For fans of high-scoring baseball games, Jack Coombs Field was not the place to be Sunday afternoon.
Duke right-hander Brian McAfee threw a 108-pitch complete game to carry the Blue Devils to a 2-1 victory against No. 21 Clemson, allowing just nine total baserunners, striking out six batters and surrendering a single unearned run. The win gave Duke its first series win against the Tigers since 2010—and just its second since 1998—and continued the momentum from last weekend’s series win at then-No. 23 Georgia Tech.
Clemson’s lone run came in the fourth inning when catcher Chris Okey and right fielder Seth Beer hit back-to-back singles off McAfee to begin the frame. Reed Rohlman then grounded into what could have been a double play, but Duke first baseman Justin Bellinger dropped the relay throw from shortstop Zack Kone. The ball got away as Okey came around to score standing up.
But Bellinger got a chance to make up for that mistake.
“Anytime anybody feels like they missed a play, like they did something wrong, they definitely want to make it up,” Bellinger said. “It got by me, but I was definitely ready for the next chance I had to help the team out.”
Clemson starter Alex Eubanks cruised through the first five innings but ran into trouble in the sixth. Freshman center fielder Jimmy Herron singled to lead off the inning for Duke (17-15, 6-9 in the ACC) but looked like he might not get to run the bases after Chris Proctor and Cris Perez flew out. Herron moved to third base on Jack Labosky’s single, and both came around to score when Bellinger hammered a two-run double into Coombs’ spacious right-center field gap.
“For my first two at-bats, [I understood] that they were throwing me fastballs, that they were challenging me,” Bellinger said. “They weren’t going to try to pitch around me and throw offspeed pitches like they had the last two days. So I was really just sitting fastball, ready [for the] fastball, the kid threw it and [I] took advantage of it.”
Those two runs would be all the support McAfee needed. After allowing hits in four of six frames before his team finally got on the board, McAfee retired the game’s final nine batters after walking Clemson second baseman Weston Wilson leading off the seventh.
McAfee had to mix up his pitches after the Tigers (22-9, 8-7) put solid swings on his offerings in the early innings.
“[The] slider was working really well in the pen beforehand,” McAfee said. “I got out there, I was leaving it up in the zone a little bit and they let me know. Saw that the first couple innings there. They were crowding the plate, looking for the fastball away—the ump was giving them a couple inches off the plate there—and they started sitting on slider-fastball away early in the count, so I started using the changeup a little bit, started using the fastball in a little more, and I kept them off-balance the rest of the game.”
Despite having thrown 99 pitches headed into the ninth inning, McAfee had no intention of coming out of the game. With Beer set to lead off the inning, McAfee was most concerned with keeping the freshman slugger—who entered the day batting .420 and slugging .890—off the basepaths.
Duke had been shifting on the lefty-hitting Beer all afternoon, but for his final at-bat, third baseman Jack Labosky played in his normal spot rather than moving over to the normal shortstop position. That paid off as Beer grounded the first pitch right to Labosky, who threw him out at first.
“It was a little bit of luck there,” McAfee said. “The guy’s probably the best hitter I’ve ever faced there—one of the best, if not the best hitters in the country and incredible for a freshman. I was trying to make a good pitch there. One-run game, don’t want to leave anything up in the zone for him. Even at Coombs, that guy has tremendous power, so I was really happy with the way Jack played at third base there.”
McAfee then took Rohlman’s comebacker off his ankle, but recovered in time to throw to first to get the out and then waved off the trainer. McAfee completed his afternoon by getting Wilson to ground out to third, improving his record on the season to 5-2.
Duke head coach Chris Pollard heaped praise on his Sunday starter for a gutty, dominant effort on a day when a couple more mistakes might have made the difference in the game.
“He was unreal. [He] had the two-seam fastball really working, ton of ground ball outs. He threw four pitches, kept them off-balance,” Pollard said. “Credit Brian for just being tough, being a leader and just giving us a chance every single Sunday.”
It was nearly a series sweep, but Okey’s two-out, two-run triple in the ninth inning of Saturday’s contest helped Clemson earn a 3-2 victory.
Pollard reinforced to his players before Sunday’s game that they should not be defined by that one mistake and let it take away from the Blue Devils’ previous four-game winning streak.
“I really like the way were able to bounce back today, stay in the moment,” Pollard said. “I told our guys before the game, ‘Think about how you would have felt if you had won that ballgame yesterday. The confidence, the four straight ACC wins, the five straight wins overall. You’re that team. That one pitch didn’t change that. That’s who you are and who you’ve become, so go play like that today,’ and I think they answered the call.”
Pollard’s team will have several more chances to answer the call this week. The team travels to Davidson for a 6 p.m. game against the Wildcats Tuesday night and then takes on N.C. Central at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park a day later before welcoming No. 2 Miami for a series beginning Friday.