Two wins down, two more to go as Duke chases ACC title, NCAA tournament berth

Duke catcher Chris Proctor (23) takes a swing against Virginia during the Atlantic Coast Conference baseball tournament in Louisville, Ky., on Thursday. The No. 9 seed Blue Devils have pulled two upsets to reach the tournament semifinals.
Duke catcher Chris Proctor (23) takes a swing against Virginia during the Atlantic Coast Conference baseball tournament in Louisville, Ky., on Thursday. The No. 9 seed Blue Devils have pulled two upsets to reach the tournament semifinals. AP

Duke’s dream of returning to the NCAA baseball tournament remains very much alive.

After making the field for the first time since 1961 a year ago, the No 9-seeded Blue Devils needed to win four games at this week’s ACC Tournament at Louisville, Kentucky, to assure themselves of returning to the tournament this season.

Two wins are down – over ranked teams Clemson and Virginia, no less – and Duke needs to win games Saturday and Sunday to complete the improbable journey.

The Blue Devils (30-27) beat No. 17-ranked Clemson, the ACC Tournament’s No. 5 seed, 6-3 on Tuesday night. They followed that with a 4-3 win over No. 11 Virginia, the ACC’s No. 4 seed, on Thursday at Louisville Slugger Field.

Those wins gave Duke the Pool D championship and a place in the ACC tournament semifinals. On Saturday at 1 p.m., the Blue Devils will face the Pool A winner, either No. 1 seed Louisville or No. 8 seed Florida State, needing a win to keep the season alive and earn a spot in Sunday’s ACC tournament final.

Having seen his team struggle to a 12-18 ACC regular-season record by losing eight of 10 series, Duke coach Chris Pollard said the Blue Devils feel validated by their solid tournament play so far.

“I’m proud because the team you’ve seen out on the field on Tuesday and Thursday was not the team that played the first 15 or 20 games of the season,” Pollard said following Thursday’s win over Virginia. “We weren’t very good at times early in the year, and we had to overcome that. And for our guys to stay together, to stay committed to the program, to stay committed to each other and really work to be playing their best baseball at the end of the year I think speaks a lot about the culture that’s in that locker room and the leadership that’s in that locker room amongst our captains and our leadership council and our senior class.”

Strong pitching, particularly from the bullpen, and timely hitting have been instrumental in Duke’s tournament run.

The Blue Devils have allowed three runs per game, an improvement over the team’s season 4.83 ERA. Mitch Stallings got the win against Clemson, while Ryan Day was solid in his start against Virginia. Both allowed three runs.

The bullpen has been, literally, unhittable. In 5⅔ innings, Duke’s relief pitchers have yet to allow a hit or a run.

Senior left-hander Nick Hendrix is responsible for the bulk of that work. He pitched the final 3⅓ innings against Clemson and 1⅓ innings against Virginia.

Jack Labosky pitched the final inning against Virginia to pick up a save.

Pollard wasn’t ready to announce his Saturday starter on Friday, but he has confidence his bullpen is ready to help the rest of the weekend.

“That was a weakness for us early in the season,” Pollard said. “It has become a strength. I like where we are, and we were fortunate with the way pool play fell that we got a day off after each time we played. We’re not a very deep bullpen, and so these days off certainly help us to try to get ready for Saturday.”

In addition to Hendrix and Labosky, Pollard said Chris McGrath, Karl Blum, James Ziemba and Kevin Lewallyn have all thrown well down the stretch.

Duke may have had an unimpressive regular season but the ACC is taking notice of how well the Blue Devils are capable of playing.

“Duke, we’ve played four games this year,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said. “They’ve won two, we’ve won two, and so they’ve got – they’re the nine seed in this tournament, and they’ve got a very, very dangerous ballclub. They’ve got some really good athletes, position player-wise, they make the plays, and they’ve got a number of different options out of their bullpen, right-handed and left-handed.”

Duke needs to play well over the next two days, and claim the ACC championship, to have a chance to play more baseball in the NCAA tournament.

“I think we attack it just like we attack every game,” Duke catcher Chris Proctor said. “Kind of the same mentality that our pitchers are going to get first pitch contact on the ground, we’re going to attack to our pitch, like as hitters, and I think that’s really like the only thing you can do is approach every game pretty much the same with a few little tweaks here and there.”

Duke was the first team to clinch a semifinal berth by winning its pool. No. 6 seed Miami claimed Pool B Friday with a 5-2 win over No. 3 seed Wake Forest. The Hurricanes will play the Pool C winner, the winner of Friday night’s North Carolina-N.C. State game, in the second semifinal at 5 p.m. on Saturday. The semifinal games will be televised by Fox Sports South.

The championship game is Sunday at noon on ESPN2.

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC