Friedlander: Duke, Clemson baseball teams prove that tournament time really is a whole new season
Tournament time is a different animal.
Sure, the regular season is meaningful when it comes to such things as seeding, home-field advantage and selling tickets.
But once everyone starts over at 0-0 and the pressure begins to build, it really is the start of a whole new season. Nobody knows that better these days than the baseball teams at Clemson and Duke.
They were teams headed in vastly different directions as the postseason began.
The Tigers were on a heater that saw them win 12 straight to end the regular season while the Blue Devils stumbled to the finish line by losing 6 of their final 9 games. Coach Chris Pollard’s team then went 2 and BBQ at the ACC Tournament on their own home field while Clemson swept its way to the conference championship.
A week later after NCAA Tournament region play, the teams remain on vastly different trajectories.
Just one the ones on which they started.
While the Tigers fell victim to a series of bad breaks, saw their winning streak snapped and were ousted from the regional they hosted, the Blue Devils – battered pitching staff, star hitter with a torn ACL and all – went down to Conway, S.C. and somehow found a way to take care of business.
— Duke Baseball (@DukeBASE) June 6, 2023
Duke’s 12-3 win against top-seeded host Coastal Carolina in the deciding winner-take-all final of their regional bracket on Monday earned it a trip to next week’s super regional against Virginia in Charlottesville.
Because 2 ACC teams will be matched against each other in the best-of-3 series, the conference is guaranteed of having at least 1 member at the College World Series in Omaha for the 17th straight time.
Wake Forest is also still alive after winning its regional in impressive fashion.
While it’s no surprise that the ACC has 3 teams remaining with a shot at playing for the national championship, the identity of those teams is.
The top-ranked Deacons and steady Cavaliers, as national seeds, were expected to get this far. Duke’s advancement has been a bolt out of the blue.
Seeded 2nd behind regional host Coastal Carolina, the Blue Devils got off to a strong start with a 12-3 win against No. 3 UNC Wilmington highlighted by an unforgettable performance by grad transfer MJ Metz.
It wasn’t enough that he hit 3 home runs to pace the victory. They guy did it with a torn ACL suffered the previous week in a loss to NC State.
Guess it pays to have a nationally renowned medical center located on your campus.
Even then, there’s no cure for tired arms.
And the Blue Devils have an entire staff of them, a group of pitchers that have been called on to carry their team by committee after their 2 top starters were lost to season-ending injuries.
Even though Duke advanced to the championship round with a gritty 2-1 win against 4th-seeded Rider and had 2 chances at getting the 1 win they needed to earn its 1st super regional berth since 2019, their precarious mound situation made their advancement anything but a sure thing.
The arms race appeared to catch up with the Blue Devils in their first attempt at winning the region on Sunday, an 8-6 loss that saw Coastal take charge late in the game.
But with Alex Gow giving them 4 strong innings for starters and the trio of Charlie Beilenson, Fran Oschell III and Aaron Beasley finding enough gas in the tank to get to the finish line, Monday’s 2nd try had a much happier ending.
Goodness, Fran. That is not nice.
— Duke Baseball (@DukeBASE) June 6, 2023
It also didn’t hurt that Duke’s bats helped take much of the pressure off their arms by getting early homers from Metz, Alex Stone and Giovanni DiGiacomo in building an insurmountable 12-0 lead.
“My biggest hope for this season, and I’m not talking about wins and losses or end goals, (was that) I wanted us to get back to a culture of toughness,” Pollard said in his postgame remarks.
“Duke baseball had been known as a group that was going to compete tough and I don’t know that we had that reputation in 2022. This group has really reestablished that identity of toughness and I’m so appreciative of them for that.”
That identity not only played a major role in helping the Blue Devils regroup and bounce back from their late season slump, it also had a direct result on their ability to overcome adversity and earn at least another week of meaningful games.
As was the case at the start of tournament time, the slates have been wiped clean again for the 16 college baseball teams that are still playing.
Nothing that happened before matters anymore.
They’re all 0-0 again. And anything is possible.
Photo by Nat LaDonne/Duke athletics