WRAL.com at the State Fair

Duke has found offense heading into pivotal NC State series

Posted May 2

— Finally, Duke has started hitting.

Will it be too late?

Coach Chris Pollard hopes not as the Blue Devils, 24-18 overall and 9-12 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, head into a crucial road series at N.C. State

“We’ve usually got a lineup with three freshmen, five sophomores and one junior,” the fourth-year Blue Devils coach said. “I think our guys have finally settled in (offensively). They got punched in the mouth the first couple of weeks of the ACC season, and they had to learn to play in that kind of environment.”

There’s plenty of evidence that they have, as Duke has won 12 of its last 16 games, with the only series loss in that time coming at home to then-No. 1 Miami. The Blue Devils have won series at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech and at home against Clemson during the same stretch.

Offense is one key reason, as Duke has found some explosiveness. Saturday’s 19-9 win at Virginia Tech was the fifth time in 16 games the Devils have scored double figures; they had not scored 10 or more in a game previously this season. They biggest key to the offensive rise has been the insertion of sophomore first baseman Justin Bellinger into the lineup, Pollard agreed.

Bellinger, a Massachusetts prep product, originally committed to Vanderbilt before switching his choice to Duke. An unsigned 11th-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014, Bellinger arrived at Duke with high expectations but struggled to meet them as a freshman, when he hit .227 with only one home run. He had a tough fall as well and had to earn his way back into the lineup this year, but he did, much to Pollard’s delight. He’s batting .361/.465/.602 with four homers and 23 RBIs on the team, with the power numbers second to sophomore third baseman Jack Labosky (.281/.406/.527, 6 HR, 37 RBIs).

“Justin Bellinger, playing as well as he’s played, him behind (sophomore Jack) Labosky in the lineup, now Labosky has a lot more opportunities to hit. Justin’s growing into the power that he came out of high school with. To his credit, he kept working though it this spring and grew up some.

“Early in the year, we were trying to string singles together. We could have nine or 10 hits and score one run. We weren’t walking, we weren’t taking any free offense, and we had so few extra-base hits. We just hoped string singles together. Now, as (freshman Jimmy) Herron has settled into the leadoff spot, he and Chris Proctor have given us two very good OBP guys, then Labosky and Bellinger and Zack Kone behind them, now we have some guys on base when those guys come out.”

Duke will need the offense to contend with the Wolfpack, which Pollard said has the deepest lineup he’s seen in the ACC. The Pack will continue to use righthander Cory Wilder at the front of the rotation ahead of lefties Brian Brown and Ryan Williamson, as the two lefties continue to have tremendous seasons for State. They’ve combined to go 12-2 with 113 strikeouts in 104 innings with contrasting styles, as Brown vexes hitters with an 83-86 mph fastball, slow curve and confident changeup, while Williamson attacks with an 88-91 mph fastball and low 80s slider that some scouts consider plus at its best.

“Top to bottom, you have to pitch to their whole lineup,” Pollard said. “They’re playing well, and Brown and Williamson, plus Wlll Gilbert out of the bullpen, are all lefties throwing well for them. We’ve got our work cut out for us, no question.”

Duke’s 9-12 ACC mark is tied for fifth in the Coastal Division of the league and tied for 10th, with Clemson and North Carolina, in the league overall. The top 10 teams advance to the DBAP for the ACC tournament at the end of May. Duke’s remaining schedule includes a home series with Florida State and a road set with Pittsburgh, and in ACC play, Duke has been more successful on the road, winning two of three series, than at home (1-3 in series).

At 29-11 overall, the Wolfpack is 10-6, fourth in the ACC and has a home regional and potentially a top-eight national seed in the NCAA tournament in its sights. The national seeds play at home in both the regional and super regional rounds of the tournament if they advance, and with the ACC and Southeastern Conference dominating the top of the RPI this season, a top-three ACC finish for the Pack would virtually guarantee a national seed.

To get there, State will have to get through tough competition, with home series against Triangle rivals Duke and North Carolina (in the season’s final weekend) sandwiched around road series at Clemson and Louisville. The Pack wrapped up non-conference play Monday with a 6-1 win at East Carolina, so it can train all its firepower on its remaining ACC schedule.

State has won 15 of its last 21 games, with the only “series” loss being the one-game series at Florida State, where the last two games were rained out. That’s after the Pack got off to a 3-3 start in league play after losing its opening series at home to Boston College, with two shutout losses to the Eagles. Despite that, N.C. State is averaging 7.1 runs per game on the year, with two 20-plus explosions lately against Elon and N.C. Central.

“At the beginning of the year, I didn’t think we had enough team speed,” coach Elliott Avent said Thursday. “There’s a lot of things we do well, but there are things we have to continue to do better. But offensively, we’re pretty good. One through nine, we’re pretty good.”

Sophomore Josh McLain, who has been State’s most consistent offensive performer this year while also standing out in center field, is expected to miss this weekend’s series with a broken bone in his left hand, and said he would return to action when the swelling goes down and can withstand the pain.

But the Pack has overcome injuries all spring and shown the depth to do so. Just two Wolfpack players, outfielder Brock Deatherage (.338/.434/.511) and catcher Andrew Knizner (.297/.366/.400), have started every game. This weekend will be one more chance to do it, coach Elliott Avent said.

“There’s a toughness, a resiliency and a leadership,” Avent said in discussing his team’s ability to play through injuries. “We’ve played a tough schedule, and I think leadership is handed down . . . I think that’s been the strength of this club all along, and it’s been what has allowed us to get through what’s going on at a given time.”

North Carolina is off for exam break this weekend.

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