DURHAM, N.C. -- Cameron Indoor Stadium, the prestigious home of the Duke basketball program, sits just down the hill from Jack Coombs Field, the on-campus home of the Blue Devils baseball program, the two facilities so close you could throw a baseball to the other.
For now, that's pretty much the only thing the two programs have in common. Duke's hoops program has accumulated several national titles and is a perennial national power. The baseball program? The Blue Devils only have made three NCAA tournament appearances and haven't reached the tourney since 1961.
It certainly isn't easy, but that's precisely the trend and culture first-year head coach Chris Pollard is trying to reverse, not in the near future, but right now to be exact.
Pollard worked his magic at Appalachian State last season, as he guided the Mountaineers to an NCAA postseason appearance, while also racking up Southern Conference Coach of the Year honors. Amazingly, in his first season with the Blue Devils, he actually has this once fledgling program in position to make a run at the postseason, sitting ahead of good teams such as Virginia Tech and Miami in the ACC standings at 21-14 overall, 8-7 in league play.
"If I'm being honest, and you had asked me at the end of September if we'd be in this position right now, sitting at 8-7 in the ACC, I'd have taken it in a heartbeat," Pollard said. "But at the same time, I've been really impressed with the way this club has come along. They compete very good.
"We're certainly not the deepest team in the world, but these guys come to the ballpark and compete at a high level each day. Our guys don't mind playing close, intense, ballgames, and that's a good trait to have."
Duke coach Chris Pollard seems to have his club on the fast track. (Duke photo)
Duke, which travels to Tallahassee, Fla., this weekend to face a very good Florida State squad in yet another potential statement series, even has had to overcome some serious adversity to get where it is today.
The Blue Devils expected significant contributions from redshirt sophomore infielder Aaron Cohn and junior catcher Mike Rosenfeld. However, they've been without both so far this season. Cohn tore his PCL before the season began and is a week or two away from returning to the lineup, maybe even more, while the news isn't so good with Rosenfeld, who will miss the remainder of the season because of a broken finger.
"We've lost two guys who were expected to hit No's 2 and 3 in our lineup, and somehow, we've found a way to press forward," he said. "We're finding ways to win ballgames right now, and I have to say, that tells me a lot about these guys."
Though Duke certainly wouldn't qualify as an offensive juggernaut right now, the unit is hitting .281 and has a few impressive players, such as Andy Perez, who's hitting .372 with two homers and 16 RBIs, and slick freshman shortstop Kenny Koplove, who has made a swift transition to Division I baseball with a .337 average and 11 RBIs thus far.
But while those guys continue to have productive campaigns at the plate, the pitching staff, which carries a staff earned-run average of 3.52, is the chief reason this club has a chance to make the NCAA tournament.
Take last weekend's series against Georgia Tech for example. The Yellow Jackets have one of the nation's elite offensive lineups -- even without Brandon Thomas last weekend -- and the Blue Devils held them to just two runs the entire weekend, getting complete game performances from sophomore left-handed pitcher Trent Swart and Sunday starter, junior right-hander Robert Huber, while also getting a strong and gutsy performance from Saturday starter, hard-throwing Drew Van Orden.
Swart certainly isn't a hard-throwing lefty, but kept the Yellow Jackets off balance with his ability to move the ball around the strike zone. He has a fabulous 1.40 ERA in 51 1/3 innings, along with 46 strikeouts and 14 walks.
Van Orden is moreso an interesting prospect to watch in this draft. The right-hander, who has a good frame at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, has always had the potential to be an elite pitcher, but command has been an issue in the past. Against the Yellow Jackets, Van Orden made big pitches when he needed to. He sat 90-92 with his fastball and relied heavily on an 82-83 cutter that was an above-average offering.
"Van Orden didn't have that cutter when he showed up, so give pitching coach Andrew See a lot of credit for helping develop that," he said. "Sometimes he falls in love with that cutter a little too much, but that's part of the growth process. He just competes really well and makes pitches when he has to. I wasn't sure if he could be that type of guy three weeks ago, but he's progressing well."
Huber continues to have a solid campaign for the Blue Devils, sitting in good shape with a 2.47 ERA in 47 1/3 innings, along with 39 strikeouts, 20 walks and a very low .199 opposing team batting average. Meanwhile, the Duke bullpen, which isn't incredibly deep, is getting huge contributions from sophomore right-handed hurler Andrew Istler and projectable freshman right-hander Michael Matuella.
Istler sits 87-89 with his fastball, while he also flashes and upper-70s changeup, along with a curveball he used a few times against Georgia Tech. He has appeared in 17 games this season, recorded seven saves and has a 2.66 ERA in 23 2/3 innings. Matuella is the bigger surprise of the two.
Matuella stands out because of his 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame. But beyond the frame, he flashed elite stuff against the Yellow Jackets, sitting consistently 92-94 with his fastball in an inning of work. He has a 2.67 ERA in 30 1/3 innings this spring.
"These guys are good, and they're young, that's what's special about them," he said. "For my money, Michael Matuella is our biggest surprise this season. He has been 90-94 every time out, and I think we're just beginning to scratch the surface of what he's capable of out there."
With the postseason more than a month away, the Blue Devils are at least in the discussion with a talented crop of hitters and pitchers leading the way.
Perhaps there's a little magic oozing out of Cameron Indoor these days and infiltrating the baseball locker room. Whatever it is, there's a new look and feel with this Duke baseball program.
And this just might be the beginning.
Pitching prowess: Lively living good at UCF
Central Florida head coach Terry Rooney always saw big-time potential in right-handed pitcher Ben Lively.
Yes, even when Lively walked 34 batters and had a 5.05 earned-run average as a freshman for the Knights, or when he finished last season with a 3.00 ERA, but also accumulated 45 walks to go with 84 strikeouts.
For Rooney, it was all about patience with Lively. He knew with time, Lively would transform from a pitcher with command issues to one with poise and accuracy. That hunch two years ago has paid off this season, as Lively is putting together a campaign to remember, and helped himself become one of the nation's elite prospects for the upcoming MLB draft.
Ben Lively has taken another big step forward this spring. (UCF photo)
"He's having an All-American type of year for us. You look at his numbers and Ben has always been good, but he was pretty inconsistent last year," Rooney said. "He had a great summer at the Cape Cod League and has just evolved from a maturity and command standpoint so far this season.
"His stuff has always been good, the big difference is he just has smoothed things over a bit," he continued. "HIs command has gotten a little better and he has been dominant. The interesting thing about Ben is that even when he racked up those high walk totals the past couple of years, he still held teams to low batting averages. It's all coming together now."
As you might expect, Lively's progressions are most notable in his stat line so far this season. Lively has had some intense bouts with elite prospects such as Jacksonville's Chris Anderson and Memphis left-handed pitcher Sam Moll. And on both occasions, Lively rose to the occasion and held his own.
For the season, Lively has an outstanding 0.61 ERA, which ranks high nationally, in 59 1/3 innings of work. He also has struck out 60 and kept his walk total low at 14, while teams are hitting him at just a .192 clip.
"He has really pitched in the clutch for us this season. He's one of the greatest competitors I've ever coached," Rooney said. "From a comparison standpoint, I'd put him about in the same boat at Jeff Samardzija in terms of competitive. Jeff was as tough as it gets, and Ben ranks right up there in terms of the best competitors I've ever had."
Lively, who moves from the Friday night role to the Saturday spot this weekend against Rice, has made a big jump from a prospect standpoint. He entered the season ranked as the No. 130 overall prospect for the upcoming MLB draft. Now, Lively is expected to go anywhere from 40-55 overall, perhaps even higher.
Stuff-wise, Lively has added a tick to his fastball this season. He's consistently flashing a four-pitch mix, including a fastball that he works anywhere from 88-93, with the ability to touch some 94s. He also has made significant improvements with his slider, while the upper-70s changeup also continues to get sharper.
"A lot of Ben's situation this season is that it's not necessarily that his pitches have gotten that much better, it's just that he's commanding those good pitches better," he said. "His slider has really been a wipeout pitch this season. That slider, for sure, has taken a big, big step forward."
Beginning this weekend against Rice, the Knights will need Lively to be better than ever. The Knights have just an 18-16 overall record, 4-5 mark in Conference USA action. Most importantly, the Knights have an RPI of 197 and need some major help and contributions down the stretch to reach the NCAA postseason.
Not all is well with the Knights at this point in the season, but Lively isn't one of them.
He's finally what Rooney thought he'd be.
"The one thing we continue to talk about as we head down the stretch is just being efficient. We need him, especially, to be able to go deep into games each weekend," he said. "He needs to make sure he gets into advantageous counts. He's done a great job of not letting external things bother him this season. Hopefully that continues."
Series to watch
1 North Carolina at Virginia Tech: The Hokies get another shot to make a big statement this weekend as they play host to red-hot North Carolina. VT got swept on the road by N.C. State last weekend, and will need a better start from Devin Burke this weekend. Burke, who struggled against the Wolfpack, typically is solid with a 3.83 ERA in 47 innings so far this spring. At the plate, the Hokies must get a big-time weekend from third baseman Chad Pinder (.365/4/29), while the defense must vastly improve from what we saw against the Wolfpack. THE PICK: North Carolina
5 Virginia at 19 Georgia Tech: The Cavaliers have a stiff test this weekend with a trip down south to face the usually hard-hitting Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech didn't do much offensively last weekend in a series loss to Duke, thanks in part to outfielder Brandon Thomas being out of the lineup. However, the Jackets were right back on track in midweek action with Thomas back in the saddle. This could definitely be an upset series in the making, but the Jackets will need a good performance by right-handed pitcher Buck Farmer to start the weekend. Farmer didn't throw a pitch under 90 last weekend against Duke. THE PICK: Georgia Tech
Duke at 7 Florida State: What a weekend of starts the Blue Devils pitching staff had from Trent Swart, Drew Van Orden and Robert Huber in a series win over Georgia Tech. Though the Blue Devils don't have an overly productive offensive lineup, those three and other quality arms have a chance to keep the Blue Devils in upset watch in this series. Still, taking care of business against Florida State on the road is an incredibly tough chore. THE PICK: Florida State
Loyola Marymount at 14 UCLA: The Lions have two of the nation's best starting pitchers this spring, but can't seem to establish a lot of consistency outside of those two. This weekend's series against the Bruins presents a golden opportunity for coach Jason Gill's club. Keep an eye on Colin Welmon and Trevor Megill. Welmon has a 1.11 ERA in 56 2/3 innings of work, along with 47 strikeouts and 12 walks, while Megill has a 2.72 ERA in 43 innings, along with 45 strikeouts and 11 walks.
22 Mississippi State at Texas A&M: The Aggies looked to be in solid shape in the Southeastern Conference regular season race after taking a road series from Ole Miss. However, the Aggies have since lost five of their last six conference games. Meanwhile, Mississippi State finally got off the ground in conference last weekend with a home series win over Florida. For A&M, the rise of right-handed starting pitcher Rafael Pineda could be important. Pineda started off the season on a slow note, but threw very well last Sunday against Auburn. THE PICK: Mississippi State
9 South Carolina at Florida: The Gators have quietly been playing much better the past couple of weeks, while the Gamecocks are on a roll in conference play entering the weekend series against the Gators. For Florida, it needs to be a big weekend for leading hitter Justin Shafer, who's hitting .316 with three homers and 13 RBIs. THE PICK: South Carolina
24 Florida Gulf Coast at Mercer: This is easily one of the top series of the weekend, and it involves one ranked team and another right on the cusp in Mercer. FGCU has a very solid weekend rotation with right-hander Ricky Knapp and left-hander Brandon Bixler leading the charge, while for the Bears, Derrick Workman is hitting .403 with 12 doubles, eight homers and 40 RBIs and Chesny Young is hitting .357 with a home run and 37 RBIs. THE PICK: Mercer
Alabama at 21 Mississippi: This is an important series for both teams, as each look to finish the year in the NCAA postseason. The Crimson Tide's good start in conference play has been somewhat of a surprise, while the Rebels' struggles the past couple of weeks have equally been a surprise. Ole Miss needs its offense to rise to the occasion this weekend, starting with catcher Stuart Turner, who's hitting .412 with 10 doubles, three homers and 35 RBIs. THE PICK: Ole Miss
25 Notre Dame at Pittsburgh: When it comes to the Big East regular season title race, this is a huge series. The Fighting Irish haven't played that great the past couple of weeks and need first baseman Trey Mancini to have a big weekend. On the flip side, Joe Jordano's club has quietly been very solid this season. Keep an eye on ace pitcher Matt Wotherspoon, who has been terrific this season. He has a 3.09 ERA in 58 1/3 innings of work, along with 46 strikeouts and 14 walks, teams hitting .243 against him. THE PICK: Notre Dame
On the road again …
Where we're at this weekend:
Friday: Oklahoma at Baylor
Saturday: Mississippi State at Texas A&M
Sunday: Mississippi State at Texas A&M