ATHENS, Ga.—When the lightning came, Duke trailed 8-1 and could not produce any offense against Fighting Camel ace Allan Winans. The small patch of weather on a relatively clear afternoon seemed like it was only delaying the inevitable.
But everything changed after the 97-minute interruption, and No. 2 seed Duke scored 11 times in the ninth inning for a stunning grand finale to keep its season alive and secure a 16-8 win—the Blue Devils' first NCAA tournament victory since 1961—against No. 4 seed Campbell at Foley Field.
After chipping away at the deficit with two runs in the seventh inning and two more in the eighth, the straw that broke the Fighting Camels' back was a go-ahead three-run double down the line by seldom-used freshman Chris Crabtree.
"We talked during the rain delay about the fact that this team had never quit on each other and we weren’t going to do it now," Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. "We’ve been challenged and we got frustrated, and I think a little bit of that started to spill over as the course of the game went along, but this is a resilient group of guys because of great leadership and our captains here beside me, and they just don’t quit."
Winans cruised through six innings while his team built a commanding lead, but the senior wasn't the same when he took the mound for the seventh after sitting for nearly two hours. Senior captain Max Miller singled to start the Blue Devils' rally, and Crabtree pinch-hit for designated hitter Michael Rothenberg, whose back tightened up during the delay. Crabtree entered the day with only 14 career at-bats, but calmly lined a single into right field, a positive sign of things to come.
"It probably looked like I should have been playing him a lot more," Pollard said. "He’s made some really good adjustments during the course of the season, which is not always easy to do when you’re not getting a lot of opportunities live, and he got a chance tonight."
Jimmy Herron and Chris Proctor both slapped RBI singles from the top of the order to trim the deficit to 8-3 and chase Winans from the game, but reliever Logan Bender got Campbell out of the jam.
Another unlikely hero sparked the offense an inning later, as sophomore Chase Cheek pinch-hit for Michael Smiciklas, who had replaced starting center fielder Kennie Taylor in the third inning after he was inadvertently kneed in the face during a collision with Miller while making a spectacular diving catch. Taylor left the park to get stitches in his eyebrow, but returned to the dugout for most of the comeback, and Pollard was optimistic about his chances of returning to the lineup Sunday.
Back to Cheek at the plate, the sophomore who was 0-for-12 this season laid down a perfect bunt and beat out the throw to first base for his first hit. Miller singled again—he finished the night 4-for-5—and Jack Labosky was hit by a pitch to load the bases for Jimmy Herron with two outs. A soft grounder by the Blue Devil leadoff man skipped off the third baseman's glove for a two-run error to pull Duke within three.
"I really think it’s kind of like a jump shooter in basketball. If you haven’t seen one go in the basket for a while, you start to wonder, when is it ever going to go in the basket again?" Pollard said. "We had a couple of soft contact hits fall in, and once our guys kind of saw that, I think everybody sort of relaxed, took a collective deep breath and said, 'Okay, let’s just go play.'"
While the Blue Devils were making their comeback, sophomore reliever Graeme Stinson shut Campbell down from the mound, entering the game immediately after the delay and retiring all eight batters he faced from the middle of the sixth inning to the end of the eighth.
The top of the ninth got off to an inauspicious start, with Zack Kone hitting a soft infield single to second and Griffin Conine striking out. But Bender ran out of steam on the mound, walking a man and giving up two singles to set the table for Crabtree with the bases loaded, one out and the Fighting Camels clinging to an 8-6 lead.
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"I knew I was going to be seeing a lot of sliders in that at-bat," Crabtree said. "That’s what he struck me out on the at-bat before, and he had struck out a lot of guys with that, so I kind of just sat back and got to see a couple and ended up getting one."
Campbell closer Tyson Messer didn't do any better when he replaced Bender a batter later and only recorded one out. After Crabtree's double, Duke put eight more runners on base to pull away in a surreal inning—Crabtree came around to bat again and singled, and he and Cheek combined to hit 5-for-6 with five RBIs and five runs off the bench.
"These guys haven’t complained one time. I haven’t heard any of them complain one time all year about playing time," Miller said. "They mesh with us so well, and we feed off of them when we need it. We needed that jolt tonight. That doesn’t happen if these younger guys aren’t there to push us."
Campbell earned its lead with the help of two home runs off Blue Devil starter Mitch Stallings and a healthy dose of good fortune. A runner tagged up from second to score while Taylor and Miller were on the ground in pain after their collision, and a check-swing grounder by Kyle Mehl with the bases loaded in the fifth inning became a three-run hit when it trickled into right field past Miller's diving effort and Conine made a throwing error.
"We were sitting in there [during the delay] and kind of realized, look, they had a check-swing double that cleared the bases and we threw away two balls that we don’t normally throw away," Miller said. "We were still in the game, and it was just a matter of time before we got our break."
Duke will face the loser of Sunday's noon game between Georgia and Troy at 6 Sunday evening, needing a win to extend its season once again.