Duke started the baseball season planning to rely on its pitching staff racking up strikeouts.
The Blue Devils enter the final two weekends of the regular season having seen that come true, just not in the way they thought it would.
Florida State, Louisville and Virginia Tech are the only ACC pitching staffs with more strikeouts than the Blue Devils, who have used that strong pitching to put themselves in the running for an NCAA tournament berth.
But that’s despite Duke having lost projected ace pitcher Graeme Stinson at midseason due to injury.
“I thought this would be a team that struck a lot of people out,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “But part of that rationale was because Graeme would be maybe leading us in innings. He’s one of the premier strikeout guys in the country.”
Stinson, a 6-5 junior left-hander, began the season rated among the top college prospects for the June MLB draft. He looked like a sure bet to be selected in the first round.
An alarming drop in velocity caused him to be shut down in mid March having thrown just 19 ⅔ innings over five starts, striking out 26. Stinson is progressing through his rehabilitation to rebuild his arm strength but Pollard said there’s not enough time for Stinson to be available to pitch for the Blue Devils again this season.
“He is throwing again,” Pollard said. “He does feel good. But I think everything he’s doing now is in preparation for the draft.”
With Stinson unavailable and junior left-hander Adam Laskey limited to just 12 innings this season due to injury, Duke received a major boost from graduate transfer Ben Gross.
A right-hander who came to Duke this season from Princeton, Gross has become Duke’s Friday night starter in ACC play. In eight starts and 15 appearances, he’s 6-3 with a 3.42 earned run average and 54 strikeouts. Opponents have batted just .183 against him -- second lowest in the ACC.
“He’s a three-pitch guy,” Duke catcher Michael Rothenberg said. “He just attacks hitters.”
Freshman pitcher Cooper Stinson, Graeme’s younger brother, leads the team with 73 strikeouts in 50 2/3 innings. He’s made 12 starts, compiling a 1-3 record with a 5.33 ERA.
Bryce Jarvis, a sophomore right-hander, has 58 strikeouts over 48 innings. He’s 3-0 with a 4.31 ERA, having made seven starts.
Junior left-hander Bill Chillari is tied with Cooper Stinson for the team lead with 12 games started. He recorded a 2-2 record with a 3.95 ERA as more of a pitch-to-contact hurler. He has only 39 strikeouts in 54 ⅔ innings pitched.
They’ve helped Duke to 468 strikeouts as a team, which is fourth in the ACC and No. 17 in the country. Duke is tied for No. 15 in the country, averaging 10 strikeouts for every nine innings pitched.
“I’m surprised that we’ve been able to put up numbers this prolific without Graeme,” Pollard said. “But I also was pretty confident we had some guys with some pretty good stuff.”
Duke (28-19 overall, 13-11 ACC) will need that strong pitching to be sharp to further strengthen its case for an NCAA tournament at-large bid. The Blue Devils face No. 10-ranked Georgia Tech (33-14, 15-9 ACC) in their final league home series beginning Friday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Duke closes the regular season with three games at No. 18 Miami (34-14, 14-10 ACC) May 16-18.
The Blue Devils believed their pitching would be strong when the season started. Now that the regular season is winding down, that belief has proven correct.
“I would say from the start our pitching staff has some of the best stuff in the ACC and the country,” Rothenberg said. “Coach (Dusty) Blake, our pitching coach, does an unbelievable job with them just preparing week in and week out. He scouts more than anyone. And we just have guys on the mound who have electric stuff.”