From a hospital bed to Duke’s dugout to the practice field, Ethan Murray’s journey the last two weeks has been something no one could have anticipated.
The Duke freshman shortstop was batting cleanup when a fastball thrown by Notre Dame’s Andrew Belcik hit him in the face during a May 21 ACC tournament game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Murray had surgery the next day to repair multiple sinus fractures and wasn’t able to attend Duke’s team party on May 27 when the Blue Devils watched the NCAA tournament bracket reveal.
A few days later, before the team embarked to the Morgantown (W.Va.) Regional, Murray whispered to his grandfather he’d be good to play in a week.
He’s lived up to his word.
After watching in street clothes from the dugout as Duke beat West Virginia and Texas A&M twice last week in the regional, Murray practiced at Duke’s Jake Coombs Field on Tuesday.
He was medically cleared Tuesday to play while wearing protective gear to cover his face and head. Murray is now on track to play Friday night when Duke faces No. 2 Vanderbilt in the best-of-three series in the Nashville Super Regional.
“He’s progressing really well,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “Our anticipation is, barring a setback, he’ll be ready to play this weekend.”
Duke didn’t allow Murray to talk to reporters on Tuesday, but he practiced like someone who hadn’t been through such a medical ordeal. Yes he wore a helmet with a practice shield covering his face in the field and a helmet with a cage-like mask for extra protection while batting.
But he dove for ground balls and took swings in the batting cage like a fully healthy player.
The Blue Devils had a losing overall record and were 3-9 in the ACC in early April, so they’ve shown plenty of motivation to simply get to the NCAA tournament, let alone win a regional.
Murray’s ordeal over the last two weeks gives them even more.
“That is one of the coolest things you can see as a teammate is someone who has been through the trauma that he has and is just willing to get back into practice and put his body on the line,” said Duke sophomore pitcher Bryce Jarvis, named the most outstanding player of the Morgantown Regional.
Murray batted .316 through Duke’s first 55 games. Only starting centerfielder Kennie Taylor’s .324 average tops him on the team. Murray’s .403 on-base percentage is best among all of Duke’s regular players who have played more than 13 games this season.
His return to the lineup would give the Blue Devils (34-25) a much-needed boost against No. 2 national seed Vanderbilt (52-10).
“He had a really good first day back,” Pollard said. “We met at 10 this morning and I told him we’d take it one day at a time, but today’s early reviews have been good.”
Without him, Duke was seeded No. 3 in the four-team Morgantown Regional. The Blue Devils swept all three games, beating No. 2 seed Texas A&M twice and top-seeded host school West Virginia once, to pull the upset and win a regional for the second consecutive year.
Just having Murray around helped, Jarvis said.
“Having him there in Morgantown in the dugout was a big, big boost of energy that we needed,” Jarvis said.
Murray had already impressed his coaches and teammates with an exceptional freshman season for the Blue Devils. Now he appears to have topped that.
“He’s just a really tough player, a really, really good competitor,” Pollard said. “If you ask him, he wanted to be out there this past weekend. He was in the dugout. I think it drove him crazy to be in the dugout and not be in a uniform.”