Coming into the season, Duke did not have an especially highly-touted program. The Blue Devils struggled mightily in the 2022 campaign, going 22-32 overall with a meager 10-20 in ACC play. Few expected the 2023 season to be much different. Indeed, none of The Chronicle’s baseball beat writers expected this year’s squad to clear the .500 mark in conference play. This team simply did not appear to have the pieces required to succeed in one of the toughest conferences in Division 1 baseball.
That outlook stayed much the same through the early part of the season. The Blue Devils found occasional bright spots in their midweek games, but generally struggled in-conference. They managed to steal a win from Wake Forest and take series wins against weaker teams like Pittsburgh and Clemson. The outlook got worse, however, when starting pitcher Jonathan Santucci got hurt. Suddenly, Duke was down its strongest pitcher coming into the hardest stretch of the year.
After splitting an abbreviated series against Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils were slated to play three ranked opponents in three consecutive weekends, on top of a midweek game against No. 12 Campbell. The outlook, to put it mildly, was not ideal for Duke down the stretch.
Yet against all odds, the Blue Devils have had what can only be described as an incredible run of games. They took two out of three from Boston College on the road before rolling through to a 7-0 shutout victory against William & Mary. Then Duke swept Louisville, starting the series with a 10-9 victory in which sophomore Alex Mooney hit a walk-off grand slam. Most recently, the Blue Devils beat High Point in the midweek en route to a series victory against Virginia. Coming down into the last month of the regular season, this Duke squad looks like the real deal. This is a team that can win games — when they matter — and that has been able to dominate some of the best teams, not only in the conference, but in the entire country.
So what changed? What turned the Blue Devils from a feisty midweek competitor to one of the top squads in ACC weekend series? As it turns out, the answer is simple. Duke’s new players are stepping up big-time.
The first evidence for this can be found on the pitching stat sheet. Without Santucci, head coach Chris Pollard shifted to a pitching-by-committee approach on the mound. That has allowed freshmen like southpaw James Tallon to thrive in an environment where most of the hurlers do not go longer than a few innings. Tallon, for example, is yet to pitch more than two innings in a single game this year, allowing him to put up an impressive 1.16 ERA and a ridiculous .77 WHIP.
First-year Andrew Healy has had a similarly impressive year. He stays in games longer, pitching as many as five innings, and holds a record of 5-1 with a 1.69 ERA and a .97 WHIP. While the pitching staff seemed especially suspect after the injury to Santucci, other, younger players like this Pennsylvania native have stepped up in a big way.
Of course, returning talents have provided strong support for the team as well. Righty Fran Oschell III has continued to dominate from the mound, with a 1.03 ERA and .99 WHIP. Mooney’s season, too, has been stellar, as the St. Mary’s product steps into a role as an excellent fielding shortstop on top of a fearsome hitter. He has 103 assists on the year and is batting .330.
Even some lesser-known names like catcher Alex Stone are heating up in time for the postseason. The Andover, N.J., native hit a home run in every game against Virginia, batting a ridiculous .538 against the Cavaliers. He is now accompanied in the diamond by other quiet roster names like Cole Hebble and MJ Metz, who have stepped into starting roles to fill spots opened up by various teammates’ injuries.
All of this is to say that Duke baseball might be one of the best teams in the country at the moment. The Blue Devils have been winning against incredibly strong opponents both at home and on the road, with the pitching staff standing out as a key propellor for success. While they might not be favorites to win the College World Series, there is no reason why they cannot make a run deep into the playoffs. Duke has shown fans what it can do when it heats up. All the Blue Devils have to do is keep putting up performances like they have been when it matters most in the postseason.
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