Crunch time for area college baseball teams

N.C.’s four ACC teams and others from around the state are hoping to play their best ball starting this month

Duke coach Chris Pollard is hoping the Blue Devils can again make a late-season push like they did last year when they won an ACC title. (Chris Carlson / AP Photo)

Duke baseball coach Chris Pollard gathered his players for a pep talk last week as they prepared to begin the final month of the regular season.

“May ball is here,” he said in the speech, posted on the team’s social media account. “You can’t kill us. We won’t go away. It’s our time. This is when we do it.”

Based on the current ACC baseball standings, which show the Blue Devils mired in the Coastal Division cellar, Pollard’s message would seem to be an exercise in wishful thinking.

History, however, suggests otherwise.

Like the Masters golf tournament, which according to popular lore doesn’t really begin until the back nine on Sunday, college baseball doesn’t truly get serious until the calendar flips to May.

That’s certainly been the case for Duke, which has compiled a 43-22 during the month since 2016. The Blue Devils’ 14-2 mark last May included a season-defining 12-game winning streak that helped Duke to its first ACC Tournament championship since 1961.

So while the Blue Devils are currently 8-13 in the conference — the same as they were after 21 games a year ago — and under .500 overall at 19-23, Pollard’s optimism for another strong run to the postseason is not unfounded.

“We use the expression, ‘You don’t rise to the occasion, you fall back to the level of your system and your preparation,’” Pollard said on his weekly radio show last week. “That’s where culture is so important.

“The ability to take punches but keep moving forward, the ability to stay in the fight even when things don’t appear to be going well is a product of the fact that we’ve had a program that’s been good at that for a long time. So there’s a year-in, year-out dedication to (the idea that) we’re not going away.”

Duke isn’t the only state ACC team with an expectation of saving its best for last.

Left for dead after a 1-8 start in the league last year, NC State found a winning formula at midseason then caught fire as April turned to May and into June.

The Wolfpack advanced to the ACC Tournament final before losing a 1-0 heartbreaker to Duke, then won their NCAA regional at Louisiana Tech, upset Arkansas in a super regional and came within a COVID outbreak at the College World Series of playing for the national championship.

Coach Elliott Avent’s 2022 team is actually in a better position at 11-9 in the conference and 29-13 overall than it was at this time last season.

State has already started picking up steam with wins in 11 of its last 13 games, including a three-game nonconference sweep of Radford last weekend. With a lineup that has begun to hit its stride after incorporating seven new position players and the potential return of injured pitching ace Sam Highfill, the Wolfpack can’t be counted out for a return trip to Omaha.

“It has just been a huge process,” Penn transfer shortstop Josh Hood said after hitting two homers and driving in five runs in Sunday’s 11-4 win. “Just looking back from the fall to now, seeing how this team has grown together and what the season has done to everybody, whether that is figuring out who we are, getting comfortable and especially with this big stretch coming up, being comfortable and knowing who we are, it’s good to get those things out of the way so we can focus on playing well.”

The Wolfpack will look to build on its confidence against rival North Carolina this weekend.

As important as the three-game series is for State, it has the potential to be even more of a springboard for the Tar Heels.

Coach Scott Forbes’ team has fallen upon hard times and is tied with Duke for last in the Coastal at 8-13. But because of a hot 18-3 start and a 24-17 overall record, UNC is still in a reasonable position to earn an NCAA Tournament bid.

The same can be said for Wake Forest. The Deacons are just 10-11 in the ACC but 29-13 overall and are dangerous against any opponent if they get any pitching at all to go along with an offense that ranks first in the conference in home runs (82), second in runs (406) and fourth in hitting (.316).

Outside the ACC, East Carolina, Campbell and UNC Wilmington are all on track to play their way into the NCAA Tournament even if they don’t win their respective conference tournaments.

The Pirates (27-18) lead the American Athletic Conference at 11-4 in league play, and the Camels (26-14) lead the Big South at 13-2. The Seahawks (24-18) stand third in the Colonial Athletic Association at 9-6 heading into the season’s most important month.