Duke baseball faces another tough task, this time at No. 2 Vanderbilt

Duke coach Chris Pollard on Ethan Murray: “He’s just a really tough player.”v

Duke baseball coach Chris Pollard discusses the surprisingly quick recovery of freshman shortstop Ethan Murray, who suffered broken facial bones when hit by a pitch in the face two weeks ago. Murray is practicing and could play Friday at Vanderbilt.
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Duke baseball coach Chris Pollard discusses the surprisingly quick recovery of freshman shortstop Ethan Murray, who suffered broken facial bones when hit by a pitch in the face two weeks ago. Murray is practicing and could play Friday at Vanderbilt.

Private schools with stellar academic reputations, Duke and Vanderbilt have things in common in baseball as well.

Both school’s programs are seeking their fourth College World Series appearance and one will get it this weekend as they meet in the Nashville Super Regional starting Friday.

Both teams swept in their regional championships last weekend, with Vanderbilt doing it on its home field and Duke winning the Morgantown (W.Va.) Regional.

The similarities end there, though.

While Duke’s last College World Series trip came in 1961, Vanderbilt’s most recent trip to the sport’s showcase event in Omaha, Nebraska, came in 2015. The previous year, in 2014, the Commodores won the NCAA championship.

Duke is in the NCAA tournament’s super regional round for the second year in a row after never appearing in the sport’s round of 16.

Vanderbilt is playing in its ninth super regional as well as its eighth in the last 10 seasons.

Vanderbilt has been a national title contender all season. The Commodores (52-10) are the No. 2 national seed while Duke (34-25) was among the final four schools selected for the NCAA tournament.

Still, there are both among the final 16 teams battling in the NCAA tournament.

“We realize when you look at this list of great teams, these 16 teams that are left, we are probably the biggest long shot to be there,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said during a news conference Tuesday. “But we’ll take it. There’s 16 teams trying to get to Omaha, trying to win two ballgames. That’s the way we are going to approach it.”

The series starts Friday with a 6 p.m. game on ESPN2 and continues with Saturday’s game 2 at 9 p.m. on ESPNU. If a game three is needed to decide the series, it will be Sunday at 3 p.m. on ESPN2.

Here are three things to watch for the series:

Vanderbilt is red hot

The Commodores have won 12 consecutive games and 25 of their last 26 dating back to the regular season. Vanderbilt won all four of its SEC tournament games while winning its league championship before sweeping its three Nashville Regional games, beating Ohio State once and Indiana State twice.

Vanderbilt’s offense is the major reason why. The Commodores lead the SEC in average (.319), slugging (.525), on-base percentage (.418), triples (18) and RBIs (497) and runs (529).

Four of Vanderbilt’s starting position players were selected in the first 10 rounds of the MLB draft this week.

Vanderbilt had 13 players drafted overall.

Outfielder J.J. Bleday, who went to the Miami Marlins as the the No. 4 overall pick of the first round, is Vanderbilt’s top player. A finalist for the Golden Spikes Award as college baseball’s top player, Bleday is batting .353 with 26 home runs.

Other position players drafted early were catcher Philip Clarke (ninth round, Toronto), shortstop Ethan Paul (ninth round, Pittsburgh) and outfielder Stephen Scott (10th round, Boston). All three are batting .306 or better, led by Scott’s .335 average.

Duke sophomore pitcher Bryce Jarvis discusses the return of freshman shortstop Ethan Murray at practice on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. Murray suffered multiple facial fractures when he was hit by a pitch two weeks earlier.

Duke set to get a boost

The Blue Devils won the Morgantown Regional without their starting shortstop and clean-up batter, Ethan Murray. The all-ACC freshman team selection, has missed Duke’s last four games after being hit in the face by a pitch during a May 22 ACC tournament game with Notre Dame.

Murray had surgery to repair multiple facial fractures but has been cleared to return to play provided he wears a helmet and face mask to protect his head and face at bat and in the field.

Sophomore Will Hoyle from Durham’s Jordan High School has filled in for Murray. During the Morgantown Regional, Hoyle went 0-for-9 at the plate but played errorless baseball in the field.

Murray has a .316 batting average and a .410 on-base percentage.

While he’s practiced since being medically cleared to return on Tuesday, including facing live pitching in scrimmages, Murray must handle the mental challenge of a live game after such an horrific injury.

“I think that’s the most important, it’s getting right back on that horse,” Pollard said. “Watching him take ground balls, watching him in (batting practice), watching him in a live at bat, he looks really comfortable.”

Pitching matchups

Friday’s game one pits Vanderbilt junior right hander Drake Fellows (12-0, 3.87 ERA) against Duke graduate senior righty Ben Gross (7-4, 4.09 ERA).

Both aces were selected in this week’s MLB draft. The only Division I pitcher with at least 12 wins without a loss this season, Fellows was picked by the San Diego Padres in the sixth round.

Gross, who came to Duke after graduating from Princeton last year, went to the Minnesota Twins in the 10th round.

Fellows is a strikeout machine with 117 in 110 innings pitched.

Saturday’s second game features right-hander Kumar Rocker (9-5, 3.91 ERA) for Vanderbilt against Duke sophomore righty Bryce Jarvis (5-1, 4.06 ERA).

Last Saturday against No. 15 national seed West Virginia, Jarvis hurled eight shutout innings with 11 strikeouts in Duke’s 4-0 win on the Mountaineers’ home field. So facing another nationally ranked team in a hostile environment shouldn’t rattle him.

Neither team has settled on a Game 3 starter with both coaches waiting to see who is available after the first two games.

Duke used junior left-hander Bill Chillari in its third regional game last Sunday. He pitched 4 ⅔ innings, allowing one run on seven hits against Texas A&M in a game Duke won 4-1. Chillari is 2-3 with a 4.75 ERA for the season.

Vanderbilt’s Sunday starter during three-game SEC weekend series this season was sophomore right-hander Mason Hickman (8-0, 2.12 ERA).

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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.