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In close series loss to Pittsburgh, Duke baseball's path to ACC tournament qualification steepens

Duke took one of three games in its weekend series against Pittsburgh.
Duke took one of three games in its weekend series against Pittsburgh.

This era of Duke baseball has been defined by early-season rust and late-season surges. But in 2022, it’s been too much rust and not enough surge.

The Blue Devils dropped their series against Pittsburgh this past weekend, losing the first two games before taking the Sunday finale. The overall flow of the series was almost perfectly symmetrical, with the Panthers outscoring the Blue Devils by 13 runs through the first 13 innings, and Duke returning the favor with a plus-12 run differential across the final 14 innings. Shortstop Alex Mooney and first baseman Luke Storm hit a combined .565 with a Mooney stolen base, while sophomore catcher Alex Stone batted .333 across his two-start weekend. On the mound, the Blue Devils used 12 different pitchers; six recorded an ERA of at least 6.00, while five allowed no earned runs at all.

“[We] got a great leadoff at-bat to start game three, and that's exactly what the doctor ordered,” said head coach Chris Pollard. “Great job by teammates picking up teammates… I give a lot of credit to our players and their resilience that there's no quit in this group. We use an expression, ‘stay in the fight,’ and they've embraced that.”

For each of the past few years, Duke (20-26, 9-15 in the ACC) has begun the season slowly before stars got hot down the stretch as young talents developed. Last season, it opened 6-13 in the ACC before going 10-4 in its final 14 conference games and winning the ACC tournament. In 2019, it got off to a slow start before coming within one game of the College World Series. The 2020 season was canceled before ACC play started.

This season started as a more extreme version of the 2021 script. The Blue Devils opened conference play 3-12, then swept now-No. 8 Notre Dame in mostly dominant fashion before finishing one run shy of a sweep of Georgia Tech last weekend.

One of the key factors in Duke’s prior turnarounds was the emergence of star underclassmen. Sophomore Luke Storm has been one of the better hitters in the country all season and first-year starters Mooney and Stone both had great series each of the past two conference weekends.

The problem for the Blue Devils has been the pitching. For a program that has recently excelled on the mound, just one pitcher has an ERA under 4.50—four of Duke’s six most-used pitchers last year were under 4.00 after three of the top six in 2019 were under 4.00. Freshman southpaw Jonathan Santucci had been a recent bright spot: The preseason-No. 26 freshman in the country entered the Pittsburgh series having allowed just one run over his previous 19.2 innings after posting a 9.28 ERA early on.

“A lot of it goes to the way we train,” said Pollard. “These guys are built to peak at the end of the year, with the way we approach strength and conditioning and player development. It's not one factor, but the resiliency of this group of players is the main factor.”

Santucci started Saturday (following a Friday rainout) for his worst outing yet, allowing 10 baserunners for five earned runs across three innings. He was relieved by Matt Dockman, Michael Foltz and Josh Nifong, who combined for eight runs in 3.1 innings as Duke lost 14-4.

Sunday’s first start against the Panthers (26-19, 12-11) went to Cooper Stinson, who allowed three runs in 3.2 innings. John Natoli and Josh Allen combined for more than four scoreless frames of one-hit ball in relief, but the bats couldn’t close the gap. The Blue Devils got within a run, but squandered too many chances, stranding at least two runners in four of the last six innings.

Duke got solid starting pitching in Sunday’s matinee, with Billy Seidl striking out four in two innings against one run allowed. Luke Fox managed 3.2 relief innings without an earned run, and that was enough for an afternoon in which the Blue Devils collectively hit .378/.463/.711.

Despite how close the series was, when all was said and done, Duke had slid deeper into the basement of the ACC standings. After splitting the Sunday doubleheader, the Blue Devils sit 13th in the conference, a half-game out of conference tournament qualification. 

Now, Duke remains on the outside looking in, and standing between it and tournament season is a home series against N.C. State and a trip to Blacksburg, Va. The Wolfpack and Hokies are a combined 26-19 in the ACC, with Virginia Tech ranked fourth in the country.

There are two teams within one game of the Blue Devils in the standings. There’s Clemson, which closes with No. 11 Virginia and last-place Boston College, and North Carolina, which faces a Wake Forest team near .500 in conference play and No. 13 Florida State. Suffice it to say that every game counts.

“[We] can't worry about that right now,” said Pollard. “We just got to get ready to go play a really talented East Carolina team on Tuesday, and then we'll regroup on Wednesday and work to get better and build momentum heading into the weekend, and then we'll fight like hell to win Friday night.”

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