Baseball may now be a game of spin rate, launch angle and exit velocities, but to this day there’s still not a quantifiable measurement to appropriately value getting hot at the right time.
Thus is the case for the Blue Devils, and to put it bluntly, they are red hot. After three quarters of a season filled with disconnected fielding and inconsistent pitching, Duke is firing on all cylinders heading into the ACC tournament. The ninth-seeded Blue Devils will take an eight-game win streak into their first game against No. 5-seed Florida State Wednesday and will look to carry it through its Thursday bout with No.4-seed Miami.
“I wish I could tell you with some certainty as to why we started playing so well here over the last eight games,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “If I knew why it was we would’ve started it two months ago but I think our guys have stayed in the fight and as they’ve done that they’ve developed some confidence here down the stretch and we’re playing looser and freer.”
Pinpointing the exact reason for the turnaround may be impossible, but right-hander Jack Carey has certainly had a role in it. The junior has delivered three seven-inning starts in a row with a 2.57 ERA in that span, and has emerged as the team’s Friday starter. He credited his recent success to an adjustment he made with his foot placement after his start against North Carolina Central.
Carey has served as a steady arm out of the starting rotation, but a great deal of credit also must be given to bullpen pitchers Marcus Johnson and Jimmy Loper, with the former making four appearances in Duke’s last two weekend series and latter with three.
In addition to the pitching surge, the Blue Devils have seen a serious injection of the long ball into their approach at the plate. Leading that charge has been Chris Crabtree and All-ACC Third Team selection RJ Schreck, who each belted three homers in the Clemson series. Another key in the recent win streak has undoubtedly been the late-game heroics of players like Erikson Nichols and Chase Cheek, who each had the game-winning hit to complete Duke’s last two series sweeps. And the story would not be complete without mentioning center fielder Joey Loperfido, who has been a beacon of consistency from the opening series up until this point.
While momentum is on the Blue Devils’ side, they’re going to need more than that to get through their pool in the ACC tournament.
“We got two tough matchups with a Florida State team that hits the ball out of the ballpark unlike anybody else in our league and a Miami team that's loaded full of power arms and high draft pick left-handed hitters,” Pollard said.
Florida State will be Duke’s first test, and to say the Seminoles are talented would be an understatement. They boast the ACC Player of the Year in Matheu Nelson and also have Parker Messick, who took home Pitcher of the Year and Freshman of the Year honors.
Nelson is second in the country with his .802 slugging percentage, and he leads the nation in home runs with 22 to his name. Messick’s 3.30 ERA may seem a tad high for a Pitcher of the Year, but he’s logged seven starts with one or fewer earned runs and his 114 strikeouts put him second in the ACC.
Not to mention the Seminoles have another A-list starter in Bryce Hubbart, so the Blue Devils are going to have to be sure to jump on their pitch when it comes across the plate, because there are sure to be a limited supply of them.
Miami is a similar beast to Florida State, with the Hurricanes having a bevy of plus-hitters in the lineup to go along with arguably the best relief pitcher in the ACC in lefty Carson Palmquist. Christian del Castillo headlines the offense with his .368 batting average, and Duke will remember his brother Adrian as well from the damage they both did the last time these two teams played. Palmquist has logged 13 saves on the year, with one of those coming against Duke, and he’s fresh off an All-ACC First Team selection of his own.
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As tough as the road may be, one can’t help but look back at history and wonder if this will once again be a Blue Devil team that gets hot at the right time and makes a deep postseason run.
“I think it’s something that kinda always happens every year. Just something about the last couple weeks of May. We just get hot at the right time and start playing our best baseball at the right time so there’s not really a rhyme or reason to it,” Loperfido said. “We kind of expected this to happen at some point all along. Even [when] people counted us out and it worked out just the way we thought so we’re just gonna keep riding the momentum.”