Before he took the mound in the bottom of the first during Wednesday’s 12-7 win over Audubon, Sky Duff was a mess.
The Bishop Eustace senior’s uniform, so pristine before the game, was covered with dirt courtesy of a stolen base in the top of the inning in the championship game of the Ralph Shaw Tournament.
Duff rarely goes past the first few innings with a clean jersey. It’s a symbol of the hard-nosed style he has employed since he became a starter as a freshman.
“I always want to go out and play hard and kind of be a grinder and give it all I can for my team,” he said after the game. “Most times I end up pretty dirty.”
At 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, Duff isn’t the biggest player. But he has a towering presence on the field.
“He is just a warrior. Mentally tough. Just a great leader. And also one of those kids who the opposition probably doesn’t like a lot, but you are glad he is on your squad because he is feisty. Gets after it,” veteran Eustace coach Sam Tropiano said.
“He is the heart and soul of our team.”
It’s a team that remains among the elite, ranked No. 4 in South Jersey by the Inquirer.
This year, the Crusaders have a different approach. They use Duff as a starting pitcher. Even though he was recruited to play at Pittsburgh as an infielder (most likely at second base), Duff has been added to the rotation.
Last season was the first he pitched in high school.
“He knew we needed a pitcher, so he volunteered, and he was our closer,” Tropiano said.
This season, Duff suggested to Tropiano that he might be able to help the team as a starter.
The early results are encouraging. In his first start, he pitched a one-hit shutout and struck out 12 in a 10-0, five-inning win over Cherry Hill West.
On Wednesday, he started and pitched three shutout innings in the win over Audubon.
“I love pitching. It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “This year, I have been doing pretty well so far, and when I am out there I am in control of the game.”
As a batter and a baserunner, he does the same.
Duff is the Crusaders’ leadoff hitter and offensive catalyst who sets the table and, at times, clears it.
It’s not surprising that he looks up to Los Angeles Dodger Chase Utley and Boston Red Sox player Dustin Pedroia, two grinding second basemen who inspire their teammates with hard-nosed play.
Eustace plays one of the toughest schedules around. On Saturday, the Crusaders host the Tom Heinkel Tournament, facing Episcopal Academy (Pa.) while St. Augustine meets Malvern Prep (Pa.). Both games begin at 10 a.m. The championship starts at 1:30 p.m.
If Eustace and St. Augustine win their openers – no easy task – they would meet in a rematch of last year’s South Jersey Non-Public A sectional final. St. Augustine won last year’s championship, 4-3, in eight innings.
Duff, who enters the weekend with 89 career hits, gets another chance to take down the current South Jersey No. 1.
“I want to leave a mark on the program and go out with a bang and win as many games and titles as we can,” he said.
The part about leaving his mark has already been done. It’s evident every time the game ends and his uniform is in need of some serious cleaning.