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Duke baseball shows resiliency, grinds out 4 consecutive comebacks to win Athens Regional

<p>Duke trailed in each of its Athens Regional contests, despite going 4-1 this weekend.</p>

Duke trailed in each of its Athens Regional contests, despite going 4-1 this weekend.

ATHENS, Ga.—Nine outs from failure. Postseason embarrassment after a historic regular season. 

That’s what Duke was staring in the face when its game with Campbell restarted at about 8:15 p.m. Saturday night following a lightning delay, almost 48 hours before arguably the highest peak in program history.

Griffin Conine, Duke’s power threat, was in as bad a rut as a hitter can have, striking out the first six times he came to the plate in the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils’ starting pitching was continuing its May struggles. The Blue Devils, who just a couple of weeks ago were in the top 10 and had hopes of hosting a regional, were losing 8-1 to Campbell, about to be eliminated from the tournament without a win.

Nobody could have imagined that two days later, Conine and senior starter Mitch Stallings would be at the podium underneath the bleachers as the primary men responsible for leading Duke to victory in the Athens Regional’s deciding game.

“Griffin and Mitch are sitting here because these two guys epitomized the fight and resiliency of this team,” Blue Devil head coach Chris Pollard said. “To battle all that [Griffin] has had to go through with the microscope that’s been on him nonstop the whole way, and to turn it on and have such an unbelievable finish to the year, and put together a great year—the same thing happened during this regional.”

It took four thrilling wins in three days on the brink of elimination to get there. Duke’s improbable stretch started with its 11-run ninth-inning rally to stun Campbell that will stand out the most, but the Blue Devils needed to come back in their next three wins, too.

“Right before the rain delay [against Campbell], our guys started to really wear the frustration. I saw us do some things that were really uncharacteristic for us in terms of the way the frustration was starting to spill out,” Pollard said. “They went out and had some energy.... All of a sudden, it started to snowball from there. Guys sensed it and just never left their foot off the gas pedal.”

Freshman Chris Crabtree—the regional’s Most Outstanding Player—had the biggest hit in the win against Campbell, carried Duke to a 15-6 victory against Troy with two home runs after the Trojans jumped out to a 4-0 lead and had another big day Monday with two doubles in the two games against Georgia.

But Monday’s heroes when the Blue Devils trailed by multiple runs in both contests were the struggling veterans who snapped into action when it mattered most. 

Conine smashed a go-ahead home run in the seventh inning of the first game and then hit two more in Game 2, including one moonshot that hit the top of the tall scoreboard in right field. The standout performance put him on the Athens Regional’s All-Tournament Team and was an impressive final statement to big-league teams before he was picked 52nd in the MLB Draft by the Toronto Blue Jays Monday night.

“You try to do too much, and all the mechanics and all the approach kind of goes out the window and you leave yourself with a lot more difficult of a task to try and get hits,” Conine said. “Our offense just coming together was the best thing for me—my teammates getting my back and picking me up and helping me out.”

Then, there was Stallings, who had given up 20 runs in just 10 1/3 innings pitched in his previous three starts before Monday’s nightcap. But with most of the arms in Duke’s bullpen exhausted, Stallings contained one of the SEC’s best offenses in seven innings on the mound and remained steady the whole outing and made it through seven innings even as he ran his pitch count up to 114 for the day and 185 for the weekend.

“I felt like earlier in the week I threw the ball decently well I just didn't have a lot to show for it,” Stallings said. “I kind of came out with the mentality today that I was going to attack each guy and just let whatever happens happen and not try to press too much, not try to force the issue too much and really just put everything I had on the line.”

Those veterans may not have had a second chance to extend their own careers without the heroics of younger reserves like Crabtree and Chase Cheek—Conine has a year of eligibility left, but will almost certainly jump to the professional ranks at the end of the season. 

But when those chances came against a top-10 team, they made the most of it.

And if the Blue Devils can get similar production from their leaders from the start of this weekend’s super regional at Texas Tech, they might not ever need dramatic comebacks every game to keep their season going.

“I did very little coaching this weekend,” Pollard said. “This was about a group of guys that just had each others’ backs and didn’t want this thing to come to a close.”


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