By Jim Sumner, GoDuke the Magazine
Some athletic teams have a season in which everything goes right, the storm clouds part, the rainbows come out, unicorns and bunnies frolic in the grass.
It’s easy to turn that into something special.
But that’s not what happened to Duke baseball this season. Injuries and illnesses mounted, close losses followed and the Blue Devils entered Selection Monday having lost eight of their final 11 games.
It’s not easy to turn that kind of season into something special.
But Duke did exactly that, running the table in the Morgantown Regional, beating host West Virginia once and Texas A&M twice, to secure a berth in an NCAA Super Regional for the second straight season.
Head coach Chris Pollard put on an optimistic face following Duke’s elimination from the ACC Tournament a couple days before the NCAA bids went out, but later admitted that at least some of it was for show.
“It was a longer wait than I had hoped for,” he said after Duke was selected. “Some of my confidence on Friday was false confidence. We put up a good front but we were nervous. I knew if we got in, we were going to be one of the last teams to get in. We’re incredibly happy.”
Duke was in fact one of the last four teams in. Which beats last four out.
Duke’s players appreciated the honor while recognizing they still had work to do.
“I felt like we deserved it,” closer Thomas Girard summed up. “A testament to all our hard work, all the time we spent in the weight room and the film room and the classroom.”
Pollard said an opportunity was all Duke needed.
“If you’re there, you’ve got a chance. If you get your foot in the door, somehow, someway, you’ve got a chance and you never stop fighting.”
Duke got its foot in the door and kicked it down. The Blue Devils not only won all three games in the regional, they never trailed. Duke allowed only six runs in three games, four of those in one inning — a shaky ninth in the opener against A&M, a game Duke still won 8-5.
Duke won the regional without right fielder Chase Cheek and shortstop Ethan Murray, both out with injuries. Pollard and his staff had to cobble together a starting rotation after injuries sidelined junior aces Graeme Stinson and Adam Laskey during the season. Somehow, it worked.
Pollard is the kind of old-school coach who accepts blame for the losses but deflects credit for the wins.
“It speaks to the job that our coaching staff has done, first and foremost,” he said. “You look at the fact that we lost 70 percent of our at-bats from last year’s team, we lost over 50 percent of the innings from last year’s team and we then were beset with injuries over the course of this spring. It just speaks to how well Josh Jordan has recruited and the job he has done as our recruiting coordinator, and the job that Jason Stein has done with our offense is extraordinary. And then (pitching coach) Dusty Blake — we were makeshift at times this season. Those three guys just never gave in.”
Neither did the players, showing adaptability and grit time and time again.
Consider Joey Loperfido. He played first base and batted in the middle of the order last season. He moved to second base and the top of the batting order this season, two changes slowed when he missed a month due to injury.
Loperfido’s injury led to a 2-11 slump. His return keyed a 14-2 run that gave Duke just enough cushion to absorb a rocky last two weeks.
“It’s different guys stepping up and just rolling with the punches, doing your job,” Loperfido said. “I’ve just tried to learn as much as I can from past players and from the coaches.”
Or look at grad student transfer Ben Gross, a right-hander who pitched for Princeton last season.
Gross said he came to Duke “just expecting to contribute any way I could. Whatever the team needed. I got thrown into a role and got the ball. The plan at the beginning of the year was to come into relief and it just so happened that I’m a bad reliever but a pretty good starter.”
Joking aside Gross took over as the top starter when Stinson and Laskey went down. He allowed a single run in seven innings against Texas A&M in Duke’s regional opener.
Bryce Jarvis followed Gross’ performance with an even better outing, against West Virginia, in the winner’s bracket.
Jarvis is a sophomore right-hander. He missed a couple of weeks in midseason with mononucleosis and came back as a jack-of-all trades: a weekend starter, a midweek starter, a long reliever, whatever Duke needed.
Pollard said Jarvis “embraced that role. He never complained.”
Jarvis got the ball against West Virginia’s Alek Manoah, arguably college baseball’s best pitcher. And Jarvis won the duel. Decisively.
Duke only got four hits against Manoah but bundled them around enough walks and wild pitches to score four runs. Meanwhile Jarvis tuned out the raucous home crowd and shut out the Mountaineers, throwing 126 pitches, with 11 strikeouts in a 4-0 win.
“I thought that the difference in the ballgame was the composure and poise that our kids showed with the way that we competed through it,” Pollard said. “That starts and ends with Bryce Jarvis and the job that he did on the mound. It was one of the best jobs, if not the best job, of just managing the moment and not letting everything that’s going on around you affect your ability to perform.”
Duke finished the job with a 4-1 win over Texas A&M. Outfielder Kyle Gallagher gave Duke a 3-0 lead with a first inning home run and a trio of Blue Devil arms made it hold up.
Gallagher is another grad student transfer, this time from Cornell. Gallagher moved from right field at Cornell to left field at Duke and moved all over the batting order for the Blue Devils.
Freshman Rudy Maxwell batted once in Morgantown. He hit a three-run homer in that at-bat. That’s called being ready when your name is called.
It was a great weekend, but one whose roots were planted when Duke consistently fought back from adversity to keep its season alive.
Chris Crabtree, a sophomore first baseman/DH, cited the intangibles: “Lean on each other, draw energy from each other, pick each other up.”
“It’s definitely a testament to our coaching staff and guys stepping into roles that maybe they weren’t expecting,” Girard added. “The overall feeling was to go out there and take what we deserve.”
Duke left Morgantown with a seven-game regional winning-streak spanning two seasons. Nashville and the potent Vanderbilt Commodores were next, a spot in the College World Series on the line.
Pollard summed up Morgantown.
“These guys had to stay really tough and resilient and stay together, and they did and they kept playing hard for each other. They kept playing hard for our culture, and because of that, they were in a position to pull off something really great this weekend.”
Regardless of the outcome of the Super Regional, it is clear that Duke baseball has become a program of consequence. After missing the NCAA Tournament for 55 years, Duke has made it three times in four years. This two-year run marks the first time since 1952 and 1953 that Duke has made the tournament in consecutive years.
The players know that and expect to build on it.
“It’s something to take a lot of pride in,” Loperfido says. “We’re taking advantage of a lot of hard work by a lot of previous Duke baseball players, so we’re excited to keep taking steps forward and make this a regular thing.”