Good ol Rocky Top, Rocky Top Tennessee.
If you’re not sick of that venerable chestnut now, you will be by the end of the weekend, a weekend that hopefully will end with Duke’s baseball team advancing out of Knoxville to a Super Regional.
Duke played its way off the NCAA bubble into a second seed in last week’s memorable week in Charlotte.
But getting out of Knoxville with an advancement won’t be easy. The Volunteers are the nation’s third seed and are fifth in the RPI. Duke is 20th in the RPI. Based on Duke’s RPI, they should have been the second seed in a regional where the top seed was somebody in the 12 to 16 range; Greenville, North Carolina, perhaps.
But Charlotte got that second spot in ECU’s regional and Duke got sent on a road trip to the other side of the Appalachians.
It should be noted that the NCAA seeded seven SEC teams in the top-16 and only Notre Dame from the ACC. Don’t get no respect.
Duke goes into the regionals with a 12-game winning streak. How to sustain and build on that?
“I think we’ve got to continue to pitch the way we did in the ACC Tournament,” head coach Chris Pollard told the media today. “I can’t say enough about the way we pitched last week.”
It was an exceptional effort. Duke allowed five runs in four wins, all against teams that will be playing this week. Duke’s starting pitchers allowed one walk in four games, while the bullpen allowed five hits and no runs in 13.2 innings pitched. No one even attempted to steal a base against Duke.
The key to Duke’s pitching success may not actually be a pitcher. Senior catcher Mike Rothenberg is an elite defender. He frames pitches as well as anyone, he blocks breaking balls in the dirt as well as anyone, his throwing arm keeps potential base stealers anchored to their bases.
Not allowing free bases was “a massive reason we only gave up five runs in four games,” Rothenberg said. “Throwing a ton of strikes, obviously that starts with our pitching staff and coach [Chris] Gordon. And controlling the running game, we were really good with our pickoff attempts. Coach Pollard always talks about in the stolen-base game, preventing the attempts rather than focusing on throwing guys out.”
Duke opens with third seed Liberty, a familiar opponent. They placed twice this season, Duke winning 5-4 in Durham and 7-0 in Lynchburg.
“I thought we matched up really well with them,” Pollard said. “We played them really tough.”
Liberty is 36th in the RPI.
Wright State is the fourth seed and one of the nation’s best hitting teams, albeit in the Horizon League. Still, the college-baseball-universe is one in which schools like Coastal Carolina and Dallas Baptist can become national powers and Wright State has been very successful over the years.
They should not be slept on.
But Duke isn’t going to get out of this regional without beating the home team and the home team is pretty darn good. They’re 45-16, including a 20-10 mark in the SEC. The Volunteers lost to national top-seed Arkansas in the SEC Tournament title game. They hit for average and home runs. Shortstop Liam Spence is hitting .374. He’s their spark-plug and the guy you have to keep off base.
He’s also from Australia.
Third baseman Jake Rucker joined Spence on the All-SEC first team.
On the other side of the mound, Tennessee leads the SEC with a 3.44 ERA.
Yes, better than Vanderbilt’s staff, which has two presumptive top-five picks anchoring its rotation.
Beating Liberty in the opener is not a given and it’s always essential in this kind of tournament to start with a win. Duke advanced out of the loser’s bracket in Athens, Georgia in 2018 but it’s not the kind of thing you want to make a habit.
Starters Jack Carey and Luke Fox are pitching very well and Duke’s bullpen has been virtually unhittable lately. And Duke might see Henry Williams return. He’s been out since mid-April and you can never have too many arms in tournament play.
But Cooper Stinson is the guy who has the stuff to shut down Tennessee’s bats, indeed anybody’s bats, as witnessed by his dominant performance against NC State in the ACC title game.
The flowing-maned, 6-6, 240-pound junior from the Atlanta suburbs looks like he should have been an extra in the Vikings or a roadie for the Allman Brothers Band.
But don’t be fooled. Stinson might be the most cerebral pitcher on a staff of brainiacs.
Here’s what Rothenberg says about Stinson.
“No matter how that start goes, he prepares the exact way throughout the week. That guy is the most process-oriented guy I’ve been around in a long time. He has his routine and he falls in love with it and he never gets wavered. . . . For him it’s just being in a good mental space. He’s a really smart, analytical guy. He always has a plan and is really good at executing it.”
Pollard adds that Stinson has a remarkable ability to move on from good games or bad games and focus on the task ahead.
Duke has seen all of this before. Guys like Rothenberg, center fielder Joey Loperfido, first baseman Chris Crabtree, third baseman Erickson Nichols and reliever Matt Dockman have been playing in the NCAA Tournament for their entire Duke careers and have advanced to Super Regionals in 2018 and 2019 by winning on the road.
“We got hot at the right time,” Loperfido says. “It just goes to show that if we get a little bit of momentum going our way, it just shows how dangerous we can be.”
The expression”playing with house money” was thrown around several times today. After almost being counted down for the count four weeks ago, Duke is loose and very, very confident.
“These guys have relaxed,” Pollard says. “This has been a relaxed group down the stretch, they’ve had a lot of fun playing with each other.”
It helps that Duke defeated NC State in a big, largely pro-Wolfpack crowd. No more empty stadiums.
Pollard adds one more thing.
“I’ve always heard that it’s more difficult to win an ACC Tournament than to win a regional. We had to go through three really good teams just to get to yesterday. That experience, doing it on the road, really continues to develop the confidence this team is having right now.”
Wheels up Friday, at noon. Doing it on the road.