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Column: The talent is there, but Duke baseball needs to find consistency to snag series wins

Junior Jack Carey threw seven innings of one-run baseball Friday, but the pitching staff struggled in Saturday's games.
Junior Jack Carey threw seven innings of one-run baseball Friday, but the pitching staff struggled in Saturday's games.

In search of that crucial series win and a chance to impress in order to reach the postseason, Duke found itself looking down the barrel of a gun taking the field against No. 12 Louisville.

The Blue Devils delivered in their quest for a Mother’s Day weekend win with a stunning blowout on Louisville’s home field Friday night. The 13-3 thrashing of the Cardinals was Duke’s largest margin of victory of the season, and the hot bats of RJ Schreck and Peter Matt delivered the big hits. But in Saturday’s doubleheader, the offense fell flat and once reliable pitchers couldn’t lure the Blue Devils back into the contests, eventually leading to Duke dropping the series two games to one.

“When we play our best baseball, we can compete with anybody,” head coach Chris Pollard said.

While any coach with players as skilled as Pollard’s squad could give such a response to a tough weekend, that observation is at the crux of the issues that have plagued this team all season. The Blue Devils can compete with anybody—wins against now-No. 2 Notre Dame and Louisville, two of the top teams in the robust ACC, prove that—but they just cannot seem to play their best baseball reliably.

Look first at Cooper Stinson, the team’s second starter last season, who posted a 0.42 ERA last year. This season, the 6-foot-6 righty has only recorded one quality start on the season, and now owns a 2-3 record and a paltry 6.23 ERA. Stinson was meant to be the Friday starter, aiming to propel Duke to the first win of the series, but recently Pollard has shuffled his starting rotation around and decided to turn to junior Jack Carey for this Friday start. 

Carey was lights out Friday, as he delivered seven strong innings surrendering only four hits and one run as the offense built a massive lead behind him.

“I thought we played our most complete game [Friday]. Got a tremendous start from Jack Carey, and we were really dynamic offensively,” Pollard said.

On the offensive side, Matt crushed two three-run homers, giving him a 14-game stretch with a .390 average, nine homers and 21 runs batted in prior to Saturday's games. Coinciding with Matt’s continued success has been the similarly hot Schreck, who owned an eight-game line with a .484 average along with six homers entering this series' final two contests. Overall, the team was on a stunning 7-3 stretch and looked to be in a position to make Friday the turning point in its season. 

But in Saturday's games, it became clear that this was not the case. Friday’s dominant showing was once again just a characteristically sudden explosion of offense coinciding with an excellent outing from the Duke starter. The dominance shown by Carey couldn’t carry over to Saturday’s arms, and that potent offense exemplified by Schreck, Matt and the rest of the lineup simply wasn’t there to back Stinson or rubber match starter Luke Fox.

“This team from one day to the next can be really different, and that’s something that, as a coaching staff, we’re trying to put our finger on,” Pollard said about what he saw as Friday’s win drifted into the rear view.

Duke has needed more performances like Carey's, Schreck's and Matt's all year and the same held true in the doubleheader. While Pollard praised Stinson’s effort to keep the Cardinal bats generally quiet, the five Louisville runs were too much for the suddenly ice-cold Blue Devil offense to manifest.

Short a starter as Henry Williams inches closer to game action, Pollard sent the freshman Fox to the bump for his very first ACC start in the series finale, but this time it was the defense that couldn’t save the series for the Blue Devils. First baseman Chris Crabtree had two errors that costed six runs, which even his fifth-inning grand slam couldn’t make up for, and as the tides swung back and forth the deficit only grew from that point on as the Cardinals handed Duke tickets home to the tune of a 15-6 crushing. 

The often reliable Marcus Johnson couldn’t deliver his best out of the bullpen either, giving up six earned runs, and the Blue Devils saw the chance for a stolen series again get yanked out of their grip.

“We’ll just keep working, that’s all you can do—we keep chopping wood,” Pollard said. “We have good players and we’ve got to do a better job of making plays. We didn’t make an error through the first two games of the series…then we didn’t make plays today in the second game [Saturday] and the game got away from us. It’s that simple.”

In this series, Duke scored its runs in bunches with long lulls between, but Louisville scored runs in bigger bunches with fewer scoreless droughts. The same pattern has held true for many of Duke’s other opponents this season.

Clearly, Pollard notices the inconsistency from game to game, adding that “what you saw on Friday night is what we’re capable of doing when we play well.”

But the keyword is “when," and the “when” has been a mystery each week. We will have to wait another week to see if the Blue Devils can manufacture a fast-acting cure as the season sprints out of reach and NCAA tournament aspirations become a thing of the past.

With a .500 record, the season has all but failed to meet expectations. But week after week, one thing remains constant for Duke baseball: inconsistency.

The Blue Devils face Wofford Tuesday before matching up with Virginia Tech at Jack Coombs Field over the weekend.

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