Griffin Conine slapped the ball just inside first base, and moments later found himself being mobbed by teammates between first and second, having just delivered the Blue Devils’ second game-ending hit in less than 24 hours.
Duke walked off 5-4 against No. 10 California for the second straight day Sunday afternoon at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, with Conine playing the role of the hero. The freshman designated hitter’s double past the outstretched arms of Golden Bear first baseman Brenden Farney scored Zack Kone, who beat out a one-out infield single to start the rally before Evan Dougherty—who had the game-winning hit Saturday—earned a walk.
The hit was Conine’s first in a Duke uniform.
“I don’t think it could have come at a better time,” Conine said. “I hit it really well, just right in that perfect spot where it was too far for [Farney] to get but also stay fair.”
Junior Karl Blum earned the win for the Blue Devils (2-1) with two perfect innings in relief, and Jeff Bain was saddled with the loss. Bain pitched 4 1/3 innings in relief for California (1-2), at one point retiring 11 of 12 batters before the game-winning rally in the ninth.
The series win marked Duke’s first against a top-10 program since taking two of three from Georgia Tech in 2009.
“This isn’t one of those series where you come out and say, ‘Well, did we play well or did they play poorly?’ You had two good clubs that played well,” Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. “We feel really good about the way we matched up with them and what that says about the way we have the ability to match up with teams for the rest of the year.”
Just as was the case on Saturday, California jumped out to the early lead. Starting pitcher Brian McAfee struggled out of the gate in his first start with the Blue Devils. After spending three seasons on the mound for Cornell, he gave up a single, a stolen base and an RBI single to fall behind 1-0 before recording an out.
But McAfee recovered quickly, inducing a ground ball double-play and striking out Farney to end the early threat.
“A lot of guys in that situation, after you give up two quick hits, they want to try to do something different─try to produce a swing-and-miss or get a strikeout,” Pollard said. “He did a great job of continuing to pitch to ground ball contact. [He] got the double play, made it a quick inning because of it.”
The Duke offense teed off against Golden Bear starter Matt Ladrech in the second inning. Jack Labosky led off with a double before Cris Perez singled to put runners on the corners with no outs. Jalen Phillips then promptly blasted a line drive home run into the right field seats to stake the Blue Devils to a 3-1 lead.
Duke threatened to add more runs in the fourth, chasing Ladrech from the game, but reliever Keaton Siomkin struck out Dougherty and fielded a come-backer off the bat of Conine to send the Blue Devils back to the dugout.
Each team picked up a run in the fifth inning. California’s Nick Halamandaris led off the top of the inning with a double and came around to score on a sacrifice fly by Robbie Tenerowicz. But Duke quickly restored the two-run cushion as freshman Jimmy Herron blasted a one-out double and scored on sophomore Peter Zyla’s single.
But in the seventh, another Halamandaris double scored Brett Cumberland to cut Duke’s lead to 4-3. Later in the inning, Preston Grand Pre tied the game with a squeeze bunt. McAfee fielded the bunt cleanly, but Perez could not handle the throw at the plate to tie the game. Things could have gotten worse for the home team, but McAfee managed to limit the damage from there with a pair of grounders to end the inning.
“There in the seventh, I really felt like it was his ballgame,” Pollard said. “He had earned the right to stay in there in that situation. He was competing great, he was making great pitches, and what a great job to get off the field there in a tie ballgame. That was an unbelievable play he made on the safety squeeze. If we squeeze that at the plate, then we’ve got an out right there and the ballgame is 4-3. But he threw the baseball really, really well.”
McAfee credited the team’s twice-per-week yoga routine with helping him stay calm on the mound, and had no intention of giving up the ball in that key moment.
“I wanted to finish that one out, get back to the mound as quickly as I can so no one takes me out of the game,” he said. “I try to think about it one pitch at a time, try to execute the pitch. I don’t think about the hitter. I just think about where I want to throw the ball, look at the catcher and do it.”
Blum entered in the eighth and went toe-to-toe with Bain for two innings before Bain faltered. California closer Erik Martinez began warming up after Kone beat out the throw from Grand Pre at shortstop, but after Bain walked Dougherty, Golden Bear head coach David Esquer trotted out to the mound and allowed Bain to remain in the game instead of going with Martinez.
The decision to keep Martinez available for a potential save situation in extra innings backfired, as the Golden Bears’ fate was sealed one batter later when Conine came through in the clutch.
“What an awesome memory. You’re playing a top-10 team, your family’s here, you’ve had a little bit of a rough weekend─but he’s been taking good swings,” Pollard said. “To get your first career hit in that fashion, that’s something he’ll remember for the rest of his life. That’s something he’ll tell his grandkids about someday.”
Duke will not have much time to savor the series win as the Blue Devils get set to take on Campbell Tuesday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park at 4 p.m.