NCAA tournament appearances are now routine. Back-to-back super regionals prove Duke can play baseball with the nation’s top teams.
While the Blue Devils still haven’t been to the College World Series since 1961, the day that drought ends appears, to Duke coach Chris Pollard, to be inevitable.
“I’ve said ever since I’ve got here and I feel even more strongly about it now than I did then,” Pollard said. “For us, getting to the College World Series is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
Pollard’s seventh season as Duke’s coach saw the Blue Devils (35-27) make the NCAA tournament for the third time in the last four years. Prior to this run, Duke hadn’t played in the tournament since that 1961 College World Series season.
The last two seasons, Duke reached Game 3 of a super regional only to lose and be denied a trip to Omaha, Neb.., for the sport’s championship event.
Last year it was at Texas Tech. This year it was Vanderbilt which, after losing 18-5 to the Blue Devils in the opener, won the final two games 3-0 and 13-2 to end Duke’s season.
Next year the goal will be to move beyond the final 16 teams standing and reach Omaha with seven other teams to battle for an NCAA championship.
With seven of the nine players from Duke’s starting lineup returning along with a host of reliable pitchers, plus what Pollard believes could be the program’s best recruiting class of his tenure, he sees no reason why 2020 can’t be the year Duke goes even further.
“I think we have a chance to be really good,” Pollard said.
Who’s back in the lineup?
Nearly everyone as the only everyday position players the Blue Devils will lose are senior outfielders Kennie Taylor and Kyle Gallagher.
Catcher Michael Rothenberg returns for his junior season to anchor the defense and the lineup. The starting infield of -- third to first -- Erikson Nichols, Ethan Murray, Joey Loperfido and Matt Mervis is back.
Right fielder Chase Cheek started Duke’s first 48 games, hitting .293 with 20 stolen bases, before a knee injury ended his season. He’s expected to be back and ready for his senior season next spring.
Freshman Rudy Maxwell and sophomore Chris Crabtree shared time at designated hitter in the NCAA tournament.
Of the 377 runs Duke scored this season, 288 were scored by players returning next season. That’s 76 percent.
Bryce Jarvis turned in a standout sophomore season, excelling with two strong NCAA tournament starts against West Virginia and Vanderbilt. For the season, the right-hander appeared in 19 games with 11 starts. He compiled a 5-2 record with a 3.81 ERA. His presence in the rotation next season gives Duke someone solid to build around.
But there’s plenty more experienced arms in addition to Jarvis.
Of the 553 ⅓ innings Duke pitched this season, players returning pitched 400 ⅓ of them. That’s 72 percent.
Cooper Stinson (1-4, 5.47 ERA) started 14 games as freshman and Bill Chillari (2-4, 5.35) started 16 as a junior this season. Both will factor into next year’s starting staff although Duke will need better work from both.
The bullpen should be solid again as Thomas Girard (1-5, 2.33), Duke’s closer as a junior with nine saves, return to handle the back end. Left-hander Matt Dockman (6-1, 3.80) proved valuable this season as a sophomore and will be utilized even more as a junior.
Jack Carey (4-1, 5.14) was an effective bullpen arm as a freshman who will get a chance to do even more next season.
Pollard and recruiting coordinator Josh Jordan both believe the incoming freshman class contains a number of impact players.
Catcher Chad Knight and infielder Graham Pauley are both solid hitters capable of becoming regulars in their first season. Both players have versatility in the field to find at bats anywhere.
The best position player in Duke’s class, outfielder Sam Siani, was selected with the 37th overall pick of last week’s MLB Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Though he’s still negotiating his contract and hasn’t signed yet, he’s expected to receive a signing bonus around $2 million which would make it unlikely he’s come to college instead.
Top pitching prospects include righthanders Colten Smith, Henry Williams, Marcus Johnson, and left-hander Clark Klitenic.
That doesn’t include any graduate transfers Duke can add. The Blue Devils have been active in that market in recent years and this summer could be the same story.