GSA Spotlight: Duke's Jonathan Santucci

CONWAY, S.C. — The last time Jonathan Santucci set foot in Springs Brooks Stadium, he was relegated to the role of cheerleader while his Duke teammates ran through the Conway Regional, beating host Coastal Carolina in the final. Santucci had been on the shelf since week seven, when his season was cut short by a fractured elbow after a very strong first half, during which he struck out 50 in 29.1 innings of work.

Celebrating the regional triumph with his teammates was sweet, but not without a tinge of the bitter — because like any fierce competitor, he wanted badly to be on the field, doing his part to propel Duke to its third super regional in the last five completed seasons. Understandably, his injury gave Santucci some added perspective heading into his junior year.

“I think I just kinda looked at baseball a different way. Being here in June for the regional and being on the bench, and not being able to be part of it on the field, I kinda used that as motivation to keep working every single day to get back to the point I was at, if not better,” said Santucci, a power-armed lefthander with first-round talent. “Just thinking about that every single day and taking that over into the summer and my rehab, I think that really helped, and being able to get back in the fall and hit the ground running from there.”

Not surprisingly, Santucci was a little amped up to start Duke’s season opener against Indiana on Friday, and he walked the leadoff man on four pitches. But he maintained his composure and struck out the next batter, Josh Pyne, on an elevated 95 mph heater — then allowed a single to Devin Taylor, finding himself in a two-on, one-out jam.

No problem; he simply stranded both runners by striking out cleanup hitter Brock Tibbitts on a good 83 mph slider and then fanning Tyler Cerny on another 95 mph heater. From there, Santucci was in complete control, setting down 10 straight Indiana batters — six of them via strikeout.

“I thought that Santucci really set a tone with his maturity in the first inning, he goes four-pitch walk, then falls behind to the second batter Pyne, and showed a lot of maturity not to get outside himself,” Duke coach Chris Pollard said. “That just is an example of his growth. That four-pitch walk two years ago could have snowballed on him, and he doesn’t do that anymore.”

Santucci agreed with that assessment.

“Coming off the injury last year, that was the first time in probably 10 months that I felt that type of adrenaline pitching. So just being able to settle in and that maturity part, you just get better and better at that as you get older,” he said. “And I think that just showed today in how I handled the leadoff walk and handled it from there on, getting to the point where I can hand the ball off to someone else and get the win.”

And that’s just what Santucci did, turning in five innings of four-hit, shutout ball, leading Duke to a 6-3 win against a very good Indiana team that is loaded with dangerous veteran hitters. He bumped 96 mph a couple of times in the first inning and held his 94-95 heat through the fourth, then still sat 92-94 in the final inning of his 86-pitch outing. And he was able to land his biting 82-84 mph slider for a strike or use it for a chase pitch out of the zone, seemingly at will. It wasn’t quite as sharp as I saw it in a fall scrimmage against UNC Wilmington, but it was still a serious weapon. That pitch has gotten better and better since Santucci returned from injury, and Pollard said his changeup is progressing as well, and will likely be featured more in the weeks to come. But on this day, he didn’t need the changeup, because he was able to locate the slider so well to the backdoor or the inside corner against Indiana’s righthanded hitters.

“It’s just something I can start relying on more and more, feeling more comfortable with it,” Santucci said of the slider. “Just small little mechanical things that I worked on, or knew I needed to work on in the past, implemented that in the fall and preseason, and everything’s taken a big stride. Excited to see how everything else turns out down the road.”

Considering how good Duke’s pitching staff was last year, when the Blue Devils did not have a traditional weekend rotation and instead relied upon an openers strategy after Santucci’s injury, his re-emergence as a bona fide All-America-caliber ace atop a pitching staff that remains loaded is a scary proposition for the rest of the ACC. is your online home for college baseball scores, schedules, standings, statistics, analysis, features, podcasts and prospect coverage.