Duke baseball 2023 season preview

Duke sophomore Alex Mooney.
Duke sophomore Alex Mooney.

Overview

Two years removed from an ACC tournament championship and NCAA tournament appearance, the Blue Devils are re-tooling with a fresh batch of young talent looking to boost Duke’s fortunes beyond its 2022 levels. Head coach Chris Pollard returns for his 11th season in Durham with emerging stars aplenty, yet the Blue Devils find themselves projected to finish toward the bottom of the stacked ACC yet again. A 22-32 record fell short of expectations for last season, but solid seasons from pitcher Jonathan Santucci (41.0 innings, 58 strikeouts) and infielders Alex Mooney (.292 average, 30 RBI) and Luke Storm (.569 slugging, 33 RBI) showed glimpses of what this year could bring.

Notable departures include outfielder RJ Schreck, infielder Graham Pauley and pitchers Marcus Johnson and Jimmy Loper, while returning outfielder Devin Obee and the aforementioned trio have another year under their belts. Junior pitcher Luke Fox will miss the upcoming season due to injury, leaving Pollard an opportunity to lean on the opener to begin games on the bump. Captains Adam Boucher and Alex Stone look to bring additional veteran leadership to a very young squad that also features the 16th-ranked recruiting class in the country.

The Blue Devils' schedule begins with 16 straight home games, a chance for Duke to dig in and find its footing ahead of a gauntlet of a conference schedule including trips to North Carolina, Virginia and Miami while also hosting Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Louisville—all preseason top-25 teams. -Micah Hurewitz

New player to watch: Giovanni DiGiacomo

Coming into this season, the Blue Devils were lacking in left-handed bats. Between the loss of Pauley and prospect Cole Young’s decision to enter the professional system, it was a glaring weakness for Duke. As such, the Blue Devils went out and picked up a midseason transfer to fill much of that void. Giovanni DiGiacomo, a redshirt junior out of LSU, will be a key piece in the lineup as a solid hitter and a speedy outfielder. 

“He gives us another left-handed option at the plate,” said Pollard. “And with some of our losses to the draft last year, we looked at our roster, we felt like we needed another left-handed bat. And this is a guy that's got a lot of college experience in the SEC. But his calling card is defense and he's a guy that can really go get the baseball from gap to gap.”

In 36 games played with LSU last season, DiGiacomo hit .206 with three home runs and 26 RBI. For the Blue Devils, he will likely be a consistent role player to fill out a lineup otherwise lacking in left-handed batters and, more importantly, an excellent defensive piece in the outfield. -Martin Heintzelman

Returning player to watch: Alex Mooney

Coming into this season, Duke will look to lean on its veterans to get back to the NCAA tournament. One of these veterans, and one who is certain to make a big impact, is Mooney. The Rochester Hills, Mich., native is coming off of a freshman campaign in which he started every game at shortstop and hit .292 with 27 walks, good for second-best on the Blue Devils roster. This performance landed Mooney on the ACC All-Freshman Team, the fifth player to do so in program history. 

Coming into his second season in Durham, expectations for Mooney are high. These lofty hopes are likely a result of Mooney’s scorching end to the season, as he slashed .336/.443/.418 in the final 27 games of the season. Coming into the 2023 campaign, D1 Baseball has tabbed Mooney as the best shortstop in the conference. This lands him at seventh in the nationwide ranking, a distinction Pollard will certainly hope Mooney can live up to.

Pollard has named Mooney one of the team’s three captains for this season, along with Boucher and Stone. As the Blue Devils progress through the season, they will likely go as Mooney goes, hoping he can avoid the slow start he had to his freshman season and pick up right where he left off in 2022. -Caleb Dudley

Most anticipated matchup: Wake Forest, March 10-12

In their first conference matchup of the year, the Blue Devils will host the preseason No. 6 team in the Demon Deacons. This early test will reveal a lot about a Duke team entering the unforgiving gauntlet that is the ACC. Should the Blue Devils pull off the upset and win the series, they will gain some much-needed momentum heading into back-to-back weekend trips to Clemson and North Carolina. However, if the series plays out as it did last season, when Wake Forest took all three games handily, Duke’s schedule could quickly get out of hand.

By the time conference play rolls around, Pollard should have some idea of how his unconventional rotation is faring, but a three-game test against some of the best in the country will burst open any holes the team has. Wake Forest has two players on the preseason watch list for the Golden Spikes award in first baseman Nick Kurtz and right-hander Rhett Lowder, who is the reigning ACC Pitcher of the Year. Lowder went seven innings while only surrendering two runs in his outing last year against Duke, and Kurtz hit  9-for-11 and scored four runs in the series. The Blue Devils will need to contain these stars if they are to make an early statement in ACC play. -Dom Fenoglio

Best-case scenario:

The Blue Devils' young talent shines and the transfers are able to transition smoothly to the ACC level, producing a solid top-to-bottom lineup and a serviceable rotation. Duke fares well in the nonconference slate before staying afloat through its ACC contests, finishing with around 35 wins and a bid to the conference tournament. Despite playing in familiar territory at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the Blue Devils fail to win their group and are not awarded an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. -Elliott Jarnot

Worst-case scenario:

Departures from top bats such as Schreck and Pauley leave Duke with too much offensive production to replace, and the transfers and young prospects struggle to plug the holes left by a team that finished near the bottom of the conference. The offensive inconsistency is matched with shaky pitching from a lackluster rotation and bullpen, leaving the Blue Devils fighting to reach the 20-win mark. Duke plunges down the standings and finds itself missing the 12-team ACC tournament in consecutive seasons. -Jarnot

Predictions

Hurewitz: 26-30 (12-18 in the ACC), miss ACC tournament

Heintzelman: 28-28 (12-18 in the ACC), miss the tournament

Dudley: 30-26 (14-16 in the ACC), miss the tournament

Fenoglio: 29-27 (11-19 in the ACC), miss the tournament

Jarnot: 32-24 (15-15 in the ACC), pool-play exit in ACC tournament


Micah Hurewitz

Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.



Dom Fenoglio | Sports Managing Editor

Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.

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