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Column: Duke baseball's road to the NCAA tournament starts on the mound

<p>Duke's pitching staff, including junior Jack Carey, was inconsistent throughout the weekend slate against Virginia.</p>

Duke's pitching staff, including junior Jack Carey, was inconsistent throughout the weekend slate against Virginia.

The towering home runs and acrobatic diving catches are fun to watch, but baseball's greatest intricacies take place in the 60 feet between the pitcher’s mound and home plate. And the importance of pitching has never been more obvious than in Duke’s three-game series against Virginia. 

The Blue Devils made the journey to Charlottesville, Va., to take on the Cavaliers over the weekend, dropping the Friday and Saturday games before managing to win 7-4 Sunday. And while Peter Matt’s two-homer game and Ethan Murray’s three-hit Sunday performance were impressive, they both paled in comparison to the significance of Marcus Johnson’s 4.1 innings of scoreless work in the third game of the weekend.  

“If you ever had a must win game it was today. Just a tremendous, tremendous performance. Career high in terms of innings pitched and number of pitches thrown,” head coach Chris Pollard said regarding Johnson's display. “[Johnson] had everything working. He’s a tremendous competitor and the thing that I was impressed with was the fact he really smelled it at the end of the ball game. He really went for it and he got better as the outing went.”

As Pollard said, Sunday’s game was certainly a must win, and at this point in Duke’s season, every game moving forward will have to be treated like a must-win if it wants to secure one of the 64 spots in the NCAA tournament. 

The Blue Devils (18-18, 9-15 in the ACC) are very much on the outside looking in of the regionals, with both Baseball America and D1 Baseball leaving Duke out of their Field of 64 projections. And Duke has a whole lot of ground to make up, but getting behind the arm of Johnson is as good a place as any to start. 

“He’s unreal. He’s a dominant pitcher. His fastball is electric. His offspeed is really good and he commands the zone extremely well,” Matt said. “I think out of all the pitchers on our staff he’s one of my least favorite pitchers to face in intrasquad scrimmages.”

Johnson’s first season of college baseball was cut short due to COVID-19, and outside of a few hiccups earlier in the season, the Fontana, Ca., native has cruised along relatively smoothly thanks to a healthy mix of his mid-90s fastball and hard slider.

“You have to be able to give up that walk-off grand slam [against Coastal Carolina] to be able to enjoy closing out games like I’ve done the last couple weekends, so I knew that baseball is about one pitch sometimes and one swing might ruin your day,” Johnson said. “But like I said with our whole team we’ve just got to get up off the mat and figure out how we’re gonna get the next set of guys out.”

Johnson's proved time and time again that he is unafraid to deliver pitches in high-pressure situations, and with the Blue Devils' remaining games, there's going to be plenty of those spots. The right-hander has big-time life in his fastball and the slider has been a reliable pitch to turn to in two-strike counts, so there is no reason Johnson will not be able to compete with the hitters that No. 4 Louisville and No. 15 Virginia Tech will soon be sending Duke's way. 

Unfortunately for Duke, Johnson can only throw so many pitches, so it will have to find additional arms to cover the rest of the innings in weekend series. And making as strong a case for any at seeing more time on the mound is freshman Luke Fox. 

The southpaw strung together 2.1 innings of scoreless baseball across his two outings this past weekend, none being bigger than the batter he forced to foul out in Sunday’s game to wiggle the Blue Devils out of a jam in the second inning. 

Fox and Johnson look to be clear candidates for picking up more innings in the final stretch of the season, but it's going to take a collective effort from the entire pitching staff to change the trajectory of the year. 

“The secret to consistency is being consistent on the mound. That’s where this game starts and if you’re consistent on the mound you tend to be consistent in other areas,” Pollard said.

As much success as Duke’s bullpen had this weekend, the struggles of the Blue Devils’ starting rotation cannot be ignored.

Junior Cooper Stinson had issues locating pitches Sunday, starting off six of the 10 batters he faced with balls. And although Jack Carey settled in to put together a 6.0-inning outing Saturday, the Cavaliers (19-19, 11-16) stuck four earned runs on him in the second inning, which ended up being enough for a Virginia win. Filling the last spot of the weekend starting rotation has typically been Henry Williams, but the sophomore has not pitched in a game since April 9 due to soreness, and the Blue Devils have sorely missed his arm in the front-half of ball games. Although Williams has not not taken the mound during a game in some time, he is expected to throw a bullpen session sometime this week, according to Pollard. 

Duke will now go into a hiatus during finals, with its next game being May 4 against William & Mary before the Blue Devils head to Louisville, Ky., for a season-defining series against the fourth-ranked Cardinals.

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