Duke baseball coach Chris Pollard and returning starters Joey Loperfido (center field) and Mike Rothenberg (catcher) met virtually with the media Friday. The occasion was the first day of fall practice.
So, the practice was rained out.
That’s so 2020.
You probably recall that Duke baseball had reached elite status when COVID-19 shut down the season in mid-March. The Blue Devils were 12-4 and ranked in all the national polls. An NCAA-hosting role seemed likely, a trip to Omaha for the College World Series a realistic possibility.
Then the season ended and the team scattered to the winds.
Well, not exactly.
Loperfido tells what happened.
Once the season was over “me and a handful of teammates actually went down to Michael Rothenberg’s house in Boca Raton. Florida. We were fortunate enough to get into a gym and use some facilities that he had a good relationship with and we were able to work out, get some live at-bats. I was down there until the end of May.”
“We made the best of a bad situation,” Rothenberg adds.
So, the Rothenberg family could be the season’s unsung heroes.
Then it became summer. Pollard says 12 returning players and most of the incoming freshmen played formal summer ball. He cited shortstop Ethan Murray, catcher/DH Rudy Maxwell and infielder Britt Fuller as having especially productive summers.
But Duke held out all of its pitchers, preferring what Pollard calls a “facilities-based” approach, utilizing facilities like Florida Baseball Ranch to fine-tune those valuable arms.
And they are valuable. Rothenberg, Murray, Loperfido and other returning Blue Devils have proven batting skills. Rothenberg had a 1.16 OPS last season, for example.
But the pitching is what makes Duke a title threat, one great arm after another. Duke threw six shutouts in those 16 games last season
Duke did lose Bryce Jarvis, the 18th pick (St. Louis) in the 2020 MLB draft. Also gone is ace closer Thomas Girard. He signed with Baltimore.
But Rothenberg doesn’t expect a drop off. Far from it.
“With the depth of the staff I don’t see us having any problem putting together a good weekend.”
Weekend, as in three quality starters, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
There’s Cooper Stinson, a 6-6, 260-pound junior.
He was 3-0, with an 0.42 earned run average last spring. That’s not a typo. Stinson has 102 strikeouts in 76 innings at Duke.
“When he’s on it’s crazy what he can do,” Rothenberg says.
Jack Carey is less physically-imposing, at 6-0, 185. But Rothenberg says Carey pitched a simulated game last week and was “lights out, pounded the zone; “ Fastballs in the mid-90s and a “great slider.”
He’s a junior.
Sophomore Henry Williams has looked great in practice but didn’t get to pitch much last season. Rothenberg says “we’ve all seen what he can do and he’s gotten a year older and a year better.”
That just scratches the surface. Reliever Matt Dockman and swingmen Jimmy Loper and Eli Herrick are among the other returnees with proven abilities.
Duke lost two prep signees to the MLB draft, Jordan Walker to St. Louis in the first round and Evan Carter to Texas in the second round.
Both were projected to play outfield at Duke.
Losing Carter was a shock. No one projected him to go that high.
Pollard says don’t sleep on the remainder of the prep class of 2020.
“This group of 10 has pleasantly surprised us with the way they’ve performed through this first six weeks of the semester. We are better on the mound than I thought we would be because this group of freshmen is pretty talented.”
Adam Boucher and Luke Fox came in for special mention.
Duke recouped in the outfield with three grad-student transfers. Richard Brereton (Emory), Chris Davis (Princeton) and Peter Matt (Penn) are all outfielders, with Brereton also expected to pitch. All three will have to make an adjustment to a higher-level of ball. But Pollard is high on all three and his track record on grad-student transfers is very impressive.
Pollard says depth in the outfield should be a strength. “We are very experienced in the outfield.”
Because of COVID-19, 2020 seniors were given the option of coming back for another season and several Blue Devils took that option, most notably returning third baseman Erickson Nichols. But Duke now has a roster of 45 and Pollard says that’s probably about five too many.
So, expect some trimming.
“We’ll re-evaluate at the end of the fall and see where we are and try to make the best decision possible to make sure we’re being fair to guys.”
Pollard acknowledges that his players are dealing with the restrictions of the pandemic.
“It’s our most difficult problem. . . . Guys are struggling with connectivity away from the field. It’s incumbent on us as coaches to try and be creative.”
That creativity has included golf outings and movie nights at Coombs Field.
Loperfido says getting on the field “really the fun part. . . . It’s really a release for everyone. Duke has done an incredible job. I’ve felt safe every step of the way. We’re wearing masks and following guidelines and everything. It’s the new normal.”
Loperfido says Duke’s “expectations don’t change this year. We feel like we’re deep, we feel like we’re talented and we’re ready to pick up where we left off last year and continue that run to Omaha.”
Rothenberg “had some discussions” with professional teams over the summer and had opportunities to turn pro.
“At the end of the day I just valued this team a little more than what could have happened. No one could have predicted what could have happened but I’m thrilled to be back. The level of talent on this team is something we haven’t seen before. I can’t wait to get to work.”
Let’s just hope all this fall work leads to spring baseball.