CHAPEL HILL - With two outs and the winning run on first in the bottom of the ninth, Duke held a one-run lead over No. 1 North Carolina in the rubber game of the series-and the nearly 3,000 Tar Heel fans at Boshamer Stadium were trying to cheer away.
But Blue Devil closer Alex Hassan kept his composure amidst the rally-capped dugout and sea of Carolina blue. The right-handed hurler forced a long fly out to left center that was a fitting end to the 10-9 offensive nail biter, and the Blue Devils earned their first series win over the Tar Heels since 2001.
Duke (14-7, 5-4 in the ACC) had lost Friday evening, 8-5, but the Blue Devils rebounded with a 5-4 victory on Saturday to even the series. Sunday's 10-9 victory clinched the weekend win over the top-ranked Tar Heels (17-4, 5-3 in the ACC).
"I just try to stay in the moment, stay in the present, control what I can control. Pressure's just what you make of it," Hassan said. "They're the No. 1 team in the country, we knew they had a run in them. So we just kept battling all game on, trying to keep scoring runs and add on, and at the end of the day, we just came out on top-it all worked out today."
And battle Duke did. With two outs in the second inning, the Blue Devils exploded for a seven-run rally off six hits. Freshman Will Piwnica-Worms-who finished the day 3-for-5 with two RBIs-laced a two-run homer down the left-field line to put Duke on the board and notch his first college homer.
"It was a fastball up, and he left the ball up-I just got a good pitch to hit and I put the barrel on it," Piwnica-Worms said. "Hitting's contagious, so after that, we kept going. A couple guys barreled the ball up and. I think that set the tone for the rest of the game."
First baseman Nate Freiman singled with the bases loaded to score two, while leftfielder Jeremy Gould homered to drive in three and round out scoring for the second inning, giving Duke an early 7-0 lead. Freiman and Gould both went 2-for-5 with three RBIs.
Duke continued to score piecemeal for the rest of the game. Catcher Matt Williams singled to drive in a run in the third, designated hitter Tim Sherlock smashed a solo homer in the fifth and Freiman doubled for an RBI in the eighth to end the scoring at 10 runs for Duke.
Those extra three runs proved to be pivotal down the stretch. North Carolina had broken the ice with a run in the third, but came alive in the bottom of the sixth with a five-run rally to get back in the game. Duke was forced to pull starter Ryan Knott and bring in middle relievers Dennis O'Grady and Michael Ness in the sixth to battle the Tar Heel offensive surge.
"We just talked about it and said, 'Hopefully, we get out of the sixth inning without too much damage. And then after that, it's a three-inning game, and we're up three,' head coach Sean McNally said. "I think just getting through the sixth with a little bit of a lead was really the key."
North Carolina continued to chip away at Duke's lead with a run and two more in the seventh and eighth, respectively, to bring the game to 10-9 going into the bottom of the ninth. Duke's defense-despite two errors down the stretch-ended the ninth strong to finally stop the Tar Heels late-game comeback. Hassan moved from center field to the mound to notch the save and finish out the game with one strikeout.
On the mound, Knott notched the win with three strikeouts, despite giving up six runs and eight hits in just more than five innings. O'Grady, Ness and freshman southpaw Eric Pfisterer gave up a combined three runs and four hits, while collectively striking out one.
Besides the obvious benefits of a weekend series win-especially over the Tar Heels-the three games left the Blue Devils with several other positives. They learned to win on the road in the ACC and developed confidence in two-out hitting in a hostile atmosphere, McNally said.
"Sometimes you just have to do it for your guys to really understand what it takes to win two out of three, and what it takes to beat the best teams in the league," McNally said. "I think we're cautious, cautiously optimistic. We know it's one series and know there's a lot of great teams in the league. But for this weekend, we feel really good about it."
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