Duke baseball squanders another strong series opener, drops 2 of 3 to Pittsburgh

<p>Jimmy Herron was part of Duke’s 14-run explosion Friday, but inconsistency has the team at 5-7 in the ACC.</p>

Jimmy Herron was part of Duke’s 14-run explosion Friday, but inconsistency has the team at 5-7 in the ACC.

A little more than halfway through its season, Duke had yet to show itself as the same team that earned an NCAA tournament bid for the first time in more than half a century last year.

And despite yet another scorching start to the weekend, the Blue Devils dropped a third straight ACC series, putting a postseason return in even further peril.

Duke romped its way to a 14-0 victory against Pittsburgh Friday night at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, but the Blue Devils could not sustain their offensive firepower in the final 15 innings of the weekend. Duke grabbed an 8-5 lead Saturday before the Panthers chipped away to escape with a 9-8 extra-inning win, and the visitors rode a strong eight innings from starter Josh Falk to take the rubber match 6-2 Sunday afternoon.

The Blue Devils went hitless through 5.2 innings in the series final before a Chris Proctor single through the right side ended Falk’s no-hit bid—the Pittsburgh righty allowed just a pair of hits on the afternoon, giving up one run and also tallying eight strikeouts.

“You have to tip your hat—[Falk] pitched a really good ballgame. He threw his breaking ball for a strike a high percentage of the time,” Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. “Coming in, we knew his numbers—the hits per nine innings were really low—he pitched great today.”

After both teams posted donuts through the first four frames, the Panthers (13-12, 6-6 in the ACC) put two runners on with just one out in the fifth, prompting Pollard to pull junior starter Ryan Day in favor of reliever Bill Chillari—who then allowed Pittsburgh leadoff man Jacob Wright to launch a three-run bomb into the second row of the right-field bleachers.

As the Blue Devil offense struggled to get anything going against Falk, the Panthers added three more runs in the top of the eighth to extend their lead to six. Pittsburgh loaded the bases on two Duke walks before shortstop P.J. DeMeo grounded into an 6-4-3 double play and a pair of RBI singles doubled the Panther advantage.

The Blue Devils (16-15, 5-7) added runs in the eighth and ninth innings on an RBI double by pinch hitter Peter Zyla and an RBI single from leftfielder Michael Smiciklas, but it was nowhere near enough to close the margin.

“We gave them some free offense there in the eighth,” Pollard said. “That was the big difference in the ballgame because if you keep the scoreboard clean there in the eighth, we were eventually going to scratch a few across and get into the bullpen. Then all of a sudden, that ninth inning feels totally different.”

Duke began the weekend with a near-perfect series opener against the Panthers Friday night. Junior Mitch Stallings tossed his best game as a Blue Devil starter, posting seven shutout innings with just a pair of hits and walks surrendered. His eight strikeouts kept Pittsburgh at bay, yet the Duke bats mustered just one run of their own through the first five frames.

From there, the red-hot Blue Devil offense came to life as it sent eight men to the plate in the sixth, bringing across four runs with a pair of doubles from Max Miller and Jack Labosky. The onslaught continued in the seventh and eighth innings—Duke’s first four batters reached base in the seventh before sophomore Griffin Conine blasted his first-ever grand slam and in the next frame, Herron smacked a three-run homer of his own to increase the Blue Devil advantage to 14-0.

The win was the third for Stallings as the Atlanta southpaw picked up his second victory in as many weekends to move his season ledger to 3-2.

“If you look back over the past couple of weeks, we’ve swung the bat pretty well,” Pollard said. “In this game, though, you’re not always going to swing it when the guy on the mound that’s facing you is throwing really well—even a hot club.”

Duke’s offense kept attacking the Panther arms to start Saturday’s matchup as the Blue Devils tallied eight runs in the first three innings. Designated hitter Kennie Taylor and Conine blasted two-run home runs in the second and third innings, respectively, but with Pittsburgh notching five runs in the second and third innings off freshman Adam Laskey, the Blue Devils still trailed 5-4.

With a Labosky double and a trio of RBI singles, though, Duke grabbed an 8-5 lead before the end of the third—a margin the Blue Devils would carry into the fifth before their bats went silent the rest of the way.

The Panthers did not fade, however, scoring single runs in the fifth, seventh and ninth frames to level the contest at eight apiece and send the game to extra innings.

Pittsburgh then recorded three straight one-out singles in the top of the 10th inning to bring across centerfielder Frank Maldonado. And with two swinging strikeouts in the bottom of the final frame, Duke went quietly to put a cap on its sixth ACC loss of the season.

“We’re disappointed because we let [Saturday’s game] slip through our hands,” Pollard said. “We had a ballgame to win there and we didn’t do it.... [That’s] one we’d like to have back.”

The Blue Devils will take a break from their regular-season slate as they return to downtown Durham Tuesday evening for a mid-week exhibition against the Durham Bulls, triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, in the inaugural Battle of Bull City.

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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