Leading up to the college baseball season, we will preview each of the Atlantic Coast Conference baseball teams. You can view all of our team previews to date here. Today’s preview features the Duke Blue Devils.
The Blue Devils will take the field in 2013 under a new head coach, 38-year-old Chris Pollard. Before Pollard began his head coaching career at Appalachian State in 2004, the Mountaineers had completed back-to-back 10 win seasons. Last season, Appalachian State finished 41-18, with its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1986.
They opened the Charlottesville Regional with wins over Oklahoma and host Virginia, but lost two games against the Sooners to miss out on a Super Regional appearance. For the turnaround he led in Boone, Baseball America named Pollard one of the nation’s ten best coaches under the age of 40.
The good news for Pollard is that the Duke team he inherits suffers very little turnover from 2012, with only three departures from last year’s roster. The bad news? Those players include the ace and closer of the pitching staff and the team’s top bat. Also, the Blue Devils were 11th or 12th in the ACC in virtually every notable statistical category in 2012, en route to a 21-34 record.
During his career at Duke, relief pitcher David Putnam recorded 64 strikeouts over 53 innings. Due to injuries early in his career, most of Putnam’s appearances came in 2012. As a senior, Putnam posted a 2.76 ERA, fanning 40 batters in 32 2/3 innings and recording six saves.
Outfielder Will Piwnica-Worms led the Blue Devils last season in home runs (7), hits (53), RBI (39), triples (4), and slugging percentage (.514). He finished his career in Durham with a .296 batting average. Piwnica-Worms signed with the Washington Nationals following the season, while Putnam joined the Chicago White Sox family.
Then, of course, there’s Marcus Stroman. Stroman led the NCAA in strikeouts (136), and was sixth in the ACC in ERA (2.36) and tenth in opposing batting average (.231). He was named a second-team All-American by Louisville Slugger and Perfect Game. Ultimately, Stroman was rewarded for his spectacular season with a first-round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft, going to the Toronto Blue Jays.
So if those guys are gone, who out of the many returnees can be expected to produce for the Blue Devils? One source of offense will be junior catcher Mike Rosenfeld. Rosenfeld was the team’s leader in batting average (.312) in 2012, one of only 22 players in the ACC with a batting average over .300. His batting average was .349 with runners in scoring position, recording 31 RBI. Rosenfeld also led the Blue Devils with seven stolen bases and was second to Piwnica-Worms in slugging percentage (.459).
Redshirt sophomore Chris Marconcini will provide some offense that was missing, literally and figuratively, in 2012. Marconcini was a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American in 2011, starting at first base and left field throughout the season and leading the team in doubles (15), triples (6), home runs (4), RBI (39), and slugging percentage (.481). However, it was announced in the week leading up to the 2012 opener that Marconcini had suffered a torn ACL in his right knee and would miss the entire season. Marconcini should help to boost a Blue Devils offense that struggled without him.
Sophomore southpaw Trent Swart was Duke’s number two starting pitcher, behind Stroman, last season. As a freshman, Swart registered a 4.28 ERA in thirteen starts, including 53 strikeouts in 55 innings against ACC opponents. While the record (4-8) may not improve without some help from the bats, Swart should be a better pitcher with a full season under his belt.
Another pitcher who could ease the loss of Stroman is freshman right-hander James Marvel. 74th overall on ESPN.com’s rankings of 2012 recruits, Marvel was drafted in the 37th round by the Minnesota Twins. As a senior, Marvel recorded a 1.33 ERA with 58 strikeouts in as many innings, earning numerous regional player of the year honors. He also batted .456 with 27 RBI and possessed an accurate arm in the infield for Campolindo (Ca.) High School, so he could help Duke in the field or in the lineup as well.
Pollard will be challenged with the task of turning the Duke program, 192-198-1 over seven seasons under previous coach Sean McNally, into a conference contender as North Carolina and NC State enter the season garnering copious national attention. He has proven he can do this, both at Appalachian State and at Division II Pfeiffer. He will also have to do so while maintaining Duke’s rigorous academic admission standards. Pollard graduated from Davidson in 1996 following one of the best pitching careers in school history. In that sense, he will be able to both connect with current players and recruit future Blue Devils by relating his experience as a student-athlete at a demanding university. It’s not something most baseball fans will worry about while taking in Duke games this season, but it could certainly play into Pollard’s favor.
For the fourth season, Duke will play several games at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the home of (you guessed it) the Durham Bulls, Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays. The DBAP will also host this season’s ACC Baseball Tournament. While Duke does have an on-campus site in historic Jack Coombs Field (that has seen several renovations of late), it still lacks the capacity of the downtown park for marquee games. The DBAP features great views, an even better location, an old-school inspired manual scoreboard, and, of course, a bull above the left field “Blue Monster.” Unfortunately, the “Hit Bull, Win Steak” does not apply in college games, as I learned in 2011. At the risk of sounding like a member of Durham’s Chamber of Commerce, it’s a must-visit, whether for Duke baseball or the ACC Tournament.
Duke was the unanimous worst team in the Coastal Division in the eyes of ACC coaches in this year’s preseason poll, and it is difficult to argue with that assessment. The Blue Devils will likely struggle in 2013, but the future is bright in Durham if Pollard can pull off another revival.