ChronSports' Top 10 of 2023 — No. 10: Duke baseball charges to NCAA Super Regional after breakout campaign

Alex Mooney (center) celebrates after a walk-off home run in Duke's win against Louisville.
Alex Mooney (center) celebrates after a walk-off home run in Duke's win against Louisville.

As the bow gets tied on 2023, The Chronicle’s sports department is reviewing the biggest storylines in Duke athletics throughout the year. Each day until the calendar flips to January, we will cover two of the most significant moments in Blue Devil sports from 2023.

Starting off at No. 10: Duke baseball drastically exceeded its preseason expectations, grabbing numerous ranked ACC wins and finishing just a game short of the College World Series. For the full list, click here.

After a mediocre start to the season, it appeared as if Duke baseball was doomed to miss the NCAA tournament for the second-straight season, especially after season-ending injuries to ace pitchers Jonathan Santucci and Luke Fox. 

However, a torrid end to the regular season propelled the Blue Devils forward into the NCAA tournament, where they came one game short of reaching Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series.

Coming into the month of April, head coach Chris Pollard’s team had the look of a bubble team, handling the teams they were supposed to but inevitably falling in series against superior opponents. However, this fortune turned around in the last two months of the regular season, where Duke proved its worth as a contender in the ACC and nationally. After knocking off then-No. 13 Campbell, the Blue Devils proceeded to win all but one of their series against ranked opponents to close the year, with the lone loss coming in a heartbreaking season finale down in Coral Gables, Fla., against Miami. 

“You finish in the top five in this conference, you've had a really good year and you go in as one of the higher seeds in the ACC tournament, you've put yourself in a position to keep playing and beyond next week,” Pollard said. 

This loss was a bitter end to the regular season, but positioned the Blue Devils to make some noise in pool play at the ACC tournament, which was held at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Due to being the No. 5 seed in the league, Duke was likely going to need to win both of its pool play games to advance to the semifinals. In the first matchup against N.C. State, the team was in a gridlock in one of the most exciting games of the tourney, with the game stretching to 11 innings. Ultimately, the Blue Devils fell 8-7 to likely end their championship dreams, with a subsequent loss to Miami sealing that fate and putting Duke on a four-game skid entering the NCAA Regionals.

Despite the late-season slide, the Blue Devils were slotted as a No. 2-seed and were shipped off to Conway, S.C., for regionals hosted by Coastal Carolina. In the first game against No. 3-seed UNC Wilmington, Duke showed its elite potential, slugging its way to a 12-3 victory headlined by a three-home-run performance by MJ Metz, positioning itself in the driver’s seat to win the regional after Coastal Carolina fell to bottom-seed Rider. After surviving a scare from the Broncos, the Blue Devils found themselves in the regional championship with a one-game advantage over the Chanticleers, who had clawed out of the losers’ bracket.

Despite Alex Stone’s two-homer game, Duke could not handle the host team in the first game of the championship, falling 8-6 to set up a winner-take-all regional final. In that showdown, it was all Blue Devils from start to finish, as they scored in seven different innings during the contest en route to a dominant 12-3 victory. This win propelled the squad to the Super Regionals, a best-of-three series against top-8 national seed Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. 

“Once we got through the ACC tournament, it was a realization, hey, we're gonna have to go on the road now in the NCAA tournament,” Pollard said. “Well, that pressure was off and we just kind of loosened back up and got back to who we were.”

Duke had reason to feel confident heading into supers, as it had already taken down the Cavaliers in an April series, winning two out of three games. In the first game of the series, the contest lived up to its implications, with the Blue Devils withstanding a three-run Virginia sixth inning by putting up a two-spot of their own in the eighth to enter the final inning up one run. Freshman James Tallon was tasked with closing out the game, and he did just that, slamming the door to secure the 5-4 victory and put Duke one game away from advancing to the pinnacle of college baseball. 

However, Virginia’s potent offense proved to be too much for the depleted pitching staff of the Blue Devils, with star catcher and eventual first-round draft pick Kyle Teel dismantling Duke over the last two games of the trio and the Cavaliers winning by a combined 20 runs and advancing to the College World Series, ending Duke’s Cinderella season.

“My hope is that we restore the identity and the culture of the program back to being known for toughness, and I feel so much gratitude … because they took that to heart and regardless of what happened this year, nobody can say that this group wasn't tough and I'm proud,” Pollard said when asked about the goals for the season and how he thought the team met them. 

Despite the downer ending to the 2023 season, Pollard has fielded what should be another excellent team for 2024, as Santucci returns with first-round draft hype and has an offense bolstered by a deep transfer class to complement Stone and other returning contributors. 

Read more:

END OF THE ROAD: Duke baseball falls behind early, bows out of NCAA Super Regional in game 3 against Virginia

Column: As the NCAA tournament looms, Duke baseball has no room for error

Duke baseball's Mooney, Tallon, Fischer named to All-ACC teams

Duke baseball's Beshears, Mooney, Boucher selected in 2023 MLB Draft to San Diego, Cleveland, Tampa Bay

'A tremendous will to win': Duke baseball sweeps Louisville in 3-game epic behind walk-offs by Mooney, Stone

No. 16 Duke baseball grabs third-straight ranked series win with weekend triumph at No. 11 Virginia


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