Duke heads to ACC tournament needing four wins to keep season alive

A year ago Duke made the NCAA baseball tournament for the first time in more than 50 years.

To return for second year in a row, they’ll need to make an historic run through the ACC tournament this week in Louisville, Kentucky.

After dropping two of three games at Coastal Division champion North Carolina last weekend, the Blue Devils (28-27, 12-18 ACC) enter the ACC tournament as the No. 9 seed.

Duke will play Clemson and Virginia in pool play. With wins over those two teams, the Blue Devils would advance to the tournament semifinals. The Blue Devils record is such that winning the ACC championship is their only sure route back to the NCAA tournament field, which included Duke last season for the first time since 1961.

“We’re realistic about where we are,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “We understand that based on sort of our total body of work for the year that we need to go into Louisville with the expectation that we are going to have to win the ACC tournament if we are going to continue to play in the NCAA tournament.”

This year’s new format for the ACC tournament features an expansion to 12 teams from 10. The teams are placed in four three-team pools. Each team is guaranteed two tournament games – one against the other two teams in its pool.

Pool winners advance to Saturday’s semifinals with the championship game decided on Sunday.

Duke opens play at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Clemson (39-17, 17-13 ACC). The Blue Devils will play Virginia (41-13, 18-12) Thursday at 11 a.m. Both games will be on Fox Sports South.

The Blue Devils didn’t face Clemson in the regular season. They lost two of three games to Virginia on the road March 24-26. Duke won 19-3 and then lost back-to-back games by the same 13-6 score.

That was one of eight ACC series Duke lost this season. The Blue Devils took two of three from Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.

“It’s been an up-and-down season for us,” Pollard said. “I think we’ve played well as of late but we’ve got a chance, based on our body of work, to go into this event and play hard and try to put ourselves in position to be playing baseball on Saturday.”

Junior left-handed pitcher Mitch Stallings will start for Duke on Tuesday against Clemson. A reliever last season, Stallings became Duke’s Friday night starter in ACC play this season.

Stallings (4-3) last pitched Thursday night at UNC, where he allowed four runs on two hits over 3 ⅓ innings. He got no decision in a game Duke won 8-4.

“We’ve looked forward to this the whole season,” Stallings said of the ACC tournament. “During the season you have to keep the focus on what is ahead of you, but you kind of keep this in the back of your head.”

Sophomore Jimmy Herron, Duke’s lead-off hitter, was 7 of 14 during the three games against the No. 3-ranked Tar Heels over the weekend. The Blue Devils will need him to remain hot at the plate if they want to win the ACC title.

“You have to take it a pitch at a time,” Herron said. “You can’t try to win four games in one game. We have to win Tuesday and Thursday. We have to win four baseball games. That’s what it will take. To do that, you have to live in the moment.”

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC