By Jim Sumner, GoDuke the Magazine
Duke baseball had a breakout 2018 season, a school-record 45 wins in a campaign that ended in Lubbock, Tex., one win shy of Omaha and the College World Series.
But Duke lost seven position players from that team, including four juniors who were drafted into the professional ranks. Duke graduated two of its three weekend starting pitchers and both of its closers.
Is Duke rebuilding? Or reloading?
Head coach Chris Pollard says that’s the wrong question.
“We haven’t used either of those terms. We try to approach each year as its own unique opportunity to grow. We’ve got a lot of big shoes to fill. You can’t fill those shoes with just one freshman or just one transfer. It requires getting our new guys up to speed.
“But our returnees have to step up and fill those voids. We haven’t spent a lot of time talking about last year with this team. We’ve got too many new faces, so we’ve tried to make it about this team, this year.”
Pollard has built his program on pitching and defense. “We believe this is the deepest pitching staff we’ve ever had,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of power arms. I think we can produce a lot more swing-and-miss than last year.”
Junior Graeme Stinson, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound lefty, is the anchor of the staff. Stinson was a long reliever most of last season but had some lights-out performances late in the season, both out of the bullpen and as a starter. He posted a win in an NCAA Tournament elimination game against Texas Tech.
“He pitched his best on the biggest stage he had been on,” Pollard notes. He was so impressive that he was selected to the 2018 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team.
“It was phenomenal,” Stinson says of his summer. “I started up in the Cape (Cod League) and then had the privilege of wearing the USA uniform. I got to travel around to a lot of really cool places and represent my country. It was a lot of fun. Last year, my role taught me I can prepare for and be ready for anything.”
Stinson has been named to multiple preseason All-America teams and is a projected first-round pick in the 2019 MLB draft. His repertoire includes a 95 miles-per-hour fastball and a knee-buckling slider.
“Nothing’s changed,” Stinson says. “I’m going to stick with my process and make sure I can repeat it every week. I want to focus on leading the pitching staff.”
“It can be a distraction for the team and it can be for the player,” Pollard says of Stinson’s preseason hype. “But Graham is such a humble guy he’s made sure it doesn’t become a distraction.”
Junior Adam Laskey had a great summer at Cape Cod, “refining the things I do best, working on the things I don’t.”
Laskey projects as a weekend starter but has been bothered by a sore shoulder and might not be back until mid-March.
Junior Bryce Jarvis, senior Hunter Davis, junior Bill Chillari and grad transfer Ben Gross (he played last season at Princeton) are candidates to start, as is another Stinson, freshman Cooper, just as big and talented as his older brother but more ready than Graeme was as a freshman.
“He’s more polished, further along at this point,” Pollard says. “A little tougher and a lot meaner. He has a nice mean streak.”
Pollard says Duke will have a bullpen-by-committee, at least for awhile. “We do like the guys in our bullpen. This group of guys may be more talented but they lack experience, so we’ll run guys out there and see what role they fill.”
Candidates include 6-7 sophomore Josh Nifong (Pollard calls him an X-factor), sophomore Thomas Girard (“great summer”) and any of a number of arms from a freshman class that Pollard praises as the best crop of freshmen arms he’s had at Duke.
“People didn’t realize how much depth we had last year, because we didn’t need it,” Davis says. “But we’ve got a lot of guys who can step up.”
But Loperfido won’t be playing first. In a bold move, Duke has moved the 6-4 sophomore to second base, a position he’s never played before, replacing graduated defensive whiz Max Miller.
“I’m definitely excited to transition away from first base,” Loperfido says. “I definitely have big shoes to fill. Turning double plays, getting my footwork down, getting the timing right. I’m at the point now where I don’t even think about it.”
Loperfido likely will lead off.
One of the reasons for moving Loperfido was to get NCAA Tournament sensation Chris Crabtree into the lineup at first base.
“He brings so much to our program,” Pollard says. “A toughness factor, a quiet confidence. He’s really good around the bag. He’s really athletic.”
The left side of the infield is to be determined, several returnees competing with freshmen. Look for freshman Ethan Murray to get a long look at shortstop.
Power-hitting grad transfer Ben Gallagher (from Cornell) and speedy junior Chase Cheek figure to flank Taylor in the outfield.
Sophomore Mike Rothenberg will take over for Chris Proctor behind the plate.
Pollard says Rothenberg is the best defensive catcher he’s coached.
“He’s one of the most polished catchers I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s phenomenal defensively.”
Freshman catcher Rudy Maxwell has impressed so much with his bat that Pollard says Duke has to figure out to get him on the field, perhaps as a DH, perhaps at third base.
“If you’re going to be a team that relies on your pitching, then you’d better play good defense,” Pollard says. “You don’t want to give away anything on defense. And there will be some growing pains. We have to be patient with mistakes early. We can’t over-react and be impatient with guys because we’re going to put some really talented guys on the field.”
Pollard praises the leadership of Taylor and Davis. Taylor is the only senior position player likely to play much.
“The way I try to be a leader is by example, show the younger guys how things go out there, basically show them the ropes. A lot of guys are stepping up.”
Duke has been ranked in numerous preseason national polls and the ACC coaches selected Duke second in the Coastal Division.
“We embrace those expectations,” Pollard says. “If we’ve built a program that’s sustainable, we’re going to have those kinds of expectations every year. It speaks to the fact that we’ve recruited well and we’ve built depth and there’s a talented nucleus in place that just needs experience.”
“This club is talented enough to do that. We have a lot of improving to do if we’re going to get there.”