Mistakes costly as Duke baseball drops close game to Virginia in series opener

Senior Andy Perez had a pair of hits for the Blue Devils but costly mistakes allowed Virginia to squeak past Duke in the series opener.
Senior Andy Perez had a pair of hits for the Blue Devils but costly mistakes allowed Virginia to squeak past Duke in the series opener.

Senior Andrew Istler has been a workhorse for the Blue Devils all season long, stepping into the role of staff ace after injuries decimated the roster and turning in quality starts on a weekly basis.

Istler was great again for seven innings Friday night—he just ran out of gas in the eighth.

Duke lost the series opener 3-1 at No. 24 Virginia Friday night at Davenport Field, with the Cavaliers breaking a 1-1 tie with two runs in the bottom of the eighth. Istler entered the decisive frame with 99 pitches having put six consecutive zeroes on the board, but an error by first baseman Justin Bellinger and a one-out double from sophomore Matt Thaiss put Virginia ahead for good and chased the right-hander from the game.

“[Istler] gets better as the game goes on and he did again last night. I thought it was a terrifically pitched ballgame,” Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. “There really was not much of a conversation [about sending him out for the eighth]. It wasn’t Istler’s fault that we allowed runs—we didn’t make a play at first base that we needed to make. Istler certainly continued to pitch well.”

Pollard called on reliever Sarkis Ohanian to come and stop the bleeding, but the senior right-hander made the damage worse before he could make it better. Ohanian drilled the first batter he faced and then allowed an RBI single to left fielder Pavin Smith to stretch the Cavalier lead to 3-1, leaving Istler (5-4) with a final line of three runs—two earned—six hits and three strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings.

Sophomore Connor Jones started for Virginia (28-20, 11-14 in the ACC), firing seven strong innings with eight punchouts before junior Kevin Dougherty (3-1) hurled a scoreless eighth to earn the win. Jones made the Blue Devils (27-20, 7-17) uncomfortable all night with a mid-90s heater and a biting slider but was forced to throw 117 pitches in his seven frames as he struggled with his fastball control.

The Chesapeake, Va., native issued six free passes on the evening, his fourth start of the season with at least five walks. Jones’ lack of precision forced him to work off his breaking ball more than his fastball, his typical his bread-and-butter pitch that has major league clubs already lining up to choose him once he becomes draft-eligible next year.

“He did throw a heavy dose of breaking balls. Some of that was due to the fact that we didn’t handle that pitch well and so therefore when you recognize that a team is not handling a particular pitch well, you’re generally going to keep throwing it,” Pollard said “He did start off a lot of guys with first-pitch breaking balls, which is probably a bit different than his typical approach, but again I think a lot of that was the recognition that we weren’t doing a lot with that pitch. It’s a very good pitch.”

The 6-foot-3 right-hander benefited from several nifty defensive plays by the Cavalier defense—including a 4-6-3 double play in the fourth inning that the middle infield turned even with Max Miller breaking for second on the pitch. Catcher Robbie Coman made a couple huge plays as well, nabbing Duke speedster Andy Perez—who leads the ACC with 29 steals—on two separate stolen base attempts. Redshirt sophomore Jalen Phillips was picked off second base by Virginia reliever Alec Bettinger for the game’s final out, capping off a poor performance on the basepaths for the typically heads-up Blue Devils.

“Andy runs with the green light all the time, and he ran green light both times. He knows that he’s one of the best base-stealers in the country,” Pollard said. “Teams were 9-of-10 on Connor Jones in stolen bases going into the game, so we felt like early if Andy was on we needed to take advantage of that. In both cases, their catcher Coman just made outstanding throws.”

The Cavaliers got the scoring started right away against Istler, jumping out to an early 1-0 advantage when senior Kenny Towns found a hole through the right side for a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the first. Designated hitter Cris Perez evened the score in the fourth with a line drive double down the left field line to drive in senior Mike Rosenfeld with two outs.

Duke had a golden opportunity to seize the lead in the following frame and take control of the game with Jones laboring through the middle innings. The Blue Devils loaded the bases with one out thanks to a pair of walks, a wild pitch and a soft single from Andy Perez—setting themselves up beautifully with the meat of the order coming up.

But their No. 2 and 3 hitters—freshmen Max Miller and Peter Zyla—were unable to come through in what would prove to be Duke’s last real scoring chance. Jones buckled down and froze Miller with a fastball that painted the outside corner before getting Zyla to ground out harmlessly to second on the first pitch.

“Obviously, that was a big moment in the game,” Pollard said. “If you look back and think about missed opportunities in that game, that was probably the biggest.”

With the win, Virginia moved into a tie with Wake Forest for the 10th and final spot in the ACC tournament with five league games remaining. The Blue Devils—who sit in 13th place—trail both the Cavaliers and the Demon Deacons by 3.5 games, but have two contests left with Virginia and a three-game set at home against Wake Forest next weekend.

Duke will look to even the series Saturday when it sends redshirt senior Dillon Haviland to the mound against southpaw Brandon Waddell. First pitch is set for 4 p.m.


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