The Duke Blue Devils received a blow to their rotation before the season even started when they found out that Ace Trent Swart would miss the entire 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Swart has pitched over 200 innings in his career at Duke, and in his junior year saw him post a 1.76 ERA over 11 starts. He was slowed to a forearm injury, which eventually led to the surgery.
Without Swart, the Blue Devils will rely on junior Michael Matuella to lead the rotation. The big right hander has loads of potential – currently ranked as the second best prospect by MLB.com for the 2015 draft – but has yet to pitch a full season at the college level.
Matuella has everything that you would want out of a top end college level pitcher, a mid-to-upper 90s fastball, two breaking pitches and a feel for a change up. In just 58 1/3 innings last season the Great Falls, VA native struck out 69 batters after striking out just 28 in 57 2/3 innings his freshman year.
Experience won’t be the only factor weighing on Matuella at the top of the rotation but he will also have to battle a health condition. All though seen as manageable, the junior was diagnosed with Spondylolysis – a back condition not uncommon for young athletes.
After only making 11 starts last season due to a lat strain further examination discovered the condition, which affects the connection between the vertebrae in your back. Matuella has altered his routine in order to accommodate for his condition and while it has helped with his strength and conditioning during the offseason it has yet to be seen if that will help him get through the rigors of an entire college season.
Duke has seen a win increase in each of the last three seasons and won the most games last year than they have since 2009. They also won a school record 16 conference games in 2014, finishing third in the Coastal division behind two perennial power houses – the Miami Hurricanes and national runner-ups Virginia Cavaliers.
A lot of eyes were going to be on Matuella anyways, especially as the draft inches closer and closer but now without Swart in the rotation, it forces Duke to put some younger players in high pressure situations they probably didn’t want to have to do.
Duke will face the Louisville Cardinals, Miami and UVA all in a little more than a month’s time. All three are expected to be among the conference’s best, and each has one of the best pitchers the ACC has to offer.
Putting together a full season would be a ‘win-win’ for both Matuella and Duke, as it could cement the junior as one of the first few picks in the upcoming draft and keep his school in the thick of the ACC race. But his health, as well as his lack of innings logged at the college level due to the injuries make the waters a little murky as to if Matuella can carry the Blue Devils to where they believe they could get.