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Third straight quality start propels Duke baseball to sweep of Rockets

Brian McAfee allowed just 1 run in 7 innings Sunday at the DBAP

<p>Right-hander Brian McAfee became the third straight Blue Devil starter to go seven innings during a weekend sweep of the Rockets, allowing just one run on four hits.</p>

Right-hander Brian McAfee became the third straight Blue Devil starter to go seven innings during a weekend sweep of the Rockets, allowing just one run on four hits.

After struggling at the plate Friday and Saturday, Toledo entered Sunday’s series finale trying to get its offense on track.

But Brian McAfee made sure the Rockets continued to fizzle with another dominant Blue Devil performance on the mound.

Duke polished off a sweep of Toledo with a 3-2 win Sunday at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, keyed by McAfee’s seven stellar innings. The Cornell transfer scattered four hits and struck out six, limiting the Rockets to just one run as Duke cruised into the ninth inning with a two-run lead before senior Nick Hendrix worked out a jam with the tying run 90 feet away to finish things off.

McAfee’s outing followed on the heels of seven-inning gems from Bailey Clark and Trent Swart in the first two games of the series. For the weekend, Blue Devil starters held Toledo to two runs on 10 hits and racked up 23 strikeouts, grounding the Rocket offense.

“We got three terrific starts, we really did,” Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. “Not a single one of them threw 100 pitches. I thought Brian was particularly efficient—[he] hunted contact. He made an adjustment after the first couple innings and did a good job getting back down in the zone. His stuff was live, just a bit elevated early, but really adjusted and got down in the zone late.”

McAfee retired the first six Toledo batters he faced—striking out three of them—and then got some run support in the bottom of the second. Ryan Day drew a leadoff walk for Duke (8-4), then scampered around to score as sophomore Evan Dougherty lined a triple into the right-center field gap, just sliding in safely ahead of the throw to third. Dougherty trotted home on a sacrifice fly off the bat of right fielder Peter Zyla to make it 2-0, but Toledo starter Sam Shutes ended the threat with a strikeout of leadoff man Zack Kone after yielding a two-out double to catcher Cris Perez.

There would be no shutdown inning, though, as McAfee put himself in a jam in the top of the third by hitting a batter and yielding a one-out single. After leadoff man A.J. Montoya went down swinging for the second out of the inning, second baseman Matt Hansen bounced a single through the right side to get the Rockets (1-9-1) on the board and trim the deficit in half.

Duke retaliated again in the bottom half of the frame when sophomore Jack Labosky drilled a double high off the DBAP’s iconic Blue Monster in left field, plating freshman Jimmy Herron, who had put himself in scoring position with his second stolen base of the day.

“I was hoping maybe it would go out, but off the bat it didn’t feel like I got 100 percent of the ball,” Labosky said. “Playing at this park, though, the Monster’s going to eat up a few balls so you know it doesn’t have to be a home run to get an extra-base hit to left field.”

The Blue Devils could not put any more balls into orbit Sunday, as three Rocket relievers did not allow a hit the rest of the way. Duke’s three hits were a season-low, but Pollard’s lineup squared up plenty of balls that flew right to perfectly positioned Toledo defenders, including a lined shot off the bat of sophomore Max Miller in the fifth inning that could have gone for extra bases if not for a nice snag by third baseman Dan Zuchowski.

“I counted up in our postgame meeting eight what I would call very loud outs, meaning we hit the ball right on the button and had nothing to show for it,” Pollard said. “We had some really good swings today. Three hits is not indicative of the way we swung the bats today.”

But with McAfee on the mound, the Blue Devils did not need any more offense. The Bothell, Wash., native retired seven straight hitters before giving up a one-out walk in the sixth, and escaped trouble in the seventh when he induced a ground ball to second base that erased a two-out threat with runners on the corners.

McAfee needed just 84 pitches to finish the seventh—right at the hoped-for target of 12 pitches per frame—and threw 66 for strikes.

“[Throwing strikes]—that’s the game-plan. We want to challenge the hitters, but at the same time we don’t want to give anything too good,” McAfee said. “My change-up was working well today. I was working on getting my arm slot up higher toward my fastball arm slot, and it was getting a lot depth as I moved that.”

Kellen Urbon—McAfee’s former teammate with the Big Red—tossed a scoreless eighth out of the bullpen to bridge the gap to Hendrix, who quickly jumped ahead of Ryan Callahan. But an 0-2 pitch caught too much of the strike zone, and Callahan roped it down the left-field line for a leadoff double.

Hendrix regrouped by striking out Zuchowski, but center fielder John Martillotta turned on a 1-2 offering from the Blue Devil closer and lined it into the left-field corner, plating Callahan and putting the tying run in scoring position.

Martillotta moved up 90 feet on a wild pitch, but Hendrix—who had not allowed a run all season before Sunday—buckled down to freeze pinch-hitter Josh Cales with an inside fastball before inducing a game-ending fly-out off the bat of Lucas Sokol. 

“Once you get hit a little bit, it narrows your focus. You start thinking, ‘Alright, I’ve got to bear down here,’” Hendrix said. “[I] just tried to over-emphasize the inner half, the second strikeout was an inside fastball and I made sure I got it out there that time.”

Duke welcomes Penn State to the DBAP Wednesday at 4 p.m. before ACC play gets underway with defending national champion Virginia making a visit to Durham for a three-game series.

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