DURHAM, N.C. – The Duke baseball team will have an opportunity to separate itself from a group of four teams vying for the final two spots in the ACC tournament when the Blue Devils host Maryland this weekend for a three-game ACC series beginning at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 25 at Jack Coombs Field.
With Florida State, Miami, North Carolina and N.C. State occupying the top four spots in the conference standings and Virginia and Georgia Tech currently clinging to the five and six seeds, Duke (29-13-1, 6-13-1 ACC) is deadlocked with Clemson (21-20-1, 7-13-1 ACC), Wake Forest (16-25-0, 7-13-0 ACC) and Maryland (25-19-0, 7-14-0) for the final two seeds in the ACC tournament. Only two of the four teams can make the tournament, and Duke has the opportunity to separate itself from the pack this weekend against the Terps.
The Blue Devils enter the weekend series fresh off a pair of road wins over UNC Greensboro and Davidson. Duke’s bats have been red hot over the past two weeks, as the team is averaging over 10 runs and 12 hits per game over their last nine games since being held to a single run in an 8 -1 loss to N.C. State two weekends ago.
The recent surge has much to do with the consistent production of the top two thirds of Duke’s batting order, which includes leadoff man Alex Hassan, two-hitter Matt Williams, three-hitter Nate Freiman and the four, five and six platoon of Jeremy Gould, Jonathan Nicolla and Gabriel Saade. All six Blue Devils are batting over .300 on the season and have each topped 20 runs and 20 RBI this season.
Freiman has anchored the group as the three-hitter and is currently on a nine-game hitting streak that features six multi-hit outings, three doubles and three home runs. Despite appearing in only 25 games this season, the 6-8, 240 pound first baseman leads Duke with a .394 batting average, seven home runs and a .673 slugging percentage.
Nicolla has also been on a tear and boasts the longest current hitting streak in the ACC after collecting at least one hit in each of his last 13 games. The senior designated hitter is batting .348 during that span with 14 runs scored and has contributed a pair of hits in each of his last two games. Williams is also currently on a 12-game streak with a matching .348 average during his tear. He has accounted for 21 runs during his streak, driving in 11 while scoring 10. He has also hammered seven of his 12 doubles on the season in those 12 games, including one in each of the last four outings.
Saade has also swung a hot bat for Duke as of late and hammered his sixth home run of the season in Duke’s last game against Davidson. The sophomore second baseman took over the team RBI lead against the Wildcats after sending in his 34th and 35th runs of the season. His 20 extra base hits are the most on the team and include three triples, which is also tops on the team.
Duke changed the look of its pitching rotation against Clemson last weekend and will employ the same starting trio of Andrew Wolcott, Christopher Manno and Jonathan Foreman in the series against Maryland. Last weekend, the group combined to hold Clemson to two earned runs and 16 hits over a combined 17.2 innings of work as Duke split the series 1-1-1 with the Tigers.
Wolcott opened the weekend by holding the Tigers to two earned runs over six complete innings to drop his ERA to 2.92 on the season for the fifth-lowest clip in the ACC. The junior right-hander has consistently provided quality outings for the Blue Devils, holding the opposition to three earned runs or less in eight of his nine starts. Over his last three outings against ACC opponents, Wolcott has put together a 2.12 ERA after allowing just four earned runs over 17 complete innings.
Following Wolcott’s outing, Manno made his first weekend start of the season for Duke and did nothing short of dominate the Tigers on the way to being named the NCBWA National Pitcher of the Week. The 6-1, 160 pound left-hander struck out 12 batters through 5.2 scoreless innings on Saturday to lead Duke to a 10-1 win and continue a streak of 12.2 scoreless innings of work. In addition to improving his record to 4-0, the scoreless start dropped Manno’s ERA to 2.89 and improved his strikeout average to 14.22 Ks per nine innings.
Foreman also had a stellar debut in his first weekend start of the season after holding the Tigers to one unearned run over six full innings. The 5-11, 200 pound sophomore gave up just five hits and two walks in his sixth start of the season and now boasts a 1.69 ERA, which is the lowest among all Duke pitchers with at least 20 innings.
Scouting The Terrapins
Maryland is coming off a series win over Georgia Tech last weekend in which the Terrapins defeated two of the top starting pitchers in the ACC on Friday and Saturday. The Terps have picked up ACC victories in five of their seven conference series, including upsets over North Carolina and Clemson.
The series will feature two of the top defensive teams in the ACC, as Maryland ranks third in the conference with a .975 fielding percentage while Duke holds the top spot with a .977 clip. The Terrapins’ left side of the infield combo of shortstop Joe Palumbo and third baseman Mike Murphy is one of the best in the ACC, as the duo has combined for a .949 fielding percentage and just 15 errors in 297 chances. They trail only Duke’s tandem of Jake Lemmerman and Ryan McCurdy, who have put together a combined .962 fielding percentage and 12 errors in 313 opportunities.
With a collective batting average of .290, Maryland’s offense lays claim to an impressive blend of power and speed as evidenced by their 42 long balls and 38 stolen bases. Their lineup features one of the top power hitters in the conference in third baseman Mike Murphy, who has launched 10 home runs this season to drive in a 33 RBI. Outfielder Gerry Spessard has also provided some pop in the lineup with 16 extra base hits, including six homers and seven doubles.
The Maryland offense also boasts some major league pedigree in the form of senior infielder Steve Braun, who is the younger brother of Milwaukee Brewers outfielder and 2005 ACC Player of the Year Ryan Braun. As the starting second baseman for Maryland, Braun’s value lies in his legs and his glove as he leads the team with nine stolen bases and has put together a .963 fielding percentage in the middle of the infield.
On Deck For The Blue Devils
The three games against Maryland will signal the final home conference series of the season for Duke, which plays its final ACC matchups against Wake Forest and Virginia Tech on the road. Four home games still remain on the schedule for the Blue Devils though, including three non-conference bouts next week, beginning with a noon doubleheader against Longwood on Monday, May 5. The Blue Devils will also host Davidson on Tuesday at 7 p.m. to conclude the two-game home-and-away series.