Marilyn Payne

Duke baseball looks to build on return to NCAA Tournament 2017

Posted February 15

Duke baseball got the proverbial monkey off its back last season, advancing the the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1961, but the Blue Devils certainly don't feel like they accomplished anything worth resting on heading into 2017.

Chris Pollard's team finished just below .500 (17-18) in conference play, in spite of starting 0-7, then lost its only ACC Tournament game (versus Wake Forest) and went 0-2 in the Columbia Regional against the Gamecocks and UNC-Wilmington.

“The way that we finished up the second half of the year for us, I believe provides some momentum going into the 2017 season," Pollard said. “Now, there’s motivation to get back and to be better prepared to go in and play well once we get there.

"There is a definite opportunity for our team to relax, knowing that they don’t carry the weight of 55 years of history."

The feeling that the Blue Devils "laid an egg," once they advanced past the regular season is motivation enough for this spring's team, which returns much of its lineup and bullpen, despite losing weekend starting pitchers.

"This is the fun part," Pollard said. "Ideally, you would like to have some resolution coming out of your fall on who your starters are, who your bullpen guys are, who maybe your weekend guys are. We still have some dust that needs to be settled."

The Blue Devils aren't as far along in having a set starting rotation as the fifth-year head coach would like, but it's a product of having a multitude of options on the mound, not a result of lacking talent.

A starting three likely won't be solidified until near ACC play, but the one certainty is that 6-foot-10 southpaw James Ziemba is Duke's "x-factor." Pollard says he's the one certain starter he'd set for the season if he had to commit to a spring-long decision now.

Fellow junior lefty Mitch Stallings will vie for a starting weekend spot after leading Duke with 27 relief appearances last season, going 3-2 with a 3.23 ERA and nine saves. Jack Labosky, who anchors third base, is also in the mix for a starting spot.

Pollard saw Duke's slow start last season as a byproduct of an unstable lineup and difficulty producing runs plus his team's youth. Now, the team has the opposite look.

“As unsettled as we are from a pitching standpoint, we appear to be about as settled as I can remember from a positional standpoint," he said. "We have a really clear nucleus."

The team returns it's defense, which finished fourth in the conference in fielding percentage, and only designated hitter Cris Perez (who batted .234) is missing from the starting lineup Duke finished 2016 with.

The Blue Devils hitters are well balanced from a lefty-righty position, plus have depth outside of just a solid starting nine.

All of Duke's hitters have improved at the plate, but sophomores Griffin Conine and Kennie Taylor, who appeared in the outfield, plus second-year infielders Max Miller and Labosky are among those who Pollard believes have progressed most noticeably entering the spring.

"I think we’ve got a good balance between our speed and our power to become a much more dynamic offensive team," Pollard said. "I think we’re going to pick it, I think we’re going to score runs."

Labosky, plus Justin Bellinger will resume positions in the middle of the lineup while sophomore outfielder Jimmy Herron, who led the team batting .324, will swing from the top of the order again. Chris Proctor will catch for Duke again, too.

"Our postseason wasn’t a great one, but I don’t think outside of maybe a couple innings in the UNC-W game, (that) we played that poorly," Pollard said.

The now-experienced Blue Devils worked through fall under the insistence that there is nothing to be complacent about. This season is about more than making the postseason, it's about performing well in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments.

"I do think that experience – being eliminated relatively quickly in both of your postseason tournaments – serves as good motivation," Pollard said.

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