GREENSBORO, N.C. — Duke baseball has come a long way in Chris Pollard’s second year as head coach, but it there’s no way anyone could have predicted the Blue Devils would rise this quickly.
Which is probably why a team that finished fourth in the ACC — traditionally one of the best baseball leagues in the country, if a little down this season — won’t make the NCAA Tournament.
Duke has an RPI of 82, and it actually fell four spots in the latest poll released by the NCAA on Saturday in spite of going 1-1 in its first two ACC Tournament games. Per Warren Nolan, who keeps a real-time RPI along with strength of schedule, Duke’s SOS is 73.
Whether it was not being sure how good his team would be or his schedule not being as strong as he thought it might be going into the season, Pollard and his Blue Devils find themselves way too far down in the RPI to merit at-large consideration. They needed to win the ACC Tournament, and they found themselves two games away from doing that.
Missing the postseason — a place Duke baseball hasn’t been since 1961 — is all but a certainty now, even though Pollard continued to hang on to hope after Duke’s gut-crushing 6-5 loss (in 12 innings) to Miami.
"Obviously we’ve been talked about being on the ‘bubble’ for awhile now. I think we came down here and played tough. I think we have showed that we can play with anybody in the country. The decision is out of our hands," Pollard said. "I do know this: if we do get in, we’re a team that nobody wants to play, because we pitch, we play defense, we play tough, we play for the last out. So if we do get in, we’re going to be tough in a Regional, that’s for sure.
"We’ll keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best and we’ll be ready to play when we’re selected."
Duke finishes the season at 33-25, the most wins in a season in program history. Considering the Blue Devils left 11 men on base in the 6-5 loss, though, it likely feels like little consolation. Down 6-4, Duke had two men on with one out in the bottom of the 12th and could only get one of them home.
Miami had already been eliminated from championship-game contention, and in a game that was supposedly meaningless, the Hurricanes sure played like it meant something to them.
"Every (game) is huge and we don’t want to go into the postseason losing three in a row," Miami starting pitcher Bryan Radziewski said. "We had a national seed on the line, and we needed a big win today."
Duke showed the kind of heart, fire and grit it has shown all season long, fighting back from a 4-2 deficit to tie it in the bottom of the ninth on the first career home run by freshman pinch hitter Cris Perez.
In an interesting twist of fate, Perez got the hit off of Miami closer Bryan Garcia — and it was his former high school teammate.
"Over the season, I’ve had some communication with him. I went out to eat with him when he was in Durham a couple of weeks ago and kept it in mind that it could be a possibility, especially if he was a closer that I would come up in a situation where the game could be on the line," Perez said. "I’ve come up in pressure situations at the end of the game. Similar way today. He happened to be in the game when I got the call. Got a good pitch and put a good play on it."
Nearly a third of Duke’s 25 losses (eight) were to teams ranked 150th or worse in the RPI, and even though 13 losses were to teams ranked in the top 35, they didn’t have enough wins against those kinds of teams to off-set the bad losses.
Just ask Miami about bad losses. The Hurricanes finished the season 41-17 and winners of 27 of their last 30 games, but it still might not be enough for a national seed. Mostly because they have five losses to teams ranked 100th or worse in the RPI and two to teams ranked 200th or worse (though both came early in the season).
So while the game didn’t technically matter to the Hurricanes in terms of making the NCAA Tournament or even a national seed, really, Miami wanted to make sure it did all it could to give itself the best possible shot. The Hurricanes won the ACC regular season, but they have the third-best RPI in the league.
"Today’s win is huge for me. I don’t know where it puts us in our situation as far as hosting," Miami head coach Jim Morris said. "I feel confident we will host a Regional. We hope to host a Super Regional because of winning the regular season ACC. And they say how do you finish — we finished 27 out of 30 wâs."
Entering the ACC Tournament, there were four teams that were considered locks, three with work to do and one with a long shot. The long shot, NC State, lost in the play-in game to North Carolina and is likely out. Wake Forest and Duke would have had to win the tournament, and obviously neither did.
Of the three bubble teams, Clemson helped itself by going 2-1 (including a win over Miami) while Georgia Tech will play for the ACC title on Sunday and is now definitely in, possibly even earning the league’s automatic bid.
North Carolina, though, still had work to do in its final game of the ACC Tournament against Maryland, who already knew it was going to play Georgia Tech for the ACC Tournament crown on Sunday.
It was a game that was meaningless in terms of the ACC Tournament, but meant a lot to the Tar Heels in terms of potentially solidifying their NCAA Tournament hopes.
Maryland had risen to No. 24 in the RPI, and so UNC’s 13-7 win over the Terps gives the Tar Heels eight wins over the RPI top 50. Warren Nolan projects the Tar Heels at No. 40 in the RPI after Saturday’s win.
The final score, though, makes it seem like it was much more comfortable than it actually was for the Tar Heels.
UNC took a 7-2 lead in the fifth, and still held that lead in the top of the seventh when starter Zac Gallen was pulled for ace Trent Thornton, who was expected to come in and close the game out like he did against NC State on Tuesday.
It didn’t quite happen that way, though, as Thornton faced eight batters and allowed five hits an three earned runs (Gallen was credited with two of the Terps’ five runs in that inning as Thornton inherited the base runners).
Thornton is normally at his best under pressure, but he wasn’t in that inning. And after Maryland came back to tie the game, it felt like the Terps had all the momentum.
Somehow, though, UNC found a way to fight back and did with a six-run eighth inning that put them ahead 13-7.
"It’s deflating to lose that kind of lead, but I’m proud of our guys for coming back and winning," UNC head coach Mike Fox said. "It was a big win for us."
He already knew the question was coming about the NCAA Tournament, so the veteran coach answered it preemptively.
"I will go ahead and answer the question. I have no idea what this means for Monday," Fox said. "I’m not a politician. We’ve done what we’ve done and we’ll just wait and see what our fate is on Monday."
UNC sophomore Skye Bolt said he was going fishing tomorrow rather than worrying about the selection show. Both he and senior Parks Jordan agreed with their head coach — they’ve done what they’ve done. Now, all they can do is wait.
When asked why their games seemed to be — as one reporter put it — "such an adventure", all Fox could do is laugh wryly and shake his head. Even the players didn’t really know how to answer it, but this is a UNC program that’s used to the NCAA Tournament being a given and that certainly isn’t the case this year.
"You’ve got to … work together as a unit and you’ve got to have that connection and that trust in one another. That’s not to say that we don’t have that, because this is one of the closest groups that I’ve ever played with," Bolt said.
"It’s one of those things where we’ve got to continue to play and trust one another. And as far as the disconnectedness and up and down, I guess I have trust enough in the hitters at the plate to come back and make some swings just as we have trust in them to go up there and make some pitches in some tight spots."
Now, all North Carolina can do is wait, but Maryland gets to play in its first ACC title game since 1976 (just its second ever) in its final competition in ACC play in any sport.
Maryland head coach John Szefc admitted that he wasn’t going to use some of his better arms against the Tar Heels — redshirt sophomore Zach Morris got the start, and he used four relievers, two of which hadn’t had more than 5.1 innings of experience all season.
It will be sophomore lefty Jake Drossner on the mound on Sunday for the championship, anchored by what should be a well-rested bullpen.
And more importantly for Szefc and his program, it’s a huge accomplishment that will become a bigger story because of Maryland leaving the league than because of how he’s turned things around in College Park, where the Terps already have a school-record 36 wins and counting.
"It’s significant for our players. These guys have worked very, very hard. There is a lot of blood, sweat and tears going into it," Szefc said. "They’ve put themselves in a really good position, as they have throughout most of the season. I feel very, very good about going to war with these guys right now, certainly in a game like tomorrow.
"I realize it’s significant for Maryland in general, but the thing I really concern myself with is our guys and the most significant thing is that our guys get what they’ve worked for, for a long time."
Saturday’s nightcap, oddly enough, featured arguably the league’s two best teams (at least, according to RPI) in a virtually meaningless game.
It didn’t feel that way, though. It started late because the Duke-Miami marathon to start the day pushed the rest of the start times up, but fans of both teams crowded the gates even as the UNC-Maryland game was still going on.
The crowd was already in town anyway, and probably planned to be in town to cheer on their respective teams in a game that had more significance. Yet the previous series between the two teams at Florida State in late April was so good that, why not watch the teams play one more on a lovely evening where temperatures dropped into the low 70’s?
And Florida State and Virginia are teams that don’t have a lower gear, or understand the meaning of meaningless games. That’s why they’re the kinds of programs that they are, and that’s why both will be national seeds come Monday.
Both trotted their ace pitchers out to the mound: Virginia’s Nathan Kirby (co-ACC Pitcher of the Year) and FSU’s Luke Weaver.
Both ended up earning a no-decision as Kirby left the game in the seventh with his team holding a 4-1 lead before Virginia’s bullpen uncharacteristically collapsed, allowing four Florida State runs in the seventh.
Then Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and FSU closer Jameis Winston came on in the eighth to close things out for the Seminoles. And it was a tough one for him, too — coming in with two men on and one out.
Winston earned his seventh save of the year by striking out two of the four batters he faced, but he got a nice assist from senior shortstop Justin Gonzalez, who laid out for a spectacular catch of a line drive hit hard by Virginia’s John La Prise before managing to get up and throw up the runner at second base for an inning-ending double play.
Gonzalez said a few weeks ago when the Seminoles were putting the finishing touches on a series win against North Carolina after they had locked up the Atlantic Division title that there are no meaningless games. The way he put his body on the line to snag that line drive certainly backs that up.
Winston, ACC Player of the Year D.J. Stewart and others are FSU’s more well-known names. But it’s guys like Gonzalez that have the Seminoles where they are, and if they get back some of their starting pitchers during the postseason, FSU is playing as well as any team in the country.