The Blue Devils faced an uphill battle after starting the year 1-7 in conference play, but a Friday night road win sealed an ACC tournament berth and capped off a remarkable turnaround.
Duke started fast and staved off a furious Pittsburgh rally to prevail 7-5 at Charles L. Cost Field, with the victory guaranteeing that the Blue Devils will finish in the top 10 in the ACC when the regular season wraps up this weekend. After failing to qualify for the ACC tournament in an injury-riddled season last year, Duke will battle the rest of the conference on their home field at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park next week.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be able to participate in what is a really great event,” Blue Devil head coach Chris Pollard said. “The fact that the event is hosted in Durham makes it really meaningful for us as a program, meaningful for the Duke community, meaningful for the Durham community, so we’re excited to be a part of it.”
Sophomore Justin Bellinger opened up the scoring Friday with a solo home run in the second inning, and the Blue Devils (33-21, 14-15 in the ACC) broke the game open with a five-run third inning.
After freshman Zack Kone singled to start the inning and advanced to second base on a hit-and-run groundout by sophomore Max Miller, freshman leadoff hitter Jimmy Herron reached on an error to move Kone to third.
Rookie Chris Proctor then smacked his first career triple to score two runs, and sophomore Jack Labosky and Bellinger both lined RBI hits to extend Duke’s lead to 5-0. Junior Cris Perez closed out the inning’s scoring with a two-out RBI single to plate Bellinger.
“We just did a good job situationally... we were very opportunistic,” Pollard said. “We just kind of kept our foot on the gas pedal the whole inning. I thought it was a very efficient offensive inning for us.”
Labosky drilled a home run to left center field in the fifth frame to score Duke’s final run of the contest, and the Clovis, Calif., native combined with Bellinger from the third and fourth spots in the batting order to hit 5-for-8 with four RBIs.
Although the Blue Devils led 7-0, the Panthers (25-26, 10-18) staged a comeback that brought the winning run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Pittsburgh starter Nick Falk settled down to get through seven innings, retiring eight of the last nine batters he faced, and redshirt sophomore Frank Maldonado tripled and scored in the fifth inning to get the home team on the board.
The Panthers came close to matching Duke’s big inning with three runs in the seventh. A double and single allowed signaled the end of the night for Blue Devil starter Trent Swart after 6 1/3 innings on the mound, and sophomore reliever Ryan Day conceded a run-scoring double by Maldonado, an RBI groundout and an RBI single as Pittsburgh trimmed the deficit to 7-4.
Pollard then turned to Labosky—who has been one of Duke’s most effective relievers of the season—to record the last out of the inning, but the sophomore walked the first batter he faced before junior Nick Yarnall hit a sharp grounder down the first-base line that Bellinger handled to stop the bleeding.
“The play of the ballgame—with two outs, Yarnell hit a ball that looked like it was going to be a double off the bat that would have scored two and made it a 7-6 ballgame,” Pollard said. “Justin Bellinger made an unbelievable play to dive, full extension, knock it down. It was hit hard, so the ball squirted out of his glove. He didn’t panic, and he threw to first base to Jack Labosky.”
Labosky pitched the rest of the contest and registered his first save, but not before running into trouble in the bottom of the ninth inning. He struck out the first two batters of the inning, but back-to-back two-out doubles and a walk scored a run to cut the Blue Devil lead to two with two runners on base.
For a moment, it looked as if Pittsburgh could return the favor after Duke tied Thursday’s series opener with a two-out ninth-inning rally, but Labosky induced a groundout by redshirt sophomore Caleb Parry to end the game.
“The mood was very light and guys were having fun with it early, and then as Pitt kind of caught up into the lead, I think our guys did have a sense of tightness,” Pollard said. “Our guys were tough enough to overcome that… They were able to play through that pressure and continue to make plays.”
The Blue Devils’ win also helped their hopes of reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1961, and a victory in the regular-season finale Saturday at 11 a.m. against the Panthers would give Duke its first sweep of an ACC opponent this year.
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