Duke baseball looks to continue momentum against davidson, n. c. central _ the chronicle

By Ryan Hoerger

/ The Chronicle

Sophomore Peter Zyla recorded four hits and three RBIs during Duke’s weekend series win against then-No. 21 Clemson.

Fresh off a series victory against then-No. 21 Clemson this weekend—its second straight ACC series win against a ranked opponent—Duke heads back to the diamond for a pair of midweek contests. The Blue Devils will first travel to take on Davidson at 6:30 p. m. Tuesday at Wilson Field before returning home to host fellow Durham resident N. C. Central at 6 p. m. Wednesday at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Duke has played back-to-back midweek games just once this season and ended that week 4-1, but this time around will have the added challenge of a looming three-game set this weekend with No. 1 Miami.

“It’s a challenge any time of year, but I think it’s more of a challenge when you have conference [play] on either side,” Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. “Early in the year, we had nonconference [play] on either side. Theoretically, no game is more important than any other because it’s nonconference. Now you have conference weekends sandwiched on either side, and we have Miami coming to town.”

The Blue Devils (17-15) have already squared off once with the Wildcats (18-14) this season, cruising to a 9-2 victory March 1 in their first go-round with two midweek games. Duke rode the right arm of graduate student Kellen Urbon—who yielded just a single hit in seven shutout innings—and three hits off the bat of freshman Griffin Conine to jump out to a 5-0 first-inning lead.

Things will be much different this time around, though, as Conine has taken a seat on the bench recently with sophomore Justin Bellinger stepping into the lineup and providing an offensive spark. Bellinger went 1-for-4 with a run and an RBI in the first meeting with the Wildcats, and now leads the Blue Devils in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage with a .367/.475/.531 triple-slash line.

Davidson has excelled at home this season, posting a 15-7 record on its home turf. Pollard said he will have to mix and match on the mound and that he doubts any one hurler will toss more than three innings, meaning Duke will need more than just Urbon to silence a potent Wildcat offense that is averaging 5.6 runs per contest.

“Honest answer is I have no clue right now [what the pitching rotation will be]. We’ll have to sort of see how guys feel tomorrow, and then we’ll come up with a plan from there,” Pollard said. “It’ll be some combination of a full-staff effort. We won’t have one starter who will just extend. We’ll have to run different guys in there.”

Pollard’s bullpen got a reprieve Sunday thanks to Brian McAfee’s 108-pitch complete game effort against the Tigers, so all of his relievers will be working on at least two days of rest come Tuesday. Urbon threw 60 pitches in 4 2/3 innings of relief in Saturday’s game, but the other members of the Blue Devil bullpen all saw action in single-inning stints—meaning Pollard should have a full arsenal of arms to trot out to the mound this week.

The Eagles (17-18) are in the same boat as Duke, and are playing the first of their two midweek games against Presbyterian Tuesday night. With both sides playing their second game in as many days with possibly beleaguered bullpens, Wednesday’s game could easily turn into a slugfest—especially considering N. C. Central’s 6.47 team ERA. The Eagles, though, are well-equipped for a high-scoring affair and counter their weak pitching with an explosive offense that scores more than six runs per game and features five regulars batting better than .300.

The Blue Devils have come a long way after going through an extended rut early in conference play, and will need to sustain their momentum in the midweek as the top-ranked Hurricanes await them this weekend. Pollard said he finally feels as if his team is embracing the right mentality and has grown tremendously from its early-season woes.

“As I’ve talked a lot with our guys, confidence doesn’t come from things going your way or doing well. Confidence comes from struggling and overcoming those struggles, and learning how to overcome those struggles. I think we’re a team now that has real confidence,” Pollard said. “Early in the year, we won some ballgames, but we weren’t battle-tested yet. We hadn’t faced struggles and now that we’ve faced that, we’ve kind of worked our way through the other side of it. This is a truly confident team right now that’s expecting good things to happen.”

David Rieder contributed reporting.