DURHAM, N.C. – The Duke baseball team ended its regular season last weekend at Virginia Tech, needing to sweep the three-game series to gain a spot in the eight-team ACC Tournament. That didn’t happen, but it is apparent that third-year head coach Sean McNally has the program heading in the right direction. Duke posted more wins this season (37) than any Blue Devils team in a decade, and finished the regular season 29-7-1 at home and 27-0 against non-conference teams while winning 10 ACC contests.
And it’s not like it was one of those magical seasons where everything went right. Duke had to fight its way through some adversity, most noticeably a case of elbow tendonitis that sidelined sophomore pitcher Michael Seander for all but 6.2 innings. Seander was a freshman All-America last season and may be Duke’s top professional prospect. He was Duke’s closer last year but went out so early this season that McNally hadn’t yet decided whether to keep him in that role or make him the number one starter.
Rest was the prescription for Seander and he should be back next season as good as new. Another key player, however, managed to not only recover from a serious injury this season but recovered sufficiently to become one of the ACC’s most feared sluggers.
First baseman Nate Freiman came to Duke from Wellesley, Mass. Freiman’s father is a lawyer and his mother a teacher, so academics is important to the family. In fact, his brother Eli is a freshman at Duke.
Nate Freiman is 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds but never was much interested in basketball. “Being from New England made my (college) decision pretty easy. It’s just too cold for baseball. I really wanted to come to Duke. It was the only visit I made.”
Freiman was recruited to be a pitcher but developed arm problems and became a first baseman. The arm injury caused him to miss half his freshman season but he batted .304, playing first base and the outfield and serving as designated hitter. He hit his stride as a sophomore, batting .369, with seven home runs and 48 runs batted in. Freiman even played some catcher.
This talent was all threatened in early March when he hurt his left hand against Valparaiso. Freiman tried to play through the injury before he realized it was more serious than he first thought. The hand was broken and required surgery.
Some players might have pouted, some might have decided it was a good time for a vacation, but Freiman did neither.
“Nate did everything he could while he was out to stay sharp,” says McNally. “He kept the hitter’s chart, he was lead cheerleader, he didn’t feel sorry for himself. How he handled that is a lesson to everybody.”
Freiman missed a month, 18 games worth of baseball. But he came back with a vengeance. Freiman hit a mammoth home run April 11 at North Carolina State in his first start to help Duke to a 4-1 upset. He hit a pair of opposite-field homers to key a 10-1 thrashing of Clemson and drove in four runs in a 10-2 win over Maryland. Freiman received national recognition in late April from the College Baseball Foundation for a six-game week in which he batted .593, with 15 runs batted in.
Duke’s home finale was last week against Campbell and Freiman had two home runs, a pair of doubles and a single in a 10-5 win. One of the doubles hit the top of the wall in dead center, meaning he was only inches from a three-homer game. Freiman finished the year with 11 home runs, the most by a Duke player since Ed Conrey hit 16 in 1998.
You might be tempted to think of Freiman as nothing but a slugger. But McNally points out that his star junior “transitioned to first and has evolved into a tremendous defensive first baseman. It didn’t just happen. He really worked on it.” Freiman is a huge target for his fellow infielders but he has quick feet and soft hands and has developed a knack for picking low throws out of the dirt. Against Campbell he turned a bad-hop grounder into a rally-killing 3-6-3 double play.
Freiman does more than play lip service to the student part of student-athlete. He was named to the All-ACC Academic team in 2006 and 2007 and earlier this month he and Duke catcher Matt Williams were named to the Academic All-District III team.
He’s majoring in history, with a minor in math, because “I just like them. There‘s no master plan. I’ll figure it out in graduate school.” Freiman considered majoring in physics but the time demands of baseball were too great. He has a 3.78 GPA.
When asked about the progress of the team, Freiman went out of his way to mention their academic prowess. “The program is heading in the right direction. We’ve come a long way since I got here, on the field and in the classroom. I‘m proud of the fact that baseball has one of the highest GPAs of any Duke team. We’re doing it on the field and off the field and we’re only going to get better.”
Will Freiman be around to see this improvement continue next season? The Major League Draft is next month and the junior is on a lot of radar screens. He had a spectacular season last summer in the wooden-bat Cape Cod League, playing only about an hour from his home, so any question about aluminum bats has been answered. But Freiman says, “I’m not thinking about the draft. I love school and I expect to be back next year. I‘ve always thought of this as a four-year deal.”
McNally won’t be surprised to see his star put the pros on a back-burner for a year. “I fully expect Nate to have a long and productive major-league career. But Nate is unique. He’s an unbelievably gifted student, who really enjoys college. He’s a special player. Guys like him don’t come along very often. He’s the best teammate any of us will ever have.”
Freiman isn’t the only Duke player to have successfully battled injuries. Christopher Manno is a sophomore pitcher-outfielder from Brooklyn. That position combination isn’t unusual in college. Duke’s starting center fielder, Alex Hassan, is also the team’s closer, and he finished the season with five saves.
Unlike Hassan, however, Manno views pitching as his primary calling. The left-hander was bothered by a balky back his freshman season and pitched only nine innings. He struck out 10 but walked 11, a major reason why his earned run average sky-rocketed to 9.64.
But Manno was healthy this season and the back pain is gone. He spent countless hours with pitching coach Sean Snedeker working on “staying back, staying tall, having a consistent release point.” The wildness went away.
McNally wasn’t sure where Manno fit in when the season began. But Seander’s injury and ineffectiveness by some other starters gave Manno a chance. He had wins against some of the lesser teams on Duke’s schedule before exploding into the spotlight April 19 against Clemson. Manno blew away Clemson’s hitters to the tune of 12 strikeouts and only four hits in 5.2 innings. This was the same game in which Freiman homered twice. Duke won 10-1 and Manno claimed the number two starter’s spot. The National Collegiate Baseball Writer’s Association named Manno national pitcher of the week for this effort.
He followed with wins over Maryland and Longwood, before losses to Wake Forest and Virginia Tech dropped his record to 6-2.
Manno is 6-foot-1 and packs deceptive power in his 160-pound frame. Freiman says that his teammate has “lots of arm strength, throws hard, and hides the ball well,” while McNally adds, “his ball just jumps on you. Batters don’t get a good look at it until it’s too late.”
Manno says that he throws in the low 90s mph at his best, but he relies more on deception, location, movement and enough “effective wildness to keep batters from digging in and getting comfortable.”
McNally praises Manno’s coming-out-party as “a really neat story. He’s worked tremendously hard and earned every opportunity. His growth and development have been something to watch.”
Manno, a visual arts major, has pro ball in his sights and will join Freiman, Seander, Hassan and shortstop Jake Lemmerman in the Cape Cod League this summer. “I just kept working,” he says. “I wanted to pitch, got the opportunity, and took it.”
If the Nate Freimans and Chris Mannos continue to seize opportunities, the future of Duke baseball is bright. McNally says his team is still figuring things out. “The lesson we’ve got to learn is that the margin on the road is so delicate, so small. We’re young, lots of freshmen and sophomores, so there’s learning to be gained. One of our core values is that connection between academic and athletic excellence. We expect our team to challenge itself on the field and in the classroom. We’re going to continue to raise the bar.”