Take of the week: Duke baseball needs to play more consistently to contend in the ACC

Alex Stone swings against Pittsburgh.
Alex Stone swings against Pittsburgh.

Duke has had a solid season this year. The Blue Devils probably won’t be winning the College World Series anytime soon, but it would be fair to say that they are outperforming expectations. This is especially true in midweek games in which Duke takes on teams, often mid-majors, from outside the ACC. 

In those Tuesday or Wednesday games, it has beaten some of the best teams in the country. The Blue Devils recently took down No. 13 Campbell 15-6, walked out with a win against then-No. 20 East Carolina and added two blowout victories against Presbyterian and Towson. 

Yet Duke has struggled a bit more in its weekend games. Those three-match ACC series pose a challenge for the Blue Devils, who have won two of their five conference series this year, against Clemson and Pittsburgh. Duke has shown flashes of greatness — there have been games where the bats have been exceptional, and games where the pitching and defense have put on a show. As head coach Chris Pollard said after beating Campbell, "when we play well, we play with anybody.” 

But there are just as many dark spots for Duke. Both North Carolina and Wake Forest beat the Blue Devils 2-1 in their respective series, while Virginia Tech came to Durham and tied the home team in a 1-1 series that was shortened by inclement weather. Pollard’s squad now stands at 2-2-1 in its ACC series — a balanced slate.

For Duke to make the leap from being a good team to a great one, it needs to put on more consistent performances and win some series against strong ACC opponents.

First, let’s take an example of some of the worst baseball the squad from Durham has played this year. The series against the Panthers is an excellent case study in the Blue Devils’ inconsistency. Pittsburgh is not an especially strong team, particularly in the context of the ACC. Still, Duke dropped its first game against the Panthers in a 13-1 blowout. The Blue Devils had just three hits and their only run came on a second-inning Daman Lux solo shot.

From there, Duke recovered. It played well in the final two games of the series, totaling 19 runs en route to two comfortable wins. Still, the Blue Devils dropped a winnable game in a conference where victories are often hard to come by, and it will hurt them come playoff time. 

If the team could maintain that late-series consistency it had against the Panthers, it would be in a much better position in terms of postseason seeding.

Now let’s take a look at the other side of the coin: What happens when Duke comes out firing on all cylinders? Tuesday’s game against Campbell is a great example. The Blue Devil bats got started early and did not stop, and some solid pitching-by-committee led Duke to a 15-6 win in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The Camels are on par with the best of the ACC — they are nationally ranked and widely regarded as one of the best mid-major programs in the country. Still, Duke beat them — handily.

Ultimately, the name of the game for the Blue Devils down the stretch will be consistency. 

If they can start to take more of those tough conference games, they could finish out the season strong and at the very least make the ACC playoffs. Duke has had moments of greatness this year, with some dominant wins from both the bats and the defense. From now until the postseason, the key will be reliably replicating those great performances in future conference matchups. If the Blue Devils cannot start getting some more big-time wins against their ACC opponents, then it will be a short season for Pollard’s squad.

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