DURHAM – There’s another turnaround taking place at Duke – and this time it’s happening on the baseball diamond.
Long mired near the bottom of the ACC and overshadowed by their neighbors, the Blue Devils are pushing for their first NCAA tournament berth in more than 50 years.
Picked in the preseason to finish fifth in the Coastal Division, Duke (28-17, 15-9) has won nine straight and 11 of 12 to move into third place.
The Blue Devils are a combined 5-1 against rivals North Carolina and N.C. State – who both reached last year’s College World Series.
It’s a rise that mirrors the Duke football team’s ascent from the bottom of the Bowl Subdivision to the Top 25.
Catcher Mike Rosenfeld said Thursday that ending that NCAA Tournament drought “would mean everything to us.”
The Blue Devils said the secret to their success has been a group of 14 fourth- or fifth-year players who were around for two head coaches, three straight losing seasons and four consecutive years with at least 21 ACC losses.
“We have to remember what we’ve been through in the past, and use that for fuel and recognize the success and know what the cause of that has been,” senior utility man Mark Lumpa said.
Rosenfeld, a fourth-year junior, said they’re bonded together by “a loose focus” in which they stay focused on the task at hand yet don’t get too tight in high-pressure situations.
“We believe we can win,” Lumpa said. “It doesn’t matter the situation, really.”
It helps that they can play a little longball.
Cleanup hitter Chris Marconcini leads the ACC with eight home runs and 42 RBI. As a team, Duke ranks second in the league with 25 homers – and five of them came in their last game against Wake Forest.
That power surge has helped because all three projected weekend starters have missed time with injuries, including sophomore Michael Matuella – who has a 97 mph fastball and is back after missing a month with a strained back muscle. Those injuries led to a slide in which they lose five games in March by two or fewer runs.
“We really got tested from an adversity standpoint in March, and we lost a lot of close games because of it,” second-year coach Chris Pollard said. “I kept telling our guys, ‘If you’ll stick together and believe in each other, when we get healthy we’re going to have a chance to go on a run. They believed in each other, and they believed in the process, and now that we’ve gotten healthy we’ve been able to make that run.”
Pollard, who turned around Appalachian State’s program before coming to Duke, said he thinks these Blue Devils are capable of winning some games if they get into the NCAA Tournament.
But that proclamation comes with caution because he added that “in a league as good as the ACC, if you start saying, ‘Well, if we just do this, if we just win this series or if we take two out of three here, you look up and you’ve forgotten to get better.”
Duke is 67th in the most recent online replication of the RPI formula – putting the Blue Devils squarely on the bubble.
They have plenty of chances to play themselves into – or out of – the NCAA Tournament. Their final two ACC series come against the two division leaders, Miami and Florida State.
Take care of those powerhouses, and they could make some history at Duke.
The Blue Devils have made the tournament five times and advanced to the College World Series in three of them, but none have come since 1961.
“That’s definitely what we’ve had our expectations on since we came into the program,” Rosenfeld said. “For us to leave our footprint, that’s exactly how we want to do it and send the seniors out right.”