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Duke baseball makes statement in series victory against third-ranked Tar Heels

<p>Griffin Conine blasted three home runs in the Blue Devils' doubleheader sweep Monday.</p>

Griffin Conine blasted three home runs in the Blue Devils' doubleheader sweep Monday.

If there were any unanswered questions left surrounding the legitimacy of this Blue Devils team, they were answered this weekend in bold, Duke-blue font.

A resounding statement was heard across the nation this weekend after the ninth-ranked Blue Devils picked up a crucial series win against in-state rival North Carolina—the third-ranked team the nation—at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Duke once again showed it could compete against top-flight opponents, improving its record against top-10 opponents to 3-3.

The Blue Devils took game one by a score of 7-3 after a trio of senior pitchers took hold of the series opener, keeping a dangerous Tar Heels lineup—which has collected 45 home runs—at bay. Duke (38-12, 17-9 in the ACC) jumped out to an early lead following a home run off the bat of Griffin Conine in the second, and a two-run fifth, featuring RBI singles from Jimmy Herron and Chris Proctor.

Mitch Stallings started the game for the Blue Devils, lasting 5 and one-third innings before handing the ball to graduate-stopper Ethan DeCaster with the bases full. After DeCaster minimized the damage, Zack Kone broke a 3-3 tie in the seventh with a scorching two-RBI single down the left field line.

“You knew they were going to make a run, and they did in the sixth…but we stayed poised and kept competing,” Duke head coach Chris Pollard told “The job by Ethan [DeCaster] to compete his way through that and get off the field there with a tie ballgame, that was the difference for me.”

Senior closer Jack Labosky came on in the eighth to pitch two more scoreless innings to preserve an efficient win for the Blue Devils, needing only three pitchers to get the job done.

Pollard needed only two additional arms to take game two, beating the Tar Heels (34-16, 19-8) by a score of 5-2 to clinch Duke’s first series win over North Carolina since 2014. Senior pitcher Ryan Day battled the Tar Heels early, surrendering only one run in six innings before handing it over to Bryce Jarvis and Labosky in relief.

“He was maybe a batter or two away from us getting a guy up in the pen, but was able to make a pitch here, make a pitch there and get off the field,” Pollard told of Day's performance. “He got stronger…you look at his fifth and sixth innings, they were the two best innings he threw all day.”

The bats remained sizzling as well, including two-hit performances from Proctor, Conine, Max Miller, and Labosky.

However, The Blue Devils were unable to complete the sweep Sunday afternoon, dropping the contest 8-6 despite accumulating nine hits and three home runs.

The Duke staff could not find an answer to North Carolina shortstop Ike Freeman who racked up three hits, two RBI’s and a triple in the slugfest to propel his Tar Heels to an 8-1 advantage in the fifth. The Blue Devils almost clawed their way back thanks to late-inning heroics from Jimmy Herron, who belted two home runs and five RBIs. Griffin Conine also remained hot for the Blue Devils, adding two hits and his team-leading 12th long ball on the year. Pollard attributed the comeback bid to the “elite” leadership on the team.

“They don’t know how to quit, they don’t know how to stop fighting. They just grind and stay in the moment,” Pollard told “It’s easy to go, ‘oh, well it’s not our day, we’ve had a good weekend,’ and they were one swing of the bat away from tying that ballgame up and forcing extra innings.”

Pollard is convinced that his Blue Devils are playing their best baseball of the season and if taking the annual rivalry series wasn’t sweet enough already, the Blue Devils claimed their 16th and 17th ACC wins this weekend, setting a program record while also putting themselves in the middle of the regional-hosting conversation for the ensuing NCAA tournament.