Although the Blue Devils are still early in the season, they entered this weekend's four-game series against Princeton needing to see progress after an ugly 3-6 start.
Duke's sense of urgency paid off, with the Blue Devils taking the first three games Friday and Saturday to get back to .500 this season.
Head coach Chris Pollard's team opened this weekend's series at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park by pulling out a 3-1 victory Friday then staying hot in Saturday's doubleheader. The Blue Devils won the first game Saturday 9-2 before prevailing 7-1 in the evening contest, and will look for their first series sweep of the year Sunday at 1 p.m.
“We wanted to stay in the moment the whole day,” said sophomore outfielder Griffin Conine, who went 3-of-5 with two RBIs and four runs in the two Saturday games. “It was going to be a long day. We wanted to keep our foot on the gas pedal—not pace ourselves but to go hard in every inning, every pitch and every out.”
Duke’s opening game against Princeton (0-3) was the tightest in the series so far. The Blue Devils (6-6) got off to a fast start in the first two innings, capitalizing on a double from sophomore Jimmy Herron when Conine got hit by a pitch and a throwing error let Herron run home. A double courtesy of junior Jack Labosky then put Duke up 2-0, and graduate student Jalen Phillips' first home run of the season in the second frame extended that advantage.
However, for the rest of the afternoon, Duke’s offense disappeared.
Although the Blue Devils had at least one runner left on base for the final five innings, Duke was unable to notch another run. Luckily for the home team, redshirt junior pitcher James Ziemba protected the advantage on the mound through six innings, only permitting three singles before running into trouble on the sixth. A base hit and two walks followed by a wild pitch put the Tigers on the board, prompting Pollard to bring in senior Karl Blum in relief.
Despite a few errors behind him, the veteran pitched a scoreless seventh inning, then Nick Hendrix and Labosky added shutout frames of their own to finish off the win.
Princeton showed why it won the Ivy League last year to start the second game of the series, getting to freshman Adam Laskey with an RBI single in the second inning and doubling the advantage with a Zack Belski home run in the third frame as Duke struggled at the plate.
But more pitching miscues doomed the Tigers.
In the bottom of the third inning, Keelan Smithers hit two batters with pitches and walked three, gifting the Blue Devils their first two runs. Ryan Smith came in to try to limit the damage, but two more walks and a few wild pitches suddenly had Duke up 5-2 without putting the ball in play in the third inning.
“[The third inning] was a weird inning,” Pollard said. “It was a good job taking advantage of some free offense—we hadn't been very good at that through the first ten games of the year, but we're starting to get better at it. When a team is willing to give you baserunners, you've got to be disciplined enough to take it.”
In the bottom of the sixth, the Blue Devils’ offense finally started to pick up the pace. Conine knocked a single up the middle for an RBI, plating Herron. Labosky then doubled to bring Conine home, and yet another wild pitch resulted in the final 9-2 margin as Laskey lasted six innings before junior Luke Whitten and rookie Graeme Stinson combined for three shutout innings.
The second game of Saturday’s doubleheader was a similar story.
The Tigers’ Max West gave Princeton an early advantage in the second inning with a two-out, RBI single. Thanks to a dominant showing from starter Ben Gross, Princeton was able to shut the Blue Devils out through five innings with Gross only allowing two hits and striking out eight.
Despite the slip up in the second inning, Duke starting pitcher junior Mitch Stallings prevented Princeton from building any more momentum, striking out a career-high 11 Tigers and only allowing four hits in five innings as the former closer continued adjusting to his new role.
“[Game two] was a tremendous start by both pitchers,” Pollard said. “Mitch threw great, Gross threw great. [Gross] had a high spin rate fastball, and it was really hard to get on top of that pitch--it was producing a lot of swings and misses. Mitch was producing a lot of swings and misses. But, we were able to wait [Gross] out and get him out after five.”
The Blue Devils broke through in the sixth after Gross exited, with Conine tying the game with an RBI single to plate Herron, who tripled to start the frame. With two outs in the inning, junior Max Miller and sophomore Chris Proctor got in on the action by driving home runs, then freshman Erikson Nichols notched his first career hit with an RBI double to make it 5-1.
Conine stayed hot in the seventh, posting a triple before a Labosky sacrifice fly and Phillips home run made it 7-1. Hendrix and fellow relievers Hunter Davis and Bill Chillari teamed up for four scoreless innings after Stallings left the game, giving Duke its first three-game winning streak of 2017.
The Blue Devils will now look to clear the .500 mark for the first time this year Sunday with their offense and pitching finally finding some success.
“We have to come out hot," Conine said. "Come out strong. Keep our foot on the gas like we have all weekend, and win.”
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