Feb. 17, 2005
By John Roth, Blue Devil Weekly
Duke pitcher Greg Burke figures he has a lot of innings left in his rejuvenated right arm.
A fifth-year senior, Burke hasn't pitched in a summer league since his freshman year. He missed his entire sophomore season due to elbow surgery. This past fall, instead of going through offseason training with the Blue Devils, Burke built patios and walkways with his brother, the foreman for a New Jersey landscaping company.
So now that his final college baseball season is upon him, Burke feels fresh and ready to perform in his role as the ace of the Blue Devils' starting rotation.
"I'm definitely 100 percent, there's no doubt about it," Burke said before a recent workout at Jack Coombs Field.
"I felt good last year, but as the season went down to the end I wasn't fully prepared strength-wise. So after the season, that's all I had on my mind -- working out and getting stronger. Now my strength is up and my arm feels great. There's no doubt I'm 100 percent."
Burke was Duke's No. 3 starter last year, behind veterans Tim Layden and Zach Schreiber. He finished with a 5-7 record and a 4.73 earned run average in 20 appearances. He had a .500 record and a 2.39 earned run average in mid-April, but as the ACC season heated up, Burke wore down -- the lingering effects of his comeback from his elbow surgery two years before.
"Sometimes that happens," said Duke coach Bill Hillier. "Last year he started out with great command and great velocity, throwing in the high 80s, 88 to 90 (miles per hour). By the time we got to the ACC Tournament his velocity was down to the mid-80s. After the surgery he had, you sometimes have to pitch for quite awhile to gain that strength back."
Burke underwent the so-called Tommy John elbow ligament surgery late in the spring of 2002 after he heard his arm pop in the fourth inning of an ACC game with Clemson. He tried to go out for the fifth inning but couldn't get past the second hitter. A month later, on May 9, Dr. Larry Higgins operated.
"When they told me I tore it, I was pretty heartbroken," Burke recalled. "The first words out of the doctor's mouth were, `You can't pitch.' Well, what does that mean? Can it be fixed? So it was tough. The good thing was, I'm at Duke so I've got great doctors behind me. They fixed my elbow and it feels better than ever. I'm pain-free.
"It was a long process getting back. I was throwing within two months of the surgery, but at first it was socks at five feet, then tennis balls. Mentally it was tough because I was expecting to come back the next season (2003), and I pitched one game and it just wasn't there. I was coming back too early. So I had a lot of time to think and a lot of things to get situated.
"Mentally I was ready last season, but physically I don't think I was for the whole season. Hopefully I can put those two things together this season and make it a little better."
Rather than focus on his pitching, Burke focused on his body last summer. He ran, he lifted weights, he started to eat better. By the end of the summer, he had put on about 10 pounds of muscle. He completed his academic degree requirements last year, so rather than return to school in the fall, he continued the workout regimen to further enhance his strength and set himself up for the best possible final season.
Burke started the opener in each of Duke's first two series of 2005 and picked up a pair of victories, over North Carolina A&T and Maryland-Eastern Shore. When the ACC slate rolls around, Hillier expects to put the ball in Burke's hand every Friday for the opening game of each weekend conference series.
"He's got great sink on his fastball, but more than anything he has great composure. He doesn't get rattled," said Hillier. "He's a guy you expect eight out of 10 times to go out there and have great stuff and great command. There are very few guys in baseball who have that, and he's one of those guys. I think he's got a chance to pitch for a long time. He should get a chance to make money if he stays healthy."
Like most players in college baseball, Burke has dreamed of playing professionally since his days in Little League. His work with Duke pitching coach Bill Hillier Jr. has helped transform his pitching style into possible pro material.
"In high school everybody feels like they're a power pitcher, striking kids out and all that," Burke said. "When I got to college as a freshman, I thought I'd throw it by everybody but that didn't work. These guys are better hitters. Eventually over time I realized that I had to let people hit the ball and use the defense behind me. So I'm more of a contact pitcher, a ground ball pitcher. I'll get strikeouts here and there. My main attribute is my focus and my mental capabilities. I'm staying level-headed, I'm thinking, I'm getting my guys in the right position. And I can throw strikes so that is a good thing. You don't want to walk people.
"It's all very mechanical," he added. "When I was in high school I was wild and my body was going everywhere. My pitching coach (at Duke) made me believe mechanics are what makes you throw balls over the plate and where you want to throw them. Over time, if you look from my freshman year to now, my mechanics have become more consistent. That's really helped me throw my pitches."
Burke and left-hander Danny Otero (2-4, 4.38) headline Duke's starting rotation this season. Hillier is still in the process of determining a third starter for weekend series and a fourth starter for the midweek games on the schedule. The Blue Devils are seeking to improve on last year's 25-31 mark that featured 13 one-run losses.