Before Duke baseball begins play in the ACC tournament, the Blue Zone breaks down some keys to victory:
It has been a year of ups and downs for Duke. The Blue Devils opened their season with some unimpressive series losses, but still showed occasional bright spots in individual midweek games against stronger out-of-conference teams.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Duke came roaring back. In April, the team took series wins against ranked conference squads in Boston College, Louisville and Virginia, and quickly climbed in the national standings itself. However, with high hopes coming into the final few weekends of the regular season, the Blue Devils faltered. They dropped series against Georgia Tech and Miami, along with a game against Rider.
Now heading into the playoffs, let’s examine the lay of the land and some of the key pieces on the team.
Because of its struggles down the stretch, Duke is not the top seed in its pool. The Blue Devils will face No. 9-seed N.C. State before a rematch against the 4th-seeded Hurricanes. If Duke can come out with wins against a Miami group that it struggled against recently and a relatively weak Wolfpack squad, it will have the opportunity to play in the ACC semifinals.
Throughout the whole tournament, The Blue Devils will hold some degree of home-field advantage, as the entirety of the playoffs are hosted in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Ultimately, this team’s postseason success, or lack thereof, is going to be largely dependent on freshman talent. Players like sophomore Alex Mooney and junior Alex Stone, who is currently riding a 28-game hitting streak, have already proven themselves. For the most part, the veteran talent can be relied upon for production when it matters. What will make the difference is the players who are yet to see postseason action. From the field to the plate to the mound, the freshmen will be the deciding factor in determining the final result for this year’s Blue Devil squad.
In terms of names to watch out for, there is nobody higher on the list than freshman Andrew Fischer. The third baseman and designated hitter was an offensive powerhouse this season, clearing the program’s freshman home run record with an impressive 11. Head coach Chris Pollard called Fischer a “true hitter,” and for good reason.
Fischer’s plate discipline, combined with his raw power and ability to hit to different fields, has made him a weapon at the plate. He was sidelined after undergoing surgery, missing all of the games from April 22 to May 18. Now he’s back for the playoffs, most recently seen hitting in the DH spot. If Fischer can make his triumphant return and hit at the same clip that he was before his break from the season, he can revitalize a Duke offense that has not been the same in his absence. But, hitting alone will not determine the Blue Devils’ outcome. Pitching will be arguably more important down the stretch.
Duke has been short-handed on the mound for much of the season, and it has not been much of an issue. With the season-ending injury to pitcher Jonathan Santucci, Pollard has adopted a small ball strategy. Most pitchers rarely go for more than three or four innings, as the Blue Devils instead bring in lots of fresh, young arms. Freshmen like Andrew Healy and James Tallon have stepped up big-time, and Aidan Weaver has emerged as a first-year talent with a fastball that has clocked as high as 96 miles an hour. These hurlers, along with some of the staples like graduate student Alex Gow, will make or break the Duke bullpen.
The young guys have always made the difference. Games have been won on big hits from Fischer or clutch saves from Tallon. They have also been lost on walk-offs given up and ninth-inning strikeouts, often with freshmen on the mound or at the plate. For the Blue Devils to succeed in an incredibly talented conference tournament, Duke will need its freshmen to come through in a big way in the coming days and weeks.
The Blue Devils are likely to make the NCAA tournament regardless of how they play over these next few days, but that does not mean the ACC competition is not important. Not only will the upcoming games determine seeding in the national tournament, but they are a chance for a young and exciting team to prove that its success in the middle of the season was not a flash in the pan, but in fact an indication of this team’s true potential as one of the best in the country.
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