Pitt baseball underwent massive roster turnover during this offseason. Three key players left for the MLB and eight more graduated. The program unveiled a 24-man recruiting class to compensate for the loss, but so many new faces can bring challenges to a roster looking to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in more than 20 years.
Graduate student infielder Sky Duff is capable of stepping up as a crucial team leader.
Pitt recruited the New Jersey native in 2018. Over the course of his career, Duff proved himself as a team-first player. The graduate student infielder is willing to make sacrifices to see his team win, including changing his position in the lineup.
“I’m comfortable with wherever they see me fit,” Duff said. “If it’s at the top, setting the table and giving guys opportunities to drive me in I’m cool with that. If they want me to be middle of the order bringing in the runs I’m also okay with that.”
Duff also embraced the challenge of playing in the ACC when he came to Pitt. The infielder even claims that the conference is one of the best in the country.
“The ACC is one of, if not the best, conference in the country,” Duff said.
Seven ACC teams are featured in the preseason Top 25 this year, proving how crowded the field is in the conference. Despite having such a volume of talented opponents, Duff saw an ambition to join those powerful teams within Pitt’s athletic program.
“The standard around here, there’s not really a place like it.” Duff said. “It’s a very unique campus and the athletic department is committed to excellence. That really caught my eye.”
From Shamong, New Jersey, the 23-year-old graduate infielder is entering his fifth year as a Panther. Duff has started 152 games at Pitt, slashing .299 batting average/.432 on base percentage / and .400 slugging percentage during 158 appearances.
As a first-year in 2019, Duff cemented himself in the Pitt lineup by starting in 48 of the team’s 55 games. It was a solid showing for him, slashing a .260/.397/ .315 during 181 at bats, but that was just the beginning of his ascension into an elite leadoff hitter.
In 2020, Duff’s batting average cracked .300 for the first time. It was a shortened season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the infielder slashed .306/.507/.449 with four doubles and nine RBI in 49 at bats.
Duff stepped up in 2021, posting career-high stats. He started in 40 of the Panthers’ 43 games and finished the season with a dominant .366 average, which was fifth-best in the ACC. His final slash line was .366/.461/.524 and he added 18 doubles and four stolen bases to those impressive totals.
Last season was a down year for Duff. He still hit a solid .275/.420/.360 and matched his career high of 21 RBI, but it wasn’t close to his astronomical performance the year before, perhaps due to being lowered in the batting order out of the leadoff spot.
Duff was a part of the heart wrenching 2021 team, which fell out of tournament contention after a late season skid. He also played on the 2022 team which showed hints of the potential within the program, but ultimately fell short just as the year before.
“The last two years, being right there on the edge, those are tough things and it’s a fire that builds up,” Duff said. “The biggest thing is not getting ahead of ourselves. The past couple years things trended in the right direction and we started looking forward.”
Experiences like the last two years are crushing, but Duff’s experience with them has only built him up as a leader and mentor on the team. Junior outfielder C.J. Funk, who is also Duff’s roommate, knows better than anyone how valuable Duff is to the growth of Pitt’s roster.
“I see a lot from him because I live with him,” Funk said. “Sky is awesome. He’s a really good role model for the younger guys. He took me and [junior outfielder Dom Popa] under his wing, we both live with him. He’s been nothing but positive. Anything that comes out of his mouth is something positive no matter what. He’s always the first guy to say ‘you have another opportunity coming, shake that one off, move on.”
Funk credits resilience and experience as the reasons Duff is such a good mentor to those around him. From game-winning hits to just missing out on the NCAA tournament, Duff has seen it all.
“Being here as long as he has, he’s been through it all,” Funk said. “He’s seen the highs and lows of this team, and with that experience he’s more than willing to share it with everyone else.”
The players aren’t the only ones aware of Duff’s contributions to Pitt’s culture. Head coach Mike Bell admires the players who step up and set an example for the others on the team.
“When you see what goes on with our program, it resonates through the players and they lead by example,” Coach Bell said. “They bring along a freshman and show them ‘this is the way we do things, this is why we do things.”
Duff knows his role as a leader and his influence shows on the field. Funk slashed .298/.476/.511 in 2022 with five home runs, 24 RBI and 35 runs scored in 45 starts. Duff’s other roommate, Popa, also enjoyed a productive season, slashing .262/.444/.377 with 8 RBI and 16 runs scored in 17 starts.
“It’s something I take a lot of pride in,” Duff said. “I’ve been here for a while now. I take a lot of pride in showing the new guys how we do things, what we expect from each other and helping them acclimated.”
After four years in the program, Duff is enjoying looking back and seeing himself in the new guys coming through the door. By remembering where he started, he can make an impact on those new to the program.
“It’s really fun because I was in their shoes,” Duff said. When they come in everything is moving fast so I kind of help slow things down and want them to know ‘hey, if you need anything you can come to me.”
Duff’s efforts to build a strong, winning culture in Pittsburgh have an opportunity to pay off starting Feb. 17 against Maine. The team has 55 games ahead en route to a potential NCAA Tournament appearance for Pitt. With the challenge looming ahead, Duff and the rest of the squad are ready to get the 2023 season underway.
“I’m excited to get back out there,” Duff said. “Not looking too far ahead but getting to that first game, getting into conference play and going from there.”
- After offseason reload, Pitt baseball veteran Sky Duff brings leadership to young clubhouse
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