NASHVILLE, TN- You simply cannot overlook the signs that this is, indeed, a new era for the Duke baseball program.
In fact, the idea that that their season-opening three-game set with Vanderbilt is among the marquee series on a jam-packed opening weekend of action is sign enough. As recently as a few years ago, this series might have looked like early-season fodder for a powerhouse like Vanderbilt, but that’s certainly not the case now.
But beyond that, with a 5-4 win over the Commodores on Saturday to even the three-game series, the Blue Devils showed that they’re more than ready to go toe-to-toe with a program like Vanderbilt on the field, as well as on paper.
Programs going from having isolated success, as Duke did in getting to a regional in 2016, to being year-after-year postseason contenders, as Duke is trying to do by getting to a regional again this year, start with classes of players who come up together and develop into veteran position groups.
The Duke pitching staff, led by senior Ryan Day, is a great example.
The weekend rotation for the Blue Devils will go sophomore, senior, senior, with Adam Laskey, who started 14 games a year ago, making him an experienced sophomore, Day, and Mitch Stallings. But more than that, you need those veterans to continue to develop and take on more as they mature, and that’s what Day has done in his career.
As a freshman and sophomore, he was an effective short reliever, throwing 35.2 innings between the two campaigns, with a 2.55 ERA in 2015 and a 1.50 ERA in 2016. He moved to the rotation last season and shined, going 4-3 with a 3.30 ERA in 73.2 innings.
He’s back in 2018 to be a steadying force in the rotation, and he did his part on Saturday, throwing six innings, giving up five hits and two runs (one earned) with no walks and six strikeouts.
“I thought it was a terrific start,” Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. “I really liked the way he interchanged his cut fastball and his slider. It gave him two options that he could (use to) go in on lefties, could go away from righties. The fastball had sink on it, and he was very comfortable and very aggressive pitching in.”
Depth and veteran leadership is key, but top programs also attract and develop high-end talent. Historically, Duke hasn’t been the type of program that produces much in the way of premium talent, but that’s quickly changing, as Griffin Conine clearly fits the bill.
After a productive 2017 season and a monster summer on the Cape, Conine is off to a strong start in 2018. After going 1-for-2 with two walks on Friday, he collected two more hits on Saturday, including an opposite-field two-run homer in the top of the sixth that showed off the type of easy power that makes him an elite prospect for the 2018 draft. In Conine, the Blue Devils have the type of transcendent talent that opposing teams will have to gameplan for every time out.
But you can’t get by leaning on a single player to do much of the heavy lifting, and so it pays dividends that Duke also boasts enviable veteran lineup depth that was on display Saturday.
A key sequence in the 8th inning stands out.
Vanderbilt had just turned the ball over to one of the best starting pitchers in the SEC in Patrick Raby, after the veteran righty was pushed into a relief role for the weekend due to a minor foot injury.
In a 4-4 game, Joey Loperfido and Jimmy Herron got the inning started with back-to-back singles, putting two men on with no outs with Conine due up, giving the Duke superstar a chance to break things open. Instead, Raby struck him out looking on a 3-2 pitch, shifting some momentum back to the Vanderbilt dugout.
Undeterred, Kennie Taylor stepped to the plate and doubled home the go-ahead run, putting Duke back on top for good.
The first five hitters in the Duke lineup all had hits, and the first three, Herron, Conine, and Taylor, had two hits apiece. Two others who didn’t have hits, Michael Smiciklas and Max Miller, reached base after being hit by a pitch. All told, it was the type of workmanlike performance you would expect from a lineup featuring eight upperclassmen, all of whom played big roles in 2017, and many of whom were key pieces on the regional team in 2016.
For Pollard, that type of lineup depth is the strength of the offense.
“I think it is, in particular, that group of one, two, three,” he said. “Griffin batted in the three-hole last year, and we made a decision to bat him in the two-hole this year to force teams to have to pitch to Jimmy and Griffin. Kennie Taylor was our number two OPS guy last year, and he’s a really good fastball hitter. You have to pitch to those two guys, or else you’re going to have Kennie Taylor coming to the plate with runners on base. I thought it was great job of Kennie picking up Griffin there in the eighth inning.”
Really good programs also have a way of finding one or two pieces to add to the roster as a cherry on top, and the Duke coaching staff certainly seems to have done that in adding Creighton graduate transfer Ethan DeCaster. In 104.1 career innings across 75 relief appearances for the Blue Jays, the sidewinding righty had a 2.42 ERA and a 78/26 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
On Saturday, he came on in relief after the Commodores tied the game for the last time and threw the final 2.1 innings, giving up a hit and a walk with four strikeouts. Duke is without a couple of key bullpen pieces from last year, but DeCaster’s arrival will mitigate those losses to a large degree.
Then there’s the stuff you can’t measure, which coaches will always tell you is just as important when you’re building a program into a year-in, year-out postseason contender.
For one, the coaching staff has to trust that the team will be mentally tough when they’re faced with an opponent who keeps coming at them, and Duke got tested in that regard on Saturday.
Twice the Blue Devils jumped out to leads. In the top of the fourth inning, Jack Labosky singled home two runs to put his team on top 2-1. That lead was erased in the bottom of the fifth when Vanderbilt tied things on a Pat DeMarco RBI single. Then they grabbed the 4-2 lead after the Conine homer, only to have the Commodores tie it at four runs apiece in the bottom of the seventh on a Stephen Scott solo homer and a Connor Kaiser RBI double.
Duke passed the test with flying colors, though, when they fought back not once, not twice, but three times to lead, and eventually win, the game.
A team also has to show poise and calm in crisis, and Saturday’s ninth inning had a couple such moments. With Alonzo Jones on at first base after having walked to lead off the bottom of the ninth, Zack Cone dropped a routine infield fly ball off the bat of Scott. Rather than rush and compound the drop with a poor throw, Cone calmly picked it up and tossed it to second base to force Jones.
Then, with two outs and two men on, Vanderbilt’s Ethan Paul hit a hard ground ball to first base, which the freshman Loperfido couldn’t handle. Smartly, second baseman Max Miller was moving toward first on the play, where he was in position to scoop up the ball off the carom and turn to throw home, where he nabbed Scott, who was trying to score from second on the play, at the plate.
With a younger, more inexperienced team, or just one still learning how to win, that chaos play likely ends with the run scoring. Instead, you had an experienced senior captain in the right place coming up with a huge play to bring home a win. In a game that easily could have gotten away from them, Duke played tough and held on.
“You saw a veteran, a team captain (Miller), make a play for us at the end of the ballgame,” Pollard said. “A young team, if that happens, panics. We didn’t panic. This team has learned how to win. We didn’t play well yesterday (Friday’s 9-1 loss), but I really liked the way we woke up this morning, how we responded, where our heads were at, what our mentality was.”
It’s important to understand how far Duke has truly come in a relatively short amount of time. Before Pollard’s arrival, Duke had only won 30 or more games twice since 1999. Now, they’ve done it four seasons in a row. They hadn’t been to a regional since 1961 when they got to one in 2016, and they’re expected to make it two in three years this season.
And this weekend, they’re good enough that a series on the road against Vanderbilt, one of the truly elite programs in college baseball, is considered a toss-up, and on the field, they’ve played them even through two games.
You never want to give any single series outsized importance in the grand scheme of things, but it’s easy to use this one as a backdrop for appreciating what Duke has already accomplished as a program, and what they seem very capable of doing in 2018.
Certainly, that’s not lost on Pollard.
“Five years ago, six years ago, I don’t know that we would have been able to go to a place on the road, SEC versus ACC, and feel like we matched up well. Not to say that we wouldn’t have played well, but to feel like top-to-bottom (they could match up). Vanderbilt’s got a really, really good club, really impressed with their club, especially their young players. But, if you start going top to bottom, I like the way we match up with them.”