After falling short of an NCAA tournament berth last season, the Blue Devils entered the 2018 season looking to steal a series against one of the nation’s top teams in a hostile environment. 

Duke dropped two of three games in a season-opening series against No. 18 Vanderbilt at Hawkins Field in Nashville, Tenn., this weekend. The Blue Devils' lone victory, a 5-4 nail-biter Saturday, was sandwiched between a pair of 9-1 defeats Friday and Sunday in which the Blue Devils could not escape the big inning. Duke pitching ceded a five-run frame in both contests.

“We did a lot of things well, but there are a lot of things that we need to work on,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “We certainly played really well in spurts. In the two games we lost, we got victimized by the big inning, and in each of those innings there were plays to be made and we just didn’t make them. Offensively, we took a lot of good swings, but we have to do a better job of stringing offense together. Specifically, we’ve got to a better job with runners in scoring position.”

The Blue Devils struggled to get out of big innings all weekend. Duke (1-2) especially was plagued by the fifth inning. After an RBI double by junior Griffin Conine put Duke ahead 1-0 in the top of the fifth Friday, Vanderbilt’s potent offense came alive against sophomore Adam Laskey. The Commodores (2-1) poured in five runs in the fifth and three runs in the seventh to go up 8-1. Second baseman Ethan Paul and designated hitter Philip Clarke each came out swinging, finishing Friday’s contest with two hits and three RBIs as Vanderbilt took the opener 9-1. 

Saturday’s matchup proved to be a much tighter contest. Senior Ryan Day held the Commodores dormant through six innings, allowing just a single earned run while racking up six strikeouts on the afternoon. Another big hit, this time a two-run home run by Conine, gave the Blue Devils a 4-2 lead in the top of the sixth. 

Conine looked strong out of the gates for Duke. The Weston, Fla., native finished his first series of the season 4-for-9 with three RBIs. Prior to the season, Conine was rated No. 19 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 50 MLB Draft Prospects list, and Pollard felt that same player arose on the big stage this weekend. 

“Griffin Conine played exceptionally well,” Pollard said. “He looked like Griffin Conine, tough to get easy outs. He had really good at-bats. I like the chemistry of our offense.”

Conine’s home run would not be the difference, however, as the Commodores tied the game at four with two-runs in the seventh on a solo shot by Stephen Scott and a double by Connor Kaiser. After a double by center fielder Kennie Taylor put Duke back up 5-4 in the top of the eighth, Vanderbilt had a chance to strike in the bottom of the ninth.

With two men on base and two outs in the inning, a hard Vanderbilt grounder was deflected in the infield. Senior second baseman Max Miller grabbed the ball and fired home to nab the runner at the plate, preserving the lead and sealing a 5-4 victory for the Blue Devils, their first win of the season. 

“It was a very unique play because after the deflection, it was almost like a quarterback going through a progression,” Pollard said. “He checked second, then he looked to third, then he looked home and still had time to finally make the throw. It was a tremendous moment, it was a big win, and in my years of coaching college baseball, I can’t remember a team that I coached executing a play at the plate like that to win a ballgame or preserve a win.”

Following the big victory Saturday, the Blue Devils were unable to steal the series in the rubber match Sunday. Duke pitching once again was haunted in the middle innings. Following a two-run fifth-inning, the Commodores put the game out of reach with a five-run sixth, extending the lead to its final score of 9-1. 

Following this weekend’s series, the Blue Devils will return to Durham Tuesday to face N.C. Central before a weekend series against Bucknell to begin a stretch of 17 consecutive home games.

“I told people coming into this weekend that this series would be very good exposing us on what it is we needed to work on,” Pollard said. “We’ve found those things and also seen some things that we’re doing well.”