RALEIGH—Duke struggled all weekend with runners in scoring position but finally got a timely ninth-inning hit Sunday to salvage the final game of a critical ACC series.
Sophomore Michael Smiciklas singled with two outs in the top of the ninth inning to drive in sophomore Jack Labosky from third base, and closer Mitch Stallings pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings to push the Blue Devils past No. 12 N.C. State 2-1 Sunday afternoon at Doak Field at Dail Park.
With just two ACC series left on its schedule, Duke is trying to secure a spot in the ACC tournament by notching one of the 10 best records in conference play. Even after losing the first two games of the series Friday and Saturday, the Blue Devils knew they had plenty to play for Sunday afternoon.
“It’s as big as it gets,” Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. “I preach and preach and preach to our guys to treat every day the same, and no one game is bigger than the next. But I went off the script last night when we got back to campus, and I told our guys this is a must-win. I told our guys, ‘Treat it like it was a one-game season, and put everything on the line.’ And they did that. They were tough enough to stay in the moment and compete to the very end of the ballgame, and I’m extremely proud of our program.”
After losing on a walk-off hit Friday and taking a 12-2 pounding Saturday, the Blue Devils (25-20, 10-14 in the ACC) got off to a slow start Sunday. N.C. State starter Ryan Williamson struck out the side in the top of the first inning before Duke starter Brian McAfee gave up an early run on a Joe Dunand RBI single.
But Wolfpack designated hitter Chance Shepard struck out with two aboard to end the threat, and McAfee settled into a rhythm as he has so many times this season. In another quality start, McAfee retired 16 of the final 21 batters he faced, scattering seven hits throughout 6 1/3 innings and surrendering just the first-inning run.
Duke got on the board in the fourth inning when freshman Jimmy Herron earned a leadoff walk, advanced on Chris Proctor’s base hit and came around to score on a Labosky RBI single. But Justin Bellinger and Zack Kone both struck out with runners on the corners before Smiciklas lined out to end the threat.
The Blue Devils threatened again in the sixth inning when Herron was hit by a pitch and advanced to second on Proctor’s sacrifice bunt, but N.C. State (31-12, 12-7) went to its bullpen to get out of the jam. Evan Brabrand got Labosky to fly out to center, then second baseman Stephen Pitarra made a diving stop to rob Bellinger and retire the side.
“They probably took five hits away from us away. And that’s hard—that can be deflating,” Pollard said. “Pitarra was especially good. Pitarra took three hits away from us at least at second base.”
In the bottom of the seventh inning, McAfee allowed a one-out single to Wolfpack catcher Andrew Knizner, prompting Pollard to pull out his starter so he would not have to face Evan Mendoza, who had already singled twice off McAfee.
Reliever Ryan Day walked Mendoza, then Pollard turned to Stallings for an extended outing.
“Coach Pollard told me yesterday, ‘Be ready to go in the eighth,’” Stallings said. “With a week off after this, no point in saving something in the gas tank.”
Stallings got the final two outs in the seventh then gave up a leadoff single to Brock Deatherage in the eighth, but Proctor threw out Deatherage stealing. With two outs, Stallings got Preston Palmeiro to ground to Bellinger after an 11-pitch at-bat. Bellinger lobbed the ball to Stallings, who appeared to beat Palmeiro to the bag, but the first base umpire called Palmeiro safe.
Stallings walked Shepard but managed to get out of the inning unscathed with the score 1-1 to set up the Blue Devils’ rally in the top of the ninth.
Proctor singled on the first pitch of the inning from N.C. State’s Tommy DeJuneas. Labosky attempted a bunt to advance Proctor to second base, but DeJuneas fielded the ball cleanly and got Labosky out at second.
After a Bellinger walk, Kone hit a grounder to Pitarra to advance the go-ahead run to third base. Three pitches later, Smiciklas lined a ball into the gap between first and second base, plating Labosky to put the Blue Devils on top.
“I was looking for something up,” Smiciklas said. “I noticed he was throwing a lot of changeups to lefties—he threw a lot to Bellinger. He threw me a changeup up, and I was just on top of it.”
Bellinger attempted to score on the play but was tagged out, but Stallings showed he did not need an insurance run Sunday, retiring all three Wolfpack batters in the bottom of the ninth and striking out Pitarra to end the game.
Duke will have six days off before its next game as the Blue Devils focus on final exams before returning to action with a doubleheader next Sunday at home against Gardner-Webb. Duke has just two ACC series left to earn a spot in the conference tournament—against Florida State May 13-15 and against Pittsburgh May 19-21.
“The college baseball season is a marathon, but at the end of the marathon are two sprints. You get this sprint here to the front side of exams, you have a week off to get your body fresh and then you sprint it out the rest of the way and you completely empty the tank,” Pollard said. “So we’ll freshen up over the next couple of days, and then we’ll be ready to totally empty the tank.”