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Duke ace Michael Matuella on fast track to stardom

One of the top pitching prospects for this year’s major league baseball draft won only one game a year ago and owns an unremarkable college record of 5-7.

But those numbers don’t tell the full story of Duke junior right-hander Michael Matuella. The 6-foot-6, 220-pounder had the second-lowest opponents’ batting average in the ACC last year, at .190. He struck out 69 batters in only 581/3 innings. And he can hit 98 mph with his fastball.

It’s that major league fastball that has prompted baseball insiders to rate him among the top college pitching prospects in the nation. Baseball America tabs him as the top college prospect overall. Perfect Game lists him as the No. 1 junior. MLB.com predicted he will be the second player drafted. He has been named to three preseason All-America teams plus the watch list for the Golden Spikes Award, college baseball’s player of the year honor.

“Michael is a really special young man physically,” said Chris Pollard, beginning his third season as Duke’s coach. “He has a long, loose arm action, with a lot of leverage. He can top out at 98 mph with ease.

“That would be very much an above-average fastball, even at the major league level. He had one pitch as a freshman, and two last year. Now we feel like he has a four-pitch complement, with three off-speed pitches.

“Plus he’s a strike thrower. He fills up the strike zone. And he’s an incredibly hard worker, a leader. He sets the tone for our pitching staff.”

Matuella, from Great Falls, Va., wasn’t highly regarded as a high school prospect out of Georgetown Prep in Bethesda, Md. He was recruited by Pollard’s predecessor at Duke, Sean McNally, and Matuella said Maryland was the only other school that offered him a scholarship.

“I was looking for a good academic school (and) a good baseball school,” Matuella said. “I thought Duke was the best fit.”

Pollard said the first time he met Matuella was when he showed up on campus, in fall 2012. After watching Matuella throw a few pitches, Pollard said he asked him how hard he threw in high school and was told about 88 mph.

“I told him there’s a lot more velocity in that arm than what you’ve tapped into,” Pollard said.

“Physically he’s unlike any guy I’ve ever coached – size, velocity and location. And he has a ton of movement in that fastball, a sinking two-seam fastball.”

Matuella, who will start the season opener Friday at California, said he has added a two-seam changeup to the fastball, slider and curve in his repertoire and has gotten more aggressive throwing it.

Those tools figure to send him climbing up the draft boards this spring, when Matuella could become the 12th ACC player from the Triangle in the past 10 years to go in the first round. In 2012, right-hander Marcus Stroman was selected 22nd overall by the Toronto Blue Jays, becoming the only player in Duke history to be selected in the first round of the June amateur draft. Steve Kesses was selected by the New York Mets in the first round of the January secondary draft in 1976.

Matuella went 4-4 with a 4.53 ERA as a freshman, starting seven games and appearing in 22 overall. Last year he won a spot in the rotation as the Sunday starter but went 1-3 with a 2.78 ERA. He also missed four weeks with a back injury that limited him to 11 starts.

It’s the injury that has major league scouts wary, Baseball America editor John Manuel said.

“He dominated last year at times but hasn’t stayed healthy over a full college season,” Manuel said. “That’s a real question mark. He’s shown more upside, a higher ceiling, than any other college player. But to be that top pick you have to do it week in and week out.”

Duke hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1961, so Matuella might not pitch past the ACC tournament, “probably not more than 15 starts,” Manuel said. “Everything he does will be very highly scrutinized – not just every pitch he throws, but the way he walks to the mound, throws in the bullpen. He’s had a small track record compared with other players at the top of the draft classes.”

Manuel compared his time on the mound with former N.C. State pitcher Carlos Rodon, who was the third pick in last year’s draft by the Chicago White Sox, as an example.

In two seasons, Matuella has pitched 116 innings for Duke. In Rodon’s first two seasons for the Wolfpack, he logged 247 innings, plus summer ball with the U.S. college national team.

“This guy has half the track record Carlos had, and he’s not left-handed,” Manuel said. “He doesn’t have Rodon’s slider, but everything else is pretty loud, average to plus, mostly plus.”

So what does Matuella think of the attention he’s getting?

“I really don’t focus on that at all,” he said. “I can’t control it. I just focus on pitching well. If I do that, everything else will take care of itself.”

Would he leave school early if he’s a high draft pick?

“Baseball is what I love to do, what I want to do,” he said. “But I want to focus on the team and our season. That’s what will be the most fun.”

To prepare for the season, Matuella spent the summer working with a doctor in Los Angeles on a core fitness program to help him deal with problems he has had since he was a freshman in high school.

“I had a lack of core strength and stability,” Matuella said. “I was relying too much on my back. ... I would work out five hours a day, five days a week. It was very physically demanding and mentally demanding.”

Matuella completed the final part of the program just before the spring semester began and said he is healthy and ready to go.

Duke lost most of its everyday players from a year ago, and pitching will be expected to carry the Blue Devils. Matuella and senior right-hander Andrew Istler, the No. 2 starter, will shoulder much of that load.

Matuella said he’s not worried about expectations.

“Once again it’s something I can’t control, what they think,” he said. “I’m confident I’m going to pitch very well. I’m not worried about what the scouts are going to think, just how I’m going to prepare for each start.”

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