John Manuel

Duke, NC State searching for wins, UNC in control as season nears mid-point

Posted March 28

Coach Mike Fox questioning the call. Day two of the ACC Baseball Championship from Durham N.C. on Wednesday May 20, 2015 featured North Carolina and Louisville. After an early lead North Carolina could not keep pace with Louisville falling to them by a score of 7 to 4. (Chris Baird / WRAL Contributor).

— Nearly halfway through the college baseball regular season the news isn’t great for the two Triangle programs that earned NCAA tournament regional bids in 2016, while it’s better for the one that didn’t.

North Carolina fell short of the tournament each of the last two seasons, but the Tar Heels are off to a strong start in 2017, having won each of their first three Atlantic Coast Conference series. At 18-6 overall and 6-3 in the league, the Tar Heels have risen to No. 7 in the Baseball America Top 25 rankings.

Duke and NC State made it to the NCAAs last year, with the Blue Devils ending a dry spell that stretched back to 1961. Coach Chris Pollard’s challenge when he took over in Durham was to try to establish the kind of consistency of tournament trips that the other two area schools have. The Wolfpack’s Elliott Avent has led the Wolfpack to 15 NCAA bids in 20 seasons, while Mike Fox’s Tar Heels have earned 15 bids since Fox’s first season in 1999.

Pollard’s Blue Devils are 13-13 overall and one of four 4-5 teams that sit two games back of North Carolina in the Coastal Division of the ACC. The Blue Devils should get off to a good start in league play; three of their first four ACC series are at home, and they split the first two, winning two of three from Virginia Tech before losing two of three against Wake Forest. Over the weekend, Duke blasted host Virginia 19-3, bashing 26 hits with four home runs.

“We just barreled up a lot of baseballs,” Pollard said. “We faced some really good arms, but we just found the barrel all day long. I really liked that we never took our foot off the gas pedal. Even late, we continued to stay in our approach.”

Duke kept scoring the rest of the weekend, putting up six runs in each of the next two games, which usually is good enough for at least one win. But with sophomore righthanders Ryan Day (a starter) and Al Pesto (a key reliever) both unavailable over the weekend, Duke didn’t have the weapons on the mound to hold down Virginia’s explosive offense, and the Cavaliers won by consecutive 13-6 scores.

Usually known for strong pitching in Pollard’s tenure, Duke has a 4.95 ERA through 26 games, 11th in the conference. That’s to be expected in some ways; while junior ace Mitch Stallings won Friday, Stallings is new to the rotation after closing in 2016. And the rest of the rotation over the weekend featured freshmen Adam Laskey and Graeme Stinson, with Stinson failing to record an out Sunday.

Both pitchers have bright futures with good arms, but Duke needs the future to be soon if it’s to return to the NCAA tournament.

"Laskey's been good for us, but he had a tough start," Pollard said. "Stalling's has been consistent for us. Take away this past weekend, Day has been good for us in the Sunday spot."

Day was out with arm soreness; his return would allow Stinson to return to midweek or perhaps pitch in for the bullpen, which has not pitched up to Pollard's expectations. Day and Stallings pitched in relief roles last season, and Pollard did not rule out returning them to the 'pen later this season, though he obviously prefers to start them.

"The bullpen is what's troubled us, because we just haven't thrown enough strikes," Pollard said. "We're going to throw nine guys against Davidson, and it's really an audition for the weekend. We've got to find four or five guys who will throw strikes out of our bullpen."

Duke still has time to get hot though. This week’s schedule includes five home games, non-league games Tuesday against Davidson and Wednesday versus North Carolina A&T, each sporting an 11-11 record. Then Pittsburgh (11-10, 4-5) comes to Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Three of Duke’s next four league sets are on the road, so the time is now for Duke to get on a roll.

Pack, Heels Hit Road

NC State opened the season ranked No. 14 but finds itself at 13-12, 4-5, with a veteran lineup that has struggled at the plate. State ranks 10th in the league in batting (.252) and runs (137), despite strong debuts by freshmen such as catcher/DH Brad Debo (.343/.382/.486, 15 RBIs) and second baseman Will Wilson (.280/.357/.430).

While much attention has focused on State’s inconsistent pitching staff, the Pack has settled on a Friday starter in senior lefty Sean Adler (3-2, 3.41) and has a 4.09 ERA that ranks sixth in the league. It’s the offense where the Pack has the capacity for growth, as juniors such as Brock Deatherage (.202/.333/.310), Joe Dunand (.218/.284/.483, 7 HR) and Evan Mendoza (.224/.303/.296) continue to struggle. That trio includes the Pack’s top three returnees in hits, but none has gotten hot consistently this year, though Dunand does lead the team and rank seventh in the league in home runs.

The Wolfpack plays Tuesday in downtown Charlotte’s BB&T Ballpark against the Charlotte 49ers before heading to Notre Dame (7-15, 2-7) for a three-game league series.

North Carolina has its biggest test of the year, hosting defending national champion Coastal Carolina on Tuesday before visiting Florida State for a three-game series this weekend. The Seminoles (18-7, 6-3) rank second in the league in scoring (205 runs) and fifth in ERA at 3.48, but the Tar Heels have a 2.30 ERA that ranks second in the league.

That’s despite inconsistent performances from their third starters, but the Heels have options. They gave sophomore righty Cole Aker the start Sunday against Miami while going for a sweep, but Aker was removed after walking the first two batters he faced. Sophomore righty Rodney Hutchinson, who just missed the rotation coming out of preseason practice, tossed five innings and gave up one run in relief of Aker. That could earn him a start this weekend against the Seminoles, whose trademark patience at the plate is on display again with a league-high 167 walks.

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