devils blanked Notre Dame in last weekend’s finale. All the tools are there, but Duke is going to need to bring it all together for a full series as it prepares for a Tuesday matchup with Liberty and then a three-game set at No. 18 Miami this upcoming weekend.