DURHAM -- This was a wet, gray spring in North Carolina, with rain falling virtually every day for more than a month. So when the clouds broke shortly after noon on the last Monday in May, and Durham Bulls Athletic Park was bathed in sunlight, it seemed tellingly appropriate to the moment.
The moment when Duke, which plays its home games at the Triple-A ballpark in downtown Durham, the squad that watched ESPNU’s “The Road to Omaha” selection show at a restaurant overlooking left field at the DBAP, had been chosen at long last for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
For more than a half-century, since before any of its coaches or players were born, the Blue Devils had been a baseball afterthought in the Triangle and the ACC, residing on the outskirts of competitiveness for season after season, decade after decade. Those long, dark ages so resembled the history of the school’s football program, baseball coach Chris Pollard repeatedly turned to David Cutcliffe for advice and support as he orchestrated a quiet renaissance that bore fruit in his fourth year on the job.
Pollard, a 42-year-old with a salt-and-pepper goatee, admitted the NCAA drought weighed on the 2016 Blue Devils as they rallied in May to earn the bid that had eluded them for so long.
“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that we didn’t feel it a little bit down the stretch,” said Pollard. “Every single one of our players and coaches felt the weight of that history, and to overcome that showed a tremendous amount of hard work.”
The Devils started the 2016 ACC schedule 1-7, including a sweep by North Carolina, part of a 2-9 stretch that spanned the second half of March. Those early stumbles left the team 10-13 near the midpoint of the season, its RPI No. 116. There didn’t appear to be much reason to worry about making the NCAA Tournament; just finishing over .500 seemed a sufficiently lofty goal.
Such modest baseball achievements had become painfully par for the course at Duke after a bright start to its ACC tenure.
Back when a single representative from the new league advanced to the NCAAs, the Blue Devils reached postseason three times in a six-year period (1956, 1957, 1961). A half-dozen times in the ACC’s initial decade the Devils finished in the top half of the league, and posted a winning conference record, behind the coaching of Clarence McKay “Ace” Parker, the Duke great and former pro in football and baseball.
The Blue Devils finished atop the league standings on three occasions during that formative ACC era, most recently in 1961. The ’61 club, led by first-team All-ACC infielder Lynn Fader, advanced to the College World Series, a feat the program previously achieved in its final two seasons of Southern Conference play (1952, 1953).
Then, as if someone hit a switch, or more aptly a wall, Duke stopped winning. There were only three seasons — 1963, 1994 and 2014 — among the ensuing 55 in which the Devils posted a winning ACC record. Three other times they broke even in league play. The other 49 seasons, including this one, produced losing marks in conference competition.
Lack of success within the league was magnified once the conference expanded in 2006 and began excluding the weakest teams from its postseason championship tournament. This year’s appearance in the ACC Tournament was only the third by Duke in those last 11 years but the second in Pollard’s four seasons at the helm.
To get that far, and to secure its third straight 30-win season, Duke rallied to win five of seven ACC series starting in April, including three on the road. Among those conquests was perennial power Florida State and 2016 ACC champion Clemson. The Devils finished 9-2 overall in May, and didn’t lose outside the league after March 22 against East Carolina, an eventual NCAA entrant.
“Towards the beginning of the year obviously we had our struggles,” Pollard said. “But just watching the team kind of evolve through the season has really been fun to watch.”
Tarnishing their late surge, the Blue Devils immediately lost a play-in game against Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament, the outcome determining who advanced to pool play and who went home. Duke left a dozen men on base in the 4-3 defeat, allowing a crucial base runner to advance and ultimately score on a sacrifice fly played too casually in shallow right field.
Still, Pollard — known to stay up until 2 AM monitoring Twitter traffic about the merits of teams around the country vying for the 64 berths in the NCAAs — remained outwardly confident his squad’s overall effort justified inclusion. Surely it helped that the Blue Devils finished seventh in the ACC, which ultimately tied the SEC for the all-time record with 10 members in the 2016 NCAA Division I baseball tournament.
“I think we’ve played as well, I think if you really take a deep dive into the numbers, we’ve played as well as anybody in the country over the second half of the season,” the coach declared after the Demon Deacon defeat. “I think most of the folks that really know our sport had us in going into today, and I can’t see where anything that happened on the field today would take that away from us.”
This was a squad that got by primarily on timely hitting, good fielding and superior pitching. Cleanup batter Justin Bellinger hit .336. Freshman outfielder Jimmy Herron, the leadoff hitter and a second team All-ACC pick, hit .328 through May, tied for the ACC lead in doubles (22) and was second in steals (24 in 28 attempts). Fellow sophomore Jack Labosky, an infielder and relief pitcher, likewise made second team. Collectively, though, Duke ranked next-to-last in batting average in the ACC.
The Devils made up for that deficiency with the league’s fourth-best fielding percentage and a staff earned run average that ranked sixth. The pitching staff was led by a trio of graduate students — right-handers Brian McAfee and Kellen Urbon and lefty Trent Swart. Those three matched the total number of grad students on the ACC’s other 13 squads combined.
Swart, redshirted at Duke while recovering from Tommy John surgery, paced active ACC pitchers in career strikeouts and was second in innings pitched.
McAfee, among the ’16 league leaders in innings pitched and complete games, was given the start in Duke’s NCAA opener against UNC Wilmington at Columbia, S.C. He and Urbon, tops on the team in ERA (2.87), redshirted for a year due to injury while at Cornell. But the Ivy League won’t let grad students compete, so they transferred to Duke to take a Master’s program at the Fuqua Business School and were able to play immediately.
Then all the pieces fell into place and Duke, its RPI up to No. 26 by season’s end, got its breakthrough NCAA bid.
“It’s something that we’ve been talking about since the beginning of the season,” Urbon said. “This has been our goal and everything that we do in the fall, summer, in the winter — this is what we’re working towards.”
In a way, the ultimate NCAA result — Duke went 0-2 at the Columbia, S.C., regional — was secondary. Getting there set a new standard and a new level of expectations. Now, bolstered by a developing batting order; a recruiting edge resulting from a seven-year deal making the DBAP its home field; and a coaching staff that led the program to an average of 31 wins annually over four seasons, Duke can envision 2016 as a new beginning.
Or, rather, a return to the success the program enjoyed when the ACC was young.