Your 2021 ACC baseball champions, the Duke Blue Devils.
Talk about re-framing the narrative.
The ACC has 15 teams. Fourteen play baseball; Syracuse is the outlier. Only the top 12 make the ACC. The two worst teams stay home.
Just a few weeks ago it looked like Duke might be one of those two teams. Following a 15-6 loss to Louisville, the Devils were 10-17 in the ACC, on the outside looking in.
Lots of things were going wrong at that point but pitching was atop the list. Duke was on the short end of losses by scores like 10-6, 11-5, 21-8, 11-0 and 15-6. When they somehow did get good pitching, they couldn’t score any runs.
It started to turn around after the Louisville series. Star center fielder Joey Loperfido says that Duke had some pretty tough conversations about the team and the season.
And the pitching turned around. Big time. Pitching coach Dusty Blake left Duke shortly before the season started to take a job with the St. Louis Cardinals organization.
Duke elevated assistant coach Chris Gordon to the pitching job and it took some time for everybody to get on the same page.
But when they did, wow.
Duke swept Virginia Tech in Duke’s three-game home finale. They then went on the road and did the same thing to Clemson, likely knocking the Tigers out of the NCAA Tournament.
Duke allowed two or fewer runs in four of those six ACC wins. The starers were solid, the bullpen better than solid.
Duke made it to Charlotte and the ACC Tournament as the ninth seed.
Better than staying home. But still not ideal. Duke was in the same pod as fourth-seed Miami and fifth-seed Florida State. Duke would have to win both games to stay alive in the ACC and needed at least one win to feel good about their NCAA chances. Duke didn’t play FSU in the regular season and were swept at Miami, where they were outscored 21-7.
Duke opened with Florida State and didn’t waste any time. The Blue Devils scored five runs in the top of the first and cruised to a 12-1 win. Catcher Mike Rothenberg brought home four of those runs with a grand slam.
Duke coach Chris Pollard pulled a rabbit out of his hat when he started little-used sophomore Billy Seidl on the mound and got a solid start from a pitcher with an earned run average approaching 7.00.
Miami was next. Given the tie-breaking rules, the winner of this game would advance to the semifinals.
Duke got a great starting effort from ace Jack Carey but the bats were silent early. Duke trailed 2-0 going into the seventh. But Rothenberg tied it with a two-run single and ended the game with a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth.
Duke was in uncharted waters. Virginia was next and they had handled Duke twice in three meetings earlier in the season.
Another pitcher’s duel. Loperfido led off the top of the first with an opposite-field home run. He added another and a solo blast by shortstop Ethan Murray gave freshman lefty Luke Fox an early 3-0 lead.
Virginia clawed back with single runs in the third and fourth but Duke added an insurance run and the bullpen again sealed the deal.
Duke’s 4-2 win extended their winning streak to 11 games and sent them into the title game against possibly the only ACC team as hot as Duke. NC State had won 14 of 17 games and had blasted Georgia Tech 8-1 to reach the championship game. They had a potent offense and the overwhelming support of the Charlotte crowd.
The teams did not meet in the regular season due to Covid.
Duke would need lots of runs to score, especially with erratic junior Cooper Stinson on the mound. Stinson has the best pure stuff of any pitcher on the staff but doesn’t always command that stuff. His most recent outing was against Clemson. He allowed four runs in 4.1 innings, with three walks and four hit batters. Duke’s offense bailed him out and Duke won 14-8.
But they would need better from him.
And did they get it.
And did they need it.
Duke had a runner thrown out at the plate in the third but cobbled together a run in the fourth. Murray led off with a double, went to third on a fly out and scored on another fly out, a sacrifice fly by right fielder Peter Matt.
Meanwhile, Stinson was in complete control, allowing three singles through five innings, only one of them well hit.
The game may have been decided in the bottom of the sixth.
Austin Murr hit a grounder to second baseman Graham Pauley, playing Murr in shallow right field.
Pauley booted it.
Stinson then induced Tyler McDonough to hit a double-play ball to first baseman Chris Crabtree. Crabtree got the sure out at first but short-hopped the throw to second. The error was on Crabtree but Murray failed to block the low throw and all of a sudden Murr was on the third base, with one out.
Two ground balls and through no fault of his own, Stinson was in trouble.
The Wolfpack had a couple of potent left-handed bats coming up and Duke had veteran lefty reliever Matt Dockman ready to go.
But Dockman stayed in the pen.
“There was a lot of conversation going on the dugout,” Pollard conceded. “If you play that situation by the book, if you play the percentages, Matt Dockman should have been in at that moment. We talked about that and if I’m being honest with you, we had some disagreement in the moment about how to manage it. Ultimately, we decided that Cooper deserved the opportunity to work himself off the field. He had pitched such a great ballgame. We try to coach based on analytics and it absolutely went against the analytics to leave him in there.”
Jonny Butler—he’s the ACC’s leading hitter—hit a fly ball to center, probably deep enough to score Murr.
Loperfido conceded nothing.
“I heard R.J. [left fielder Schreck] just say ‘shoot 4’ [second base] and I knew that was going to be the play. I just tried to get behind it, get it out quick and get it on line.”
Murr left third too soon and realized it. By the time he had re-tagged, it was too late.
He stayed at third.
Stinson got the final out on a grounder and his day’s work was done and well done.
“The best start of his career,” Pollard said. “It just shows his maturity and toughness.”
“An unreal start in a big moment,” Loperfido added.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that the last three innings were anti-climatic. Far from it. Duke never got that insurance run and the ACC’s best offense was one swing away from tying it.
Jimmy Loper replaced Stinson and got four outs before allowing a one-out single in the eighth. Marcus Johnson got the final two outs of the inning.
But Butler led off the bottom of the ninth with a clean single. State wasn’t one swing away from tying it, they were one swing from winning it.
With their clean-up batter up, Trent Tatum.
Inexplicably, State asked Tatum to bunt Butler over. Tatum looked like he would rather have been doing anything else.
He struck out. A fielder’s choice at second and a routine fly ball and Duke was celebrating its first ACC Baseball Tournament championship
One other contributor to Duke’s win. Not one of Duke’s four opponents even attempted a steal, a tribute to both catcher Rothenberg and the ability of Duke’s pitchers to hold runners close.
And keep in mind that the final three games were very close, close enough for a stolen base to change the outcome.
Pollard says this was no accident.
“It says a lot about Mike Rothenberg and the job that he’s done. He did it time and time late in that game where he had to block an executed two-strike breaking ball where it would have been easy to take a chance and try to advance a base to get into scoring position. It says a lot about the job that Chris Gordon has done because this wasn’t a strength of ours early in the season and it certainly wasn’t a strength of Cooper Stinson’s early in the year. Today we were intentional about slowing the game down, picking to first base often. Nobody is going to like it but we’re going to force the issue because if we don’t we feel like State can get the running game going.”
Loperfido was named tournament MVP. It could just as easily have been Rothenberg. But it probably should have been Duke’s bullpen, which allowed no runs and five hits in 13.2 innings pitched.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my guys” Pollard summed up.
NCAA seedings, pairings and locations announced tomorrow. But for the first time since 1961, Duke isn’t sweating an invitation. They’re the ACC champions and they have the league’s automatic bid.
And the team no one wants to see in their bracket.