Duke’s chances of making the NCAA tournament for the second straight year remain far-fetched, but the Blue Devils took a big step in the right direction with their first series win in more than two months—virtually locking up a berth in the upcoming ACC tournament.
Duke rallied to beat Georgia Tech 7-5 Friday and 12-5 Saturday before falling 5-3 in the series finale Sunday at Jack Coombs Field when Yellow Jacket senior Ryan Peurifoy belted a tie-breaking two-run homer in the ninth inning. The Blue Devils moved up to ninth place in the ACC and are unlikely to fall out of the top 12 even if they get swept by No. 3 North Carolina next weekend.
“To win a series when we had to win one, I think it says a lot about this club,” Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. “We’ve put ourselves in a really good position heading into the last weekend to be a part of the ACC tournament. You want to get in that tournament and give yourself a chance for an NCAA tournament bid.”
The Blue Devils (26-25, 11-16 in the ACC) came through with timely hits late in every game of the weekend, starting Friday night after Georgia Tech took a 5-4 lead with three runs in the top of the seventh. Sophomore Kennie Taylor strode to the plate in the bottom half of the frame and blasted a two-run home run over the left-field wall to give Duke a lead it never relinquished.
“I was just looking to put the ball in play, just getting some line-drive swings in there,” Taylor said.
Closer Jack Labosky then held on for a two-inning save, allowing just one hit to preserve the lead.
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A day later, the Yellow Jackets (25-24, 10-17) led 5-2 in the sixth inning before the Blue Devils scored five runs in the frame, taking the lead on a bases-clearing triple by sophomore Chris Proctor. The onslaught continued with five more runs combined in the seventh and eighth innings, as Duke comfortably clinched a series victory for the first time since its first ACC series of the season against Virginia Tech.
But the Blue Devil offense struggled out of the gate once again Sunday and never fully recovered from a pair of missed opportunities in the early going.
Georgia Tech shortstop Austin Wilhite could not handle a potential inning-ending double-play ball in the bottom of the second to put two Duke baserunners on, but they were stranded at second and third when first baseman Kel Johnson made a diving stop on a grounder down the line by Jalen Phillips.
Johnson injured his shoulder on the play and had to leave the field to go to the hospital, but not before he made the flip with his good arm to starting pitcher Jake Lee for the out at first.
“We hit some balls hard. Their first baseman made a couple really good plays on us,” Pollard said. “We competed all the way to the very end of the ballgame, and that’s all you can ask for out of your club.”
The Yellow Jackets gifted the Blue Devils two more baserunners on errors in the third inning, yet Duke could not capitalize with the bases loaded when Taylor struck out swinging on a pitch well inside that hit him.
Lee wound up throwing a complete game on 109 pitches despite his team committing five errors behind him in the field.
“He’s got a power sinker. The ball really sinks coming out of the hand, and now we beat it into the ground a lot. He would run it into our hands and we’d hit it into the ground and they didn’t make every play, certainly,” Pollard said. “They made some mistakes behind him. He didn’t back down to it, he just kept making pitches.”
The sophomore right-hander carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning, but Taylor finally broke through with a two-out double to left field. Freshman Zack Kone reached on another error with Wilhite unable to field a sharp grounder cleanly and then got caught in a rundown between first and second, giving Taylor time to score the tying run.
“It’s all about making adjustments. Especially today, we had a little trouble with this guy’s two-seam fastball,” Taylor said. “We decided to just change our approach and look for our pitch instead of swinging at his pitch.”
Kyle McCann led off the seventh with a home run off the scoreboard in right field to give Georgia Tech the lead back two pitches later, signaling the end of Duke starter Adam Laskey’s most effective start of his freshman campaign, and the Yellow Jackets later tacked on an insurance run against reliever Kevin Lewallyn.
The Blue Devils battled back once again, though, as junior Max Miller led off the bottom of the seventh with his first career home run in his 489th at-bat in a Duke uniform. The Blue Devils tied the game when Jalen Phillips doubled and scored on an RBI single by Jimmy Herron.
But Lee retired eight of the last nine batters he faced, and Peurifoy’s home run over the left-field wall off Labosky proved to be the difference.
“He’s a senior and he had a big hit for them in a big spot,” Pollard said. “It was a really good baseball game and people that came out this weekend got their money’s worth.”
Duke will now enter the last week of the regular season with a game against Liberty Tuesday night at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park before heading to Chapel Hill to face the Tar Heels in its final regular-season conference series.