ATHENS, Ga.—The comeback kids did it twice more Monday, capping the Blue Devil program's best week since before most of the players' parents were born.
No. 2 seed Duke took down top-seeded Georgia 8-5 and 8-4 in a doubleheader Monday at Foley Field to play its way all the way out of the loser's bracket and win the Athens Regional after dropping its first game. Junior slugger Griffin Conine homered twice in the deciding game and three times on the day, and senior southpaw Mitch Stallings gutted his way through seven innings of four-run ball just two days after throwing 71 pitches against Campbell.
"I’m kind of at a loss for words," Blue Devil head coach Chris Pollard said. "To say I’m proud of our team is the biggest understatement that I’ve ever said. Unbelievable resiliency and character and fight, and they’ve got a lot invested in one another."
The No. 8 national seed Bulldogs (39-21) took an early 2-0 lead in the second game of the day, but Duke's bats exploded right away to respond with a big third inning. The rally started, as it has in every win this week, with breakout freshman sensation Chris Crabtree, who led off with a double down the line—the freshman designated hitter with just 14 career at-bats entering the weekend was named the regional's Most Outstanding Player.
With one out, the top of the Blue Devil order then got to Bulldog starter C.J. Smith. Jimmy Herron drew a walk, Chris Proctor roped an RBI double off the wall in left, Zack Kone hit it over the wall to drive in three runs and Griffin Conine went back-to-back with a towering home run that landed on top of the big scoreboard in right field.
When the dust cleared, Duke had a 5-2 lead.
Starting pitching was the Blue Devils' lone weakness for most of the weekend, but Stallings protected that cushion and kept Georgia at bay for the next several innings.
"Mitch is one of the best pitchers in the history of this program. He’s pitched big innings for us since he first walked on campus as a freshman, but the last four weeks have been really hard, probably the hardest four weeks that he’s had since he’s been at Duke," Pollard said. "He’s been able to grind his way through it and gave us the biggest start of his career and the biggest start in the history of this program today."
Conine homered again to answer a solo shot by the Bulldogs' Michael Curry, giving Duke (44-16) a 6-3 advantage in the seventh inning, and though the Bulldogs got one right back in the bottom half, Stallings struck out cleanup hitter Keegan McGovern with a fastball to cap an eight-pitch at-bat on his 114th and final pitch of the night.
"Pretty much every start, the day after, I asked Coach Pollard if I was going to be live that day," Stallings said, and it was hard to tell if he was joking. "I've always been able to bounce back pretty quick. You factor in the environment in that moment and it's pretty hard to not be ready to go in that situation."
Shutdown closer Jack Labosky took it from there, getting the last six outs easily to spark a raucous celebration of blue jerseys streaming onto the field and stunning the home crowd.
"These guys have a great love for one another. They care about each other," Pollard said. "A lot of this just comes down to will. It just comes down to a will of just not wanting it to end."
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Earlier in the afternoon, the Blue Devils forced the second game of the day with another comeback victory . Duke manufactured a run in the first inning—the only time in its five games in Athens it was the first team to score.
But that lead quickly evaporated when the Bulldogs struck for four runs in the second inning.
Sophomore Graeme Stinson replaced Bill Chillari with one out in the second inning and shut Georgia down through the end of the sixth, only allowing one more run and tallying eight strikeouts.
Duke scored two runs in the bottom of the second and finally tied it back up at 5-5 on a two-out, two-strike RBI double off the left-field wall for leadoff man Jimmy Herron in the sixth inning, and they seized control an inning later. Conine drilled a go-ahead homer well into the trees next to the scoreboard for his first long ball of the postseason, and Kennie Taylor put the Blue Devils in front 8-5 two batters later with a two-run pop fly that the wind picked up and carried out of the ballpark in the same spot.
"Hitting is contagious. It really is," Conine said. "When we were struggling and we were not hitting with runners on a lot, I was just trying to do too much. I felt like I had to put balls in the gap and over the fence to make a difference for the team and get runs in. When you consistently have guys on, guys are scoring and the ball’s being banged around the park, it takes a lot of pressure off."
Labosky took the mound in a tie game in the top of the seventh and retired all nine batters he faced to silence Georgia and ensure that the two teams would have to play again after about an hour-long break.
Next, Duke will travel to Lubbock, Texas, to face No. 9 national seed Texas Tech in a best-of-three super regional. The winner will earn a trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. starting June 16.