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Duke baseball's Crabtree plays role of unlikely hero after just 14 regular-season at-bats

<p>Chris Crabtree's strong hitting helped keep the Blue Devils afloat against Virginia.</p>

Chris Crabtree's strong hitting helped keep the Blue Devils afloat against Virginia.

Growing up near Durham or Chapel Hill, staying neutral isn’t an option, and Chris Crabtree was not immune to the rivalry craze.

“I grew up a diehard Carolina fan,” Duke’s freshman designated hitter said. “Sadly, they didn’t show me too much love in the recruiting process, so now I’m a Blue Devil.... No hard feelings or anything.”

The Tar Heels may come to regret that choice if Crabtree maintains anything close to the production at the plate he displayed last weekend. After only getting 14-bats in the regular season, Crabtree came off the bench with the Blue Devils trailing 8-1 against Campbell and had 10 hits in 14 more at-bats—including Duke’s biggest hit of the season, a go-ahead three-run double in the ninth inning against the Fighting Camels with the Blue Devils on the brink of elimination.

Crabtree went on to smack two more doubles and hit two home runs to spark Duke’s run to the first super regional in program history and earn the Athens Regional’s Most Outstanding Player award, but the most improbable moment of the weekend may not have been any of his hits.

In the sixth inning of the deciding game of the regional with a runner on second and the top of the Blue Devil order looming, Georgia intentionally walked Crabtree.

“Jimmy [Herron] turns to me, straight-faced and says, ‘Coach, if I’d have told you coming into this regional that Chris Crabtree was going to be intentionally walked at some point during the course of the regional, would you take those odds?’” Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. “And I said, ‘Jimmy, I’d put my house on those odds.’ It was just kind of surreal.”

The decision worked. Herron flew out and Chris Proctor struck out to leave the bases loaded and keep the Blue Devils from extending their 5-3 lead at the time, though the Bulldogs could not generate enough offense to stage a comeback.

Pollard entered the season expecting to give Crabtree more playing time than he ended up getting, as freshman Joey Loperfido narrowly beat him out for the starting job at first base. However, Loperfido—Duke’s leading hitter—never went through the type of slump Pollard expects from most freshman, so he kept him in the lineup for every game.

But Crabtree was still the first man off the bench when Loperfido hurt his finger early in a May 19 game at Georgia Tech, and he singled twice, earning him another chance when designated hitter Michael Rothenberg’s back tightened up during Saturday’s rain delay.

“I’ve been doing this long enough that you see a lot of freshmen, when they don’t play, they reach a point in the year where they sort of check out mentally,” Pollard said. “By the time you get this deep in the season, they’re thinking about summer baseball or next year, but he is a guy that was really consistent with his approach and really worked at making adjustments as we went through the season.”

Crabtree, who went to high school at Riverside in Durham, capitalized on the opportunity again to earn a spot in the lineup for good as a designated hitter.

“Throughout this whole year, I’m just trying to work, trying to train and maintain game readiness,” Crabtree said. “Training with the guys every day, it’s hard to lose motivation and to lose the drive to win.... I feel like I was ready for it from the beginning.”

Crabtree always figured to be a part of the program’s future, and Pollard said when the team arrived back in Durham Tuesday that he is already thinking of how to get Loperfido and Crabtree on the field at the same time next year, potentially moving Loperfido to another infield position. But all of a sudden, Crabtree is part of the present as well, and on a team that now features two top-100 MLB Draft picks in juniors Griffin Conine and Jimmy Herron, the seldom-used freshman is the biggest reason why the Blue Devils are still playing.

“He was as locked as I’ve ever seen anyone on our team all season, as locked in as I’ve been, as locked in as Jimmy’s been,” Conine said. “To see how he handled it up there, just being under the spotlight in huge spots—we were two outs away from going home with bases loaded. A ground ball and our season’s over, so that at-bat was huge, and I think that was the turning point.”


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