Duke’s Rudy Maxwell (26) is congratulated by RJ Schreck (40) after hitting a home run in the third inning of an NCAA college super regional baseball game against Vanderbilt Sunday, June 9, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Five things to know about Duke baseball as the Blue Devils open the 2020 season Friday with the first of three games against Army at Durham Bulls Athletic Park:
1. The last thing Duke coach Chris Pollard wants this season is his team thinking more about the end of the journey than the work needed to get there — or ‘destination-itis,” as he puts it.
Could the Blue Devils reach the College World Series this season, make it to Omaha? They’re nationally ranked. They’ve been awfully close the past two years.
“But he doesn’t want that Omaha-destination cloud what you’re doing at the moment,” junior catcher Michael Rothenberg said. “Each day we just try to get better. No one needs to be ‘The Guy.’ Everyone do that job, keep their head down and work hard. That’s crucial to us taking that last step.”
One of the last teams picked for the NCAA field last season, Duke won the NCAA Morgantown Regional and pushed Vanderbilt in the Super Regional before losing in three games. That came after more Super Regional experience — and heartbreak — in 2018, when Duke was beaten in the third game by Texas Tech.
“We could taste it last year,” Rothenberg said. “We were one good inning away from being a College World Series team. We were as close as ever. The last two years have been big for us. Our veterans know what has to be done. We were one step away. We know what has to be done to take that last step.”
2. One the biggest question marks as the season neared has been the health and status of Chase Cheek. The senior centerfielder tore an ACL last May and said he had additional arthroscopic surgery in September to remove scar tissue.
“If I was just an average runner I’d probably play,” Cheek said. “My game is predicated on speed, so I’m not rushing it.”
Cheek, a good contact hitter, had 23 steals last season — he was caught stealing just three times — while batting . 293. He joins junior Joey Loperfido and sophomore Rudy Maxwell to give the Blue Devils a solid, experienced outfield.
3. Bryce Jarvis already had a pretty good fastball. Now, his fastball is, well, faster.
Jarvis, a junior righthander, led the Blue Devils with 94 strikeouts last season, tied for seventh in the ACC. He was the MVP in the Morgantown Regional and allowed just one earned run in 15 innings in NCAA play. Against Vandy in the Nashville Super Regional, he gave up one run and five hits over seven innings.
Pollard said Jarvis, the son of former major league pitcher Kevin Jarvis, is 15-20 pounds heavier. He spent time this summer tweaking his curveball and slider, but also improved his fastball.
“He has added velocity, which is hard to do as a junior or senior,” Pollard said. “He was 92-94 (mph) last year. You’ll see more 93-95. He’s got the competitiveness in his DNA, from his dad, and he has the stuff to go with it.”
4. Look up and down the Duke lineup, and what catches your eye is the size. First baseman Chris Crabtree is 6-4 and 230 pounds, and Matt Mervis and Rudy Maxwell both 6-4 and 225. Third baseman Erikson Nichols is 6-4 and 200, and Rothenberg, who led Duke with 11 homers last year, is listed at 6-3 and 210. Big guys all.
A couple of exceptions are sophomore shortstop Ethan Murray, who is 5-11 and 180 pounds and infielder Wil Hoyle, a redshirt sophomore from Durham who checks in at 5-9 and 170.
Hoyle was a reserve much of last season but was needed in postseason when Murray was injured, getting in ACC Tournament and NCAA play. Murray, who hit .305 last season and was named a Freshman All-American, is back, and Pollard said Hoyle probably would be used at second base.
“He can generate offense through his versatility at the plate,” Pollard said of Hoyle. “He’s an on-base percentage guy. He’s good with the bat. He can help generate run production.”
5. While not dwelling on their NCAA games the past two years, the Blue Devils do have a goal in mind, one they don’t consider unrealistic: NCAA regional games in Durham, at Duke. They believe they have the team to make it happen this season, with experience, a balanced lineup, solid pitching and depth.
“We don’t want to get caught up in what’s next,” Jarvis said. “It would be nice to bring some postseason here to the fans, to Durham.”
The Blue Devils, 35-27 last season, have played in three College World Series, but the last trip was in 1961. They’d like to think they can make it to Omaha this year, but that would rank as “destination-itis.”
As Pollard said, “We’ll try to build a resume to put us in that conversation.”