In a season that has been such a diversion from past years, Duke's opening round ACC tournament game was more of the same for the Blue Devils—great pitching, poor hitting.
After a promising start, the Blue Devils fell to Clemson 5-3 Wednesday in their opening game of pool play in the ACC Championship at NewBridge Bank Park in Greensboro, N.C. The contest was Duke's first appearance in the tournament in five years and featured a pitching duel between the two teams' aces.
On the mound for the Blue Devils Wednesday was sophomore Michael Matuella. The Great Falls, Va., native was dominant early but allowed the Tigers to claw their way back into the game—much like the team as a whole. Ultimately, he allowed three runs on eight hits through 6.2 innings of work.
"Michael Matuella pitched a tremendous ballgame for us," head coach Chris Pollard said. "[He] certainly gave us a good enough start to win the ballgame. Nick Hendrix did his job coming out of the pen. Ryan Deitrich had good at-bats. The difference in the ballgame was the fact that up until Chris Marconcini hit the ground ball to first base with one out in the ninth, we didn't make an infielder make a play all day."
Through the first three innings, Matuella gassed Clemson with his fastball that clocks in the high 90s as he struck out four of the first nine batters he faced and kept the Tigers from scoring prior to the fourth inning. But he was not the only stud toeing the rubber Wednesday. Clemson southpaw Matthew Crownover was exceptional, holding the Blue Devils to two runs on five hits in 7.2 innings of work and striking out nine batters in the process.
"I thought he pitched great, and he's a tremendous competitor," Pollard said. "And he was able to run the two-seam away from us at times. But we've got to do a better job of hitting with our top hand and doing whatever we need to do. Sometimes it's a willingness when you get in the batter's box and say, 'Look, I'm going to force myself to get on top of the baseball and hit a ground ball.'"
Duke was able to rattle Crownover in the opening innings and get out to an early lead. In the second inning, Chris Marconcini hit a harmless popup into foul territory with two outs, but the ball was dropped by Tiger third baseman Tyler Slaton, allowing Marconcini to reach first on error and sending Ryan Deitrich to the plate for the Blue Devils. Slaton's mistake would prove to be costly for Clemson, as Deitrich sent Crownover's pitch just over the outstretched glove of center fielder Tom Bourdon for a two-run homerun to give the Blue Devils the 2-0 advantage.
But that was all the crowd would see from the Duke offense for another six innings.
After picking up a run in the fourth to cut the Duke lead in half, the Tigers took the lead in the top of the fifth when catcher Chris Okey and third baseman Weston Wilson hit back-to-back singles to put runners on first and second with one out. Following a Slaton strikeout via Matuella, designated hitter Tyler Krieger roped a line drive into the right field corner, scoring both Okey and Wilson and putting Clemson ahead 3-2, a lead it would not relinquish for the rest of the day.
"They started sitting on the fastball," Matuella said. "My fastball starting getting elevated a little bit. When that starts to happen, two-seamer doesn't move as much and they put a lot of good swings on the ball today. I just have to do a better job of getting the ball down."
The Tigers would cushion their lead in the top of the ninth, advancing runners on first and second to second and third thanks to a well-placed bunt laid by center fielder Tyler Slaton. Andrew Istler—who took over for Hendrix following the eighth inning—intentionally walked Krieger to have the force out at any bag. The Blue Devils nearly got what they wanted when Clemson's Steven Druggar hit a sharp ground ball to second, but the ball bounced past the outstretched glove of Andy Perez, allowing two runs to score and giving the Tigers all the room they needed.
Duke made things interesting in the final frame of the afternoon, drawing consecutive walks to bring the tying run to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Deitrich, who knocked in the Blue Devils' only two runs of the game, closed the gap to two with an RBI single, putting runners on first and third with the winning run coming to bat in the form of Mike Rosenfeld. The Duke catcher had the crowd holding its breath as he roped a line drive to deep right-center, but the Blue Devil luck was finished as Slaton chased down the ball to end the game.
"We were content to pop the ball up in the air," Pollard said. "We talked about the importance of forcing their infield to make plays and we didn't adjust as the game went on, and that was the difference in the ballgame."
In addition to reaching the tournament for the first time since 2009, Duke will use the postseason conference play to seek their first NCAA tournament bid since 1961. With a current RPI of 78, the Blue Devils' loss against Clemson was a step backward in their journey to reach Omaha. But Duke is far from out of the picture and does not lack hope.
"Obviously we need to win these next two games," Matuella said. "I don't think we're going to feel more pressured. We're going to take it one pitch at a time. We know we can beat any team when we play to our abilities."
The Blue Devils will continue pool play Thursday at 3 p.m. against No. 9 seed Georgia Tech.