Duke baseball is coming off a 30-28 season. The Blue Devils finished under .500 in the battle-tested Atlantic Coast Conference for the third straight season, compiling a 12-18 record.
That’s all in the past, however. Duke is getting a lot of attention in the preseason polls and are expected to compete in an ACC that has seven teams listed in some Top 25 rankings.
So what’s the difference? Why is this Duke team so much more prepared than last year’s?“It’s a combination of ability and experience,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “We’ve got some guys who have a lot of ACC time under their belt. Not just the headliner guys, but you got a guy in Max Miller, our captain, that’s played in a 142 straight ball games. Jack Labosky, Zack Kone, they’ve been starting since their freshman year. So, you look around the field you see a lot of guys that got three, four years of experience under the belt.”
“We have a really talented freshman class, but the funny thing is, I don’t know how much we’ll use them,” All-American outfielder Griffin Conine told NCAA.com. “We got lucky in a way in the draft last year. It’s a selfish thing to say, but those three guys coming back, you know [Jack] Laboksy, Mitch Stallings, Ryan Day, was huge for us. That’s senior leadership that we haven’t had, we’ve always been a young team. This is a unique year, we return eight starters.”
Of course, there’s also Conine.
Conine had a big sophomore season in 2017, vastly improved from his debut. He hit .298 with 11 doubles, 13 home runs, and 56 RBI. He was perfect on the base paths, successful in all nine stolen base attempts, while posting a very impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio of 45-to-41.His success continued on the Cape, where he hit .329 with nine home runs. He hit a bomb in the All Star Game and one more in the playoffs for good measure, earning himself top pro prospect honors. He also dug into a new aspect of his game, making him an even stronger — and scarier — presence at the plate.
“I’ve always liked the long ball,” Conine said. “It was something that really didn’t click my freshman year. I really discovered my power approach in the Northwoods after that freshman summer. That’s where I honed my approach.
“Something in the Cape that was really big for me was starting to have power to the opposite field. I had pull-side pop. That kind of messed with my approach at times. I felt like I had to pull pitches to try to get them in the air and that would put me in slumps. I think my first three or four home runs in the Cape were to the left of center, that was something I was really happy about. It’s just a new part of my game, it unlocks a whole half of the field that I hadn’t been using. I can cover the entire plate with authority to all fields, that’s big for me coming into this season.”
Conine has had some extra help along the way. Baseball is in his bloodlines: his father is 17-year MLB veteran Jeff Conine. In his father, he has the perfect outsider's opinion of his game, without being too much of an annoying dad along the way.
“It’s more laid back than people probably think,” Conine said of his relationship with his father. “If things are going well, he’ll lay off and let me do my thing. I’ll ask him questions mostly about approach stuff, the mental side and things like that. It’s awesome to have that tool to lean on. I remember last season, I was kind of struggling a little bit. He text me a video of something he had seen. He said my hips were flying open, my head was flying open, and I think I was just trying to do too much. That little tweak, the next day I took the ball the other way and I got hot after that.”
Enter 2018. Conine enters the season as one of the more decorated student-athletes in the game, piling up preseason All-American honors. He’s skyrocketing up MLB Draft boards and is widely viewed as the leader of this surging Duke team.
“It’s definitely different than the past,” Conine said. “My sophomore year I started off not too hyped. I’m getting a lot of attention now, it’s not something I’ve had before. I don’t think it changed anything for me. It’s cool to get these preseason honors, but it’s weird because I didn’t do anything to accomplish them. It’s what they are predicting. It's a huge honor, but I want the ones at the end of the season for our team.”
Conine won’t have to go at it alone. Jimmy Herron — who led the team in hitting (.326), stolen bases (17) and tied for doubles (17) — joins him in the outfield after picking up some preseason All-American honors of his own. Throw in under-the-radar Kennie Taylor and you may be looking at the best outfield in the nation.
“They’re very different personalities and different style players,” Pollard said. “Griffin is charismatic, there’s a lot of flare to his approach to the game, and he has tremendous physical tools. Jimmy Herron plays the game a lot more blue collar, he plays the game with more of a football edge and toughness. You can’t forget Kennie Taylor. He goes and gets it from gap to gap with anyone in the country. He was our No. 2 OPS guy last year. When you put the three of those guys out there together, I have a hard time believing that somebody’s got a more athletic, more proven outfield than we have.”
“It’s been a lot of fun out there,” Conine added. “It happened mid-season, once Kennie got healthy and everything clicked and we were all out there everyday, the chemistry just happened. Balls in the gap that are tough, I never have to doubt or worry about colliding. That chemistry is huge for us. Same with hitting, we’re all really confident in our approaches. There’s no pressure for us, we’re three juniors that have a lot of work to do here in leading this team to Omaha.”
Duke should also see an improved pitching staff. The weekend rotation is stacked with veterans, including two seniors.
“It’s an interesting group, because our most talented guys physically are our young guys," Pollard said. "But we got some veteran guys that are battle-tested. If I have to give a nod to calling someone an ace, it would be Mitch Stallings because he’s gotten high-leverage innings in the ACC since his freshman year. He was really good at getting us deep into ball games last year. Ryan Day was a career reliever transitioned into a starter’s role and handled it well. At the backend of the weekend rotation is likely Adam Laskey. He’s a guy who has true front-line ACC stuff. I think he’s poised, along with Graeme Stinson, to really make big jumps this year.”
For Duke, the road to Omaha goes through the gauntlet of ACC baseball. Florida State, North Carolina, Louisville, Virginia, Clemson, and Miami are all getting Top 25 attention this preseason.
“ACC is always packed with talent," Conine said. "We’re more ready for that since I’ve been here. The most important thing is the experience that we have. There’s not going to be any nerves going into the ACC battles, there won’t be anyone backing down. I’m most confident in our team than any other team in the ACC, based on the guys we have returning and most importantly our pitching staff. They’ve done a good job keeping our offense at bay this fall, which says something with the firepower we have.”