You can never have too many arms.
Especially in a tournament.
That’s baseball 101.
College baseball coaches search for certainty. Batting orders are precisely put together to balance a variety of imperatives. Your top starter is your Friday starter, followed by the Saturday starter, the Sunday starter, the midweek starter, the seventh-inning reliever, well, you get the drift.
Nothing unique about this, of course. Nobody goes to a restaurant and tells the waiter or waitress to “surprise me.”
Which brings us to this week’s NCAA baseball regional in Knoxville Regional. All Duke knows for sure is that they’ll open Friday at noon, against Liberty. After that? To be determined.
Let’s look at recent history. Duke ended a long NCAA-Tournament drought in 2016 with a trip to Columbia, South Carolina. Duke lost its opener to UNC-Wilmington and then the loser’s bracket game against the host team.
Two games, two losses, have a nice summer.
Two years later Duke advanced out of Athens, Georgia by playing five games, winning four straight after losing their opener.
It took Duke only three games to win the Morgantown regional in 2019.
Three tournaments, three different scenarios.
And, yes, playing four games is on the table.
Chris Pollard and his staff probably haven’t decided on Duke’s rotation yet and if they have, they certainly wouldn’t tell the media. Loose lips sink ships and all that.
But Jack Carey almost certainly will get one of the two guaranteed starts. Carey is a junior right-hander from New Jersey. He has appeared in 14 games for Duke this season and they’ve all been starts.
How is he approaching this week’s uncertainty?
A combination of flexibility and process, Carey told the media today.
“Myself and coach Gordon and coach Pollard all set up a plan going into the week. This year has been kind of crazy with Covid. We’ve had a couple of times when I’ve started on Saturday, on Sunday, and on Friday a couple of times. It’s all just preparation, it’s planning, from day one, as soon as you know when you’re going. I think we’ve attacked that plan pretty well so far this year. We have a good plan coming this weekend and we’ll go from there.”
Carey and Cooper Stinson are the two locks to get starts this weekend. Freshman lefty Luke Fox almost certainly secured a starting nod after his dominant performance against Virginia. He’s a freshman sure but he led his Milwaukee-area team to two state football championships at quarterback and doesn’t seem like the type to be especially bothered by pressure.
But if Duke goes to a fourth game, ah, that’s where the fun begins. Josh Nifong, Richard Brereton and Billy Seidl all have some starting experience this season.
Seidl is an interesting option. He’s a sophomore but didn’t pitch last season. He got the start against Florida State in the ACC Tournament opener and held the Seminoles to one run in 3.1 innings, before turning it over to the bullpen.
“Him not being able to pitch last year was really tough,” Carey said. “But the ability to come back this year and give us a great start, I think he was only supposed to go two innings but he ended up going 3.1, which is huge in a tournament, saving pitching. You could call him a secret weapon. He’s developed into a phenomenal pitcher. Each week that he throws, he gets a little bit better.”
Duke also could benefit from the return of Henry Williams. He’s a talented 6-5 right-hander who got six impressive starts early in the season before going down with what is described as forearm tightness. He’s been throwing simulated games in practice and could be able to give Duke a 40-or-so pitch game.
If the starters can turn a lead over the bullpen, good things are likely to happen. Pollard’s teams have included quality closers like Jack Labosky, Ethan DeCaster and Thomas Girard. Replacing Girard was one of Pollard’s top questions going into this season.
Marcus Johnson never thought he would be the answer to that question. He’s 6-6 and a native of Fordana, California, a west coast guy who said he came east for Duke’s academics. He only pitched 2.1 innings last season.
Here’s what he says happened last fall.
“The whole fall I thought I was going to put myself into position to be a starter. Closing wasn’t really something I was thinking about. But when I worked into that role at the beginning of the year, I just kind of learned to love it, to love being that guy at the end of the game, pitching well. I just kind of embraced it.”
Whose idea was it?
The coaches “kind of made that decision.”
It seems to have worked. Johnson has been practically un-hittable down the stretch. He’s thrown 13.1 innings in his last seven appearances and hasn’t allowed a single run. Johnson leads Duke with seven saves and has 57 strikeouts in 37 innings pitched.
He has lots of help. Jimmy Loper has five saves and senior Matt Dockman is a crafty left-hander who can get that one key out or give Duke two or three innings in the middle of the game.
Carey says having that kind of bullpen gives the starters the confidence to lay it all on the line for as long as they’re on the mound.
“Every time I go out there and start, I tell myself that as long as I can get to the sixth or seventh inning, I can turn it over to the bullpen. It’s a great feeling as a starter. There’s nothing better.”
Johnson says Duke has the right mindset to keep playing past this weekend.
“The nice thing about being hot is you want to just show up and keep on doing what you’ve been doing. Everything we need and everyone we need is out there practicing today, so we’re just going to take that to Knoxville.”
The conversations took place at a Coombs Field with a new banner, the 2021 ACC Tournament champions.
Carey says the team noticed.
“We just realized that this was the first piece of hardware the Duke program has brought back [in a long time]. It’s a really cool feeling.”
More to come? Stay tuned.