Walk-off walk lifts Duke baseball past Liberty 6-5 in home finale
After two comeback wins to clinch the series against Georgia Tech last weekend, Duke saved its most dramatic victory for its final home game of the year.
The Blue Devils trailed by a run entering the ninth inning but rallied to beat Liberty 6-5 on a walk-off two-out walk by Chris Proctor at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park Tuesday evening. The sophomore catcher worked the count full with the bases loaded and fouled off a two-strike pitch before taking the final pitch of the game too low from Cody Gamble—a fitting end to a game in which the Flames walked nine Duke batters.
"We competed great there in the ninth inning," Blue Devil head coach Chris Pollard said. "We had some guys grind out some really good at-bats, Chris Proctor and Max Miller both spoiling some really tough pitches."
The rally started with one-out singles to left field by Jack Labosky and Kennie Taylor with Liberty leading 5-4. Miller then came to the plate and capped a seven-pitch at-bat with a single to right field to score Labosky as the throw home came a split-second too late.
"I saw Jack and Kennie both put pretty good swings on it, so I knew that he really didn’t have anything that funky," Miller said. "I was just looking for something I could hit, and seeing a bunch of pitches in that at-bat definitely helped."
Pinch-hitter Justin Bellinger walked to load the bases before Gamble entered and struck out Jalen Phillips to come close to escaping the jam, but Proctor made sure extra innings were not necessary.
Duke (26-25) jumped out to an early 3-0 lead in the first inning behind a walk and four singles—including a fly ball off the bat of Peter Zyla that Liberty right fielder Will Shepherd lost in the sun. Freshman starter Graeme Stinson preserved the lead with four shutout innings on the mound, allowing just one hit and striking out seven.
"He did a great job of throwing his breaking ball for strikes," Pollard said. "Early in the year, he was out there relying on a 93-mile-an-hour fastball just to blow by guys. Tonight he was pitching. He was locating the fastball, he was moving it around and really executing with his breaking ball."
The Blue Devils ran into trouble immediately after Stinson exited the contest, though, with freshman Bill Chillari entering in the fifth inning and giving up a home run to senior Andrew Kowalo on his second pitch. The next two batters singled to chase Chillari from the game without recording an out, but Kevin Lewallyn minimized the damage and allowed just one more run to score.
Duke then added a run in the bottom half of the fifth on an RBI single by Kennie Taylor, but it was not enough to keep the Flames from taking the lead in the seventh.
After Liberty (30-20) loaded the bases with one out on two singles and a walk, Pollard replaced Lewallyn with Chris McGrath, who surrendered a slow chopper to leadoff man D.J. Artis on his first pitch. First baseman Jalen Phillips' toss to McGrath was too late to beat Artis sprinting down the line, but the throw got away from McGrath and allowed two runs to score to tie the game.
A go-ahead RBI single by Trey McDyre put the Flames in front for the first time, but senior Karl Blum shut down Liberty down in the final two innings, retiring all six batters he faced to set up the Blue Devils' ninth-inning rally.
"That was as good an outing as Karl has had all year. I thought it was one of the best outings of his career—just dominant stuff, they didn’t put a good swing on him," Pollard said. "I’m happy for him to come in and get the win like that, last time at the DBAP, and that’ll be a special one for sure."
Duke will now turn its attention to a series at No. 3 North Carolina to close out the regular season Thursday through Saturday in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have won 11 of their last 12 games, sweeping No. 14 Clemson during that span, and own the fourth-best team ERA in the nation.
Junior right-hander J.B. Bukauskas is 8-0 with an ACC-best 1.80 ERA and has enjoyed the support of five North Carolina batters hitting better than .300.
"It’s always an awesome atmosphere over there. It’s fun going against top competition in the league," Miller said. "We’re lucky we get to do that in the ACC."
The Blue Devils will clinch a berth in next week's ACC tournament with a win this weekend and will likely make it even if they get swept. With a No. 110 RPI ranking, though, winning the conference tournament is Duke's only realistic path to its second straight NCAA tournament appearance.