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Duke baseball opens ACC play by taking 2 of 3 from Virginia Tech

<p>Michael Smiciklas had a walk-off hit in Saturday's first game.&nbsp;</p>

Michael Smiciklas had a walk-off hit in Saturday's first game. 

After winning six of seven games leading up to their ACC opener, the Blue Devils appeared to be finding momentum and shaking off a sluggish start to the season. 

But Duke needed a strong home series to continue building confidence, and used a strong offensive weekend to do just that.

Following a dominant offensive performance Friday that led to an easy 10-1 victory and a 6-5 walk-off win in the early game Saturday afternoon at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the Blue Devils had a chance to notch a third victory against Virginia Tech for their first ACC opening-series sweep of the 21st century. But the Hokies put up more runs in the second contest of the Saturday doubleheader than they had tallied in the first two games combined—good for a 7-5 win to avoid losing a trio of matchups in Durham this weekend.

Although his team was unable to complete the sweep, Duke head coach Chris Pollard was pleased with a young pitching staff that is still coming into its own, particularly given that the team began the season with no clear starting rotation.

"All in all, it was a lot of positive. I thought guys did a good job picking each other up," Pollard told after the Saturday doubleheader. "I was particularly impressed with James Ziemba out of the bullpen—two great outings in game one and game two today. Nick Hendrix threw the ball great... and Jack [Labosky] was really good. We are stretched thin right now—we're fatigued."

Even with a schedule change due to impending winter weather during the weekend, the Blue Devils came out guns blazing Friday. Griffin Conine blasted his first career home run—a two-run shot that gave Duke (10-8, 2-1 in the ACC) a lead it would never relinquish. The Blue Devils tacked on another three runs in the second to give starter Mitch Stallings a 5-0 cushion.

The junior southpaw backed up a career-best 11-strikeout performance with yet another solid outing. Stallings held the Hokies scoreless in six innings of work, striking out eight and surrendering just four hits and a walk. Conine and shortstop Zack Kone combined to go 7-for-10 as Duke tagged Virginia Tech starter Packy Naughton for six runs on 11 hits en route to a season-high 17 on the game.

"We didn’t let Naughton off the hook with two outs there in the second inning,” Pollard said Friday. “We scored a couple there and then we they loaded the bases in the top of the fourth, I thought that was a defining moment in the game. Mitch handled that situation really well."

Unlike Friday, Saturday's pair of games were highly competitive, but the opener had a similar start to the series' first game. The Blue Devils jumped on the Hokies for four runs in the first frame but went silent until the seventh inning. Conine and Labosky each registered an RBI hit before Max Miller's two-run double capped the Duke scoring.

Freshman Adam Laskey rolled through his first four innings before running into trouble—the Barrington, N.J., native lasted 4 1/3 innings and gave up three runs on six hits, but had command issues also as he surrendered three walks on a whopping 97 pitches.

Despite a Jimmy Herron solo shot in the bottom of the seventh that broke a 4-4 tie, Virginia Tech (10-8, 1-2) chipped away with three runs in the fifth inning and one run in both the seventh and eighth frames to push the game to extra innings.

With the game tied after nine innings, the teams headed to extras. After the Hokies went silent in the top of the 10th, catcher Chris Proctor singled up the middle on the first pitch of the bottom half and eventually moved to third following a sacrifice bunt by Miller and a Erickson Nichols groundout.

All it took from there was Michael Smiciklas' bouncing hit in the same direction as Proctor's to give the home team a fifth straight victory.

“I had seen [Virginia Tech reliever Joey Sullivan] for at least a couple of batters,” Smiciklas told “Our hitters did a good job grinding him out so I was able to see a lot of pitches. He started me off with breaking pitches low and I was looking for something elevated. He’s a really good pitcher, but he left it a little bit up and luckily I squared it up.”

In the nightcap, things did not go as smoothly for the Blue Devils—the Hokies put up two runs in the top of the first inning, but Duke starter Ryan Day settled in and lasted into the fifth. The Blue Devils, after trailing 3-2, tied the game with a sixth-inning run.

With four runs on two hits in the seventh inning against Duke relievers Matt Mervis—who suffered the loss—and Bill Chillari, Virginia Tech went ahead 7-3 and was able to hold on late. The Blue Devils cut the Hokie advantage in half with a two-RBI single by Herron. A spectacular diving catch by Virginia Tech outfielder Raheim Cooper one batter later, however, prevented what would have been a go-ahead, bases-clearing extra-base hit by Conine.

“Griffin’s ball to center field, if it’s a foot higher, a foot to the left, a foot to the right, you clear the bases and it’s 8-7," Pollard said. "We had an answer in the bottom of the eighth. We were really close to having a complete answer. Cooper made a terrific play for them in center field.”

With the series win, Duke remains better than .500 overall on the season and will host a mid-week matchup against East Carolina—moved up a day to 4 p.m. Tuesday instead of Wednesday—before Wake Forest visits the Blue Devils for a weekend series.

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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