The undefeated Blue Devils have made a habit of trouncing every opponent they have faced this season. Of their 11 wins coming into Wednesday's matchup with Valparaiso, only two have been by fewer than four runs.
But playing in front of a crowd at Jack Coombs Field that was decidedly pro-Crusaders due to a throng of Valpo faithful that made their way down from Indiana, Duke (12-0) needed a three-run ninth-inning rally to escape with a 5-4 win.
"We've said all along that pitching and defense have to be our constant, and that offense will come and go," head coach Sean McNally said. "I thought this was an important game for us. Their starter did an excellent job, and we were down late and had to fight and compete. For us to come back and finish it with a win is great for this young club."
After threatening against Valparaiso (2-6) closer Jarad Miller in the eighth, the Blue Devils broke through with a clutch hit from a familiar face in the ninth. In Duke's only other nail-biter of the season, sophomore Gabriel Saade sent the home crowd happy with an RBI in the ninth that broke up a 1-1 tie against Columbia last Saturday. In Wednesday's game, Saade stepped to the plate with the stakes a bit higher as Duke was trailing by a run with the tying and go-ahead runners in scoring position and two outs.
And once again, Saade proved to be one of the Blue Devils' best clutch hitters, lining Miller's 0-1 pitch up the middle for a base hit. Pinch-runner Dennis O'Grady scored easily from third on the play to tie the game and shortstop Jake Lemmerman slid home safely seconds later with the winning run.
"I went into that bat with the mindset that I just wanted to keep the inning alive," Saade said. "I just wanted to keep our chances alive. In situations like that, you tend to want to do it all yourself, but I just went up there and wanted to put the ball in play. I got my pitch and hit it up the middle, and Jake was able to score all the way from second."
Duke got off to an early 1-0 lead as Saade led off the bottom of the first with a double and scored on a sacrifice fly by centerfielder Alex Hassan. But with the score knotted at one apiece in the fifth, Duke starting pitcher Chris Manno got into a bases-loaded jam and was relieved by sophomore Michael Ness. The right-hander surrendered back-to-back hits that allowed three runs to cross the plate, but he recovered to strike out the next two batters and limit the damage.
Ness pitched two more scoreless innings after finishing the fifth, and senior Ryan Perry (1-0) pitched a pair of shutout frames to keep the Blue Devils within striking distance of a late-inning comeback.
"I just came in there and tried to keep my team in the game," Perry said. "Fortunately I was able to do that today, and the hitters took care of the rest to get us a win. It's one of those games that make you want to keep playing the game of baseball."
With the win Wednesday, Duke enters the ACC season with a perfect 12-0 record. The Blue Devils will take on No. 2 North Carolina (8-1) in a three-game series beginning 3 p.m. Friday at Jack Coombs Field. The Tar Heels have lost to Oregon State each of the last two seasons in the finals of the College World Series, and their only loss this season was in extra innings to Old Dominion.
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