During its four-game losing streak, Duke struggled to come up with the key hit. The Blue Devils got several of them Friday night.
A two-run home run by catcher Mike Rosenfeld and a three-run double by first baseman Jalen Phillips helped Duke break out of its recent offensive slump, getting back on track with a 6-3 win against Virginia Tech in the series opener Friday at Jack Coombs Field. The offensive explosion gave starter Andrew Istler plenty of run support, as the senior tossed seven innings to pick up his fourth win of the season.
"We had a couple of really big at-bats with two outs and two strikes," Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. "We’ve been missing that over this stretch where we’ve struggled—we’ve been missing that big hit and we got several of them tonight."
Istler—a senior who lowered his ERA to 3.28 in 68 2/3 innings—was moved up from his usual Saturday start to take the ball in the series opener and did not disappoint. The right-hander racked up seven strikeouts and gave up just three runs—only one of which was earend—and three sixth-inning walks.
With the strong start on the mound from Istler (4-3), Duke (23-18, 6-15 in the ACC) found itself at the plate against the Hokies' Kit Scheetz and Luke Scherzer. Virginia Tech (19-23, 8-13) entered the game with the second-worst ERA in the ACC.
"The difference for us was the fact we moved Andrew Istler from Saturday night, and instead of getting that quality of start on Saturday, we got it on Friday," Pollard said. "He settled in and got stronger as the game went on."
Istler made few mistakes Friday, but Hokie first basemen Brendon Hayden led of the top of the second by crushing a pitch over the right field fence to give Virginia Tech an early 1-0 lead. But the right-hander shook off the blast and retired the next 14 Virginia Tech batters in order, pitching deep into the ballgame yet again to provide Pollard with his seventh quality start of the year.
The Blue Devils responded to Hayden's home run with a long ball of their own, as Rosenfeld cranked a two-run shot in the bottom of the third to put Duke ahead 2-1. The redshirt senior's blast was just Duke's second at the notoriously cavernous Jack Coombs Field this season.
"I had a hunch he was going to throw an off-speed pitch there and he kind of hung it," Rosenfeld said. "I fortunately ran into it and put a good swing on the ball."
Istler ran into trouble in the top of the sixth, at one point throwing 13 straight balls and walking the bases loaded. Consecutive walks to Mac Caples, Alex Perez and Erik Payne put the Hokies in position for a big inning, but Istler induced a groundout comebacker from the dangerous Hayden to work out of the jam and strand all three runners.
"Honestly, I just got out of synch right there and couldn’t find the zone," Istler said. "But luckily enough, they helped me out swinging the ball out of dirt and that just got me back on track. It was all I needed."
Virginia Tech could not come up with the timely hit in the top half of the inning, but shortstop Kenny Koplove came through for the Blue Devils in the bottom half. The junior singled to left field to bring home designated hitter Cris Perez to double Duke's lead to 3-1.
Redshirt sophomore Jalen Phillips delivered the big hit to give the Blue Devils even more breathing room in the seventh. With the bases full, the first baseman roped a double to bring home Rosenfeld, second baseman Andy Perez and freshman Peter Zyla to put Duke ahead 6-1.
"We've been struggling lately, but it hasn’t really been performance, I guess, but a mindset," Phillips said. "When you start losing games you get on a downward spiral, but [we] just have to stay as positive as possible and today that came through."
The Hokies responded in the top of the eighth with two-run single by Hayden, though it would not be enough to mount a comeback.
"What this does is it allows guys to take a deep breath and relax—it's no secret that our guys have really been pressing," Pollard said. "Sometimes when you’re in a hole, one of the worse things you can do is to keep digging—that's kind of what it felt like we were doing. But I think the guys now have that monkey off their back a little bit and can go out and just play hard tomorrow."
Duke will return to face the Hokies Saturday at noon and Sunday at 1 p.m. Redshirt senior Dillon Haviland will take the ball Saturday for the Blue Devils and sophomore Bailey Clark will get the nod Sunday to close out the series.
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