COLUMBIA, S.C.—In their first NCAA tournament game since 1961 Friday, the Blue Devils let the game get away from them in the first three innings.
Although they limited the damage early in Saturday afternoon's elimination game and came back to tie the game, missed opportunities ended Duke's season.
The third-seeded Blue Devils left nine runners on base and were unable to capitalize on an eight-inning outing from starter Trent Swart and a game-tying home run from Justin Bellinger, falling 4-2 to No. 1 seed South Carolina at Founders Park after the Gamecocks broke a 2-2 tie in the top of the ninth inning.
Unlike Friday's 11-1 Duke loss to second-seeded UNC-Wilmington, Saturday's game stayed close until the end before third-string Gamecock catcher Hunter Taylor hit a go-ahead double off closer Mitch Stallings to put South Carolina up for good.
“I’m proud of the way we competed today,” Blue Devil head coach Chris Pollard said. “I thought over the course of the middle of the ball game, and even in there in the second [inning], we did a really good job when they had a chance to have a really big inning.”
After falling 5-4 to fourth-seeded Rhode Island Friday evening, South Carolina (43-16) started well against Swart, with leadoff hitter Gene Cone starting the game with a single. A sacrifice bunt coupled with a groundout put Cone on third base with two outs before Jonah Bride plated Cone with a weak ground ball that stayed fair down the third base line.
The Gamecocks struck again the next inning after Swart walked Taylor—who started because South Carolina's starting catcher missed the team's breakfast Saturday—with one out. L.T. Tolbert then doubled before Marcus Mooney plated Taylor with a single to put the host team up 2-0 and put Duke on the ropes for the second straight day.
But unlike Friday's Blue Devil starter, Brian McAfee, Swart settled down, getting Cone to hit into an inning-ending double play to keep Duke (33-24) within two.
Limiting the damage proved crucial for the Blue Devils because South Carolina starting pitcher Braden Webb retired six of the first seven batters he faced, overpowering Duke with a fastball that topped out at 97 mph.
Swart gave the Blue Devils a chance to get to the Gamecock freshman by not allowing a run in six straight innings, retiring 11 straight batters and throwing a season-high 118 pitches in his final college game.
“I think early on I was falling behind. I made some good pitches, and they made some really good swings,” Swart said. “But as the game went on I felt like I was getting ahead and, especially my changeup I had a better feel for it, and it was down in the zone.”
Duke did not wait long to cut into South Carolina's lead, striking in the third inning after a Gamecock miscue.
After sophomore Max Miller singled with one out, Webb attempted to pick the second baseman off, but first baseman Madison Stokes could not handle Webb's throw, allowing Miller to scamper to third base. All-ACC leadoff hitter Jimmy Herron—who entered the contest batting .417 with 20 RBIs with runners in scoring position—then hit a sacrifice fly to score Miller and make it 2-1.
In the fourth inning, Webb struggled with his command, tossing eight straight balls by hitting sophomore Jack Labosky with a pitch, walking Bellinger and allowing Peter Zyla to get ahead in the count 3-0. South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook then opted to bring in relief pitcher Josh Reagan to climb out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam.
Reagan delivered to squash the Blue Devils' momentum, striking out designated hitter Cris Perez and inducing a fielder's choice and a pop out to allow the Gamecocks to escape unscathed.
"In that situation, the thing that we talk about, teach and coach is you want to get the job done. The idea is to see something up, and try to get the job done early [in the count]," Pollard said. "Credit Reagan. The changeup is outstanding. We're not the only team that has swung and missed a lot on his changeup this year."
But with Swart mowing down South Carolina's lineup with a heavy dose of off-speed pitches, Duke evened the score in the bottom of the sixth inning when Bellinger—who doubled in his first plate appearance Saturday—launched a home run far over the wall in right field.
"He hung a changeup inside, and I took advantage of it," Bellinger said.
Swart and Reagan did not allow any runs in the seventh and eighth frames, with Reagan pitching a season-high 4 2/3 innings, before the Blue Devils' starter began to tire.
After Swart allowed a leadoff single to outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams, Pollard replaced the Carlsbad, Calif., native with Stallings, who immediately ran into trouble. After a sacrifice bunt that put Thompson-Williams in scoring position, Taylor’s grounder hit third base and took a big hop over Labosky's head, resulting in the go-ahead RBI double and Taylor's fourth hit of the season.
The Gamecocks were not done, though, as they loaded the bases then scored an insurance run on a wild pitch.
Although Duke got two runners on base in the bottom of the ninth inning, freshman catcher Chris Proctor hit into a fielder’s choice to end the Blue Devils' season.
“We definitely figured out what kind of team we are and what we are made of. Mental toughness is the biggest thing, just battling through every day. It’s a grind,” Bellinger said. “As a team we came through and put together a pretty good run for it.”
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