Quality starters, strong bullpen spur Duke's ACC Tournament hopes

May. 20, 2014 @ 09:21 PM

Just getting to the ACC Tournament represents a major accomplishment for Duke baseball.

That said, the Blue Devils believe they’re set up for more success as they battle for the ACC championship for the first time since 2009.

No. 4 seed Duke has four quality starting pitchers, setting it up nicely for the three games of pool play Wednesday through Saturday and the possible title game on Sunday at Greensboro’s NewBridge Bank Park.

“We like our chances,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “Maybe as much as any team I’ve coached, this team is built for tournament baseball. We’ve got four starters that can win against any team in the country. We’ve got a very deep bullpen and that’s a key.”

The Blue Devils (32-23) open the tournament against fifth-seeded Clemson (34-22) today (11 a.m., Fox Sports Carolinas, WDNC 620 AM). Sophomore fireballer Michael Matuella (1-2, 2.61 ERA), well rested since he hasn’t pitched since May 11, gets the start for Duke.

The Blue Devils will follow with staff ace Drew Van Orden (5-5, 3.56 ERA) will start against No. 8 seed Georgia Tech (33-24) on Thursday (3 p.m., Fox Sports Carolinas, WDNC 620 AM).

That leaves them Trent Swart (5-2, 1.49 ERA) for the matchup with No. 1 seed Miami (40-15) on Saturday (11 a.m., Fox Sports Carolinas, WCMC 99.9 FM). Andrew Istler (8-7, 2.55 ERA) would be available to start the championship game on Sunday if Duke wins its pool.

“You can have a good offensive club all year and win games off your offense,” Pollard said. “But you generally don’t win a lot of games off your offense in a tournament setting. It comes down to starting pitching and getting clutch performances from your bullpen and I think we’re set up for that.”

Duke skipped Matuella’s turn in the rotation last weekend when it played at Florida State. Istler, Van Orden, and Swart made the starts as the Blue Devils lost two of three to the Atlantic Division champion Seminoles.

While Matuella will have plenty of strength for his high-powered fastball, which routinely is clocked in the high 90s, he has also taken care to set himself up to not be rusty.

Matuella threw a bullpen session Saturday and another abbreviated one on Monday.

“Just to make sure I stay sharp,” Matuella said. “My arm feels good. My body feels good. I’m ready to go for sure.”

Duke enters the tournament with a 3.15 team ERA, good for No. 6 in the ACC. That team ERA is fifth among teams remaining in the tournament field. Conversely, Clemson’s team ERA of 3.74 is the worst among the eight teams that will participate in ACC Tournament pool play.

Georgia Tech, Duke’s opponent Thursday, is just ahead of Clemson at 3.28.

That said, the Blue Devils have yet to win a game against any of the teams in its pool this season. Georgia Tech swept Duke in Atlanta in April while the Blue Devils lost three games to Miami at Durham Bulls Athletic Park earlier this month.

Duke and Clemson didn’t play in the regular season.

In addition to reaching the ACC Tournament for just the second time since 2005, the Blue Devils are also hoping for the school’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 1961.

Duke has work to do, however, thanks to an RPI of 78.

Winning the ACC Tournament would make the RPI a nonfactor. With their strong pitching, the Blue Devils are hoping to do just that.