Sports

Duke baseball uses 5-run sixth inning to surge past N.C. Central 8-4

Facing a second team of Eagles in less than a week, the Blue Devils returned home licking their wounds after an embarrassing series loss to Boston College. 

Although the team fell behind early against another weak opponent, Duke's bats eventually came alive to help deliver a solid all-around performance in their weekly non-conference matchup.

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By Mitchell Gladstone / The Chronicle

Max Miller did not manage a hit against North Carolina Central, but got on base twice with walks and came around to score both times.

Coming off the low point of their season, the Blue Devils were seemingly heading for a new rock bottom down 2-0 halfway through the fifth inning before pulling away late for an 8-4 victory Wednesday against crosstown rival N.C. Central at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Duke head coach Chris Pollard's team won for the second straight game after dropping the first two of a three-game set against lowly Boston College team this past weekend.

“I like the fact that our guys continued to stay in the moment,” Pollard said. There was no press, there was no panic, and that allowed us to have a couple big innings there late.”

The Blue Devils (20-19) appeared lifeless on offense for the first five innings of the game Wednesday against Eagle starter Chris Gonnelli. The senior right-hander entered the game with a 9.86 ERA and 0-3 record, having surrendered 23 earned runs in 21 innings pitched. 

Against Duke, however, he was nearly unhittable, scattering a pair of hits across five innings of one-run ball.

“He located pretty well for a guy who had elevated walks,” Blue Devil left fielder Jimmy Herron said. “He threw fastball-slider the first time through, and located them pretty well, and then he started mixing in the changeup, which was a pretty good pitch. [It] fooled me, I struck out on that pitch. Locate three pitches—that’s what he did [and he] kept getting us out.”

Gonnelli was lifted after the fifth in favor of junior right-hander Josh Little, who promptly walked the first batter he faced, gave up a double to the second and then walked the third to load the bases with nobody out. 

N.C. Central head coach Jim Koerner went back to the bullpen immediately for lefty Marcus Washburn to face Duke freshman Matt Mervis, who had doubled and walked in his previous plate appearances. Pollard, however, countered with right-handed pinch-hitter Erikson Nichols, whom Washburn proceeded to walk to tie the game. 

After Chris Proctor struck out for the first out of the inning, Herron came up to the plate with the chance to put his team ahead. The team's leadoff hitter fell behind in the count but was able to punch a single to left field, scoring two and putting the Blue Devils ahead for good. 

Two batters later, Herron and Nichols scored on another single to left from Griffin Conine, putting Duke up by four and sending Washburn to the showers.

“The cool thing about it is [Herron] didn’t really have a good at-bat the previous at-bat. But he did a great job of going up there and grinding, and just stayed in the at-bat,” Pollard said. “The pitch he hit was an off-speed pitch, but he just stayed on it. I was really, really impressed by his at-bats.”

The game got off to an inauspicious start, as Jack Labosky’s wayward throw to first after N.C. Central (16-23) led off with a chopper to third put the first batter of the night on base. A wild pitch, single and sacrifice fly gave the Eagles an early advantage against Blue Devil freshman Graeme Stinson, who was one of three rookies to struggle against their opponent from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Stinson was replaced in the second as Duke tried to get a lot of arms out on the mound against its mid-week nonconference opponent. Adam Laskey, another southpaw freshman, gave up a pair of singles to start the second inning, then allowed a run on a wild pitch with two outs.

Despite the slow start, the only real threat to the Blue Devils' lead after the sixth inning came in the eighth frame. Freshman Bill Chillari surrendered an unearned run on a wild pitch before another run crossed on a sacrifice fly. After the next batter reached on a single, Pollard went to the pen again for Nick Hendrix, who retired the next two batters to eliminate the threat.

“You know what they say about freshmen—the best thing about them is they become sophomores," Pollard said. "Their stuff was fine, we just didn’t execute a couple of pitches. Ultimately, what hurt those three guys relative to the other guys that came in and pitched well for us is they didn’t throw their secondary stuff in the zone."

The rest of the Duke staff performed well, holding the Eagles to just one hit between the third and seventh innings that was immediately erased by a double play. 

The Blue Devils were hoping to get a lot of pitchers time on the mound to keep the bulk of the staff fresh for their toughest series of the year at No. 2 and ACC-leading Louisville starting Friday.

“We've got our work cut out for us this weekend. I told our guys we should go up there and be loose and relaxed,” Pollard said. “Every team over the course of the season has a bad weekend. Maybe this is Louisville’s weekend to have a bad weekend.”


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