Duke must end its May slump to ensure an NCAA tournament bid

Ben Gross throws a pitch against Virginia Tech during a April 2019 game. Gross has emerged as Duke’s ace pitcher in a season where the Blue Devils are among the ACC leaders in strikeouts.
Ben Gross throws a pitch against Virginia Tech during a April 2019 game. Gross has emerged as Duke’s ace pitcher in a season where the Blue Devils are among the ACC leaders in strikeouts. Duke Athletics

Winning 13 of 16 games in April put Duke baseball in prime position to return to the NCAA tournament.

May stumbles, though, have the banged-up Blue Devils in an uncomfortable position as the regular-season winds to a close.

Having lost five of its last six games, Duke begins a three-game ACC series at No. 14 Miami on Thursday night.

The latest Baseball America projection for the NCAA tournament’s 64-team field still includes the Blue Devils (29-22, 14-13 ACC).

But if Duke doesn’t find a way to pull out of its late-season slump against the Hurricanes or in next week’s ACC tournament at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, they very well could find themselves skipped over on May 27 when the tournament bracket is announced.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said.

The Blue Devils struggled in March, starting 3-9 in ACC play before playing their best baseball of the season in April. A six-game winning streak, including a win over Texas Tech and a three-game sweep at Clemson, improved Duke’s RPI from the mid-70s to the low 40s.

But this month has seen Duke split of two home games against VCU, suffer a pair of nonconference losses to Liberty and lose two of three games last weekend in ACC play to No. 8 Georgia Tech.

As the Blue Devils close the regular season at Miami, their No. 49 RPI has them facing similar do-or-die pressure to what they faced after starting the season 14-14.

“My message to our team is going to be pretty simple,” Pollard said. “At the start of the season, if someone would tell you with one weekend left in the regular season you have to go win a series to go to the NCAA tournament, you’d take it. So we have to go win a series. If we win a series we go to the NCAA tournament.”

Last Saturday went a long way toward damaging Duke’s NCAA hopes.

The Blue Devils not only suffered a 15-3 bludgeoning to Georgia Tech, they lost starting outfielder Chase Cheek to a season-ending knee injury. Batting .293, Cheek led the Blue Devils with 20 stolen bases while compiling a .403 slugging percentage.

Freshman RJ Schreck, batting .139 for the season, has replaced Cheek in the lineup.

Duke is already playing without injured left-handed pitchers Graeme Stinson and Adam Laskey. Pollard said other players, including senior centerfielder Kennie Taylor, are playing through various ailments.

Still, there are games to be won.

Ben Gross, Duke’s top pitcher with a 6-4 record and a 4.08 ERA, gets the start in Thursday’s first game against Miami. Bill Chillari (2-3, 5.09) is set to start game two on Friday.

Both suffered losses to Georgia Tech last weekend, with the Yellow Jackets pounding Duke for 29 runs in those two games.

“Georgia Tech this past weekend was probably humming as well offensively as anyone we’ve played since I’ve been at Duke,” Pollard said. “They really had everything clicking.”

That made Sunday’s Duke performance important and it gives Pollard hope his team can play well at Miami.

The Blue Devils slammed four home runs and received a strong start from right-hander Bryce Jarvis in a 10-4 win to salvaged the final game of the Georgia Tech series.

“We played one of our best ball games of the year,” Pollard said. “With our backs up against the wall, we played a really complete game. I was really proud of our team on Sunday.”

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.