Stellar defense and big time-hitting, including back-to-back doubles and three RBIs by junior shortstop Zack Kone, were not enough to lead the Blue Devils to victory in the first super regional appearance in program history.
Duke fell to No. 9 Texas Tech 6-4 in game one of the super regional series at Rip Griffin Park in Lubbock, Texas Saturday afternoon. Despite jumping out to an early 3-0 lead, the Blue Devils' bullpen—a usual strength for the team—could not stop a daunting Red Raider offensive unit, as Texas Tech rallied in the eighth with go-ahead hits by Gabe Holt and Brian Klein and the help of a blown safe call at second base on a bunt to take its only lead of the contest and ultimately take the first game of the best-of-three series.
"Today was as good of a college baseball atmosphere as I’ve been in in my career, and I thought our guys handled that exceptionally well and stayed in the moment exceptionally well," Duke head coach Chris Pollard said in the postgame press conference. "They’re frustrated right now because a couple things were really close there at the end of the ballgame that we felt like didn’t go our way that might have made a difference in the outcome."
After high-scoring games in the Athens Regional, some of the Blue Devils' big hitters like Jimmy Herron, Chris Proctor, Griffin Conine and Chris Crabtree went hitless on the game, as their offense was kept in check in the later innings.
However, Kone had a day at the plate to remember with three hits in four at-bats, including a double, a two-run double and a tie-breaking RBI single in the top of the seventh to give the Blue Devils a 4-3 advantage against a skilled offensive Texas Tech team.
"We stress competitiveness a lot in the box and really not backing down," Kone said. "I think that really showed today."
Grant Little had a similarly strong game for the Red Raiders, hitting a two-RBI double in the fifth inning. A bases loaded RBI single in the sixth and a game-tying home run by Zach Rheams in the bottom of the seventh led to an exciting and close finish.
Duke (44-17) struck first in the second inning, as Joey Loperfido hit the ball hard up the middle, snagging a single. After advancing to third, Loperfido scored off an RBI single by Max Miller, giving the Blue Devils an early 1-0 lead.
On the field, stellar defense all around kept Texas Tech (43-17) from scoring early. Conine made a grab right up against the wall for the first out in the second inning, despite the ball traveling 339 feet and looking like a home run when it came off the bat. Later, with one out and runners on first and second, second basemen Max Miller laid out to his right to keep a ball in the infield and get the out at second. A two out pop-fly ended the promising inning for the Red Raiders.
Mitch Stallings seemed to get better as the game went on for Duke on the mound, posting his first strikeout on the day in the bottom of the fourth and then catching a grounder and making the out to end the inning after working out of jams in the first three frames.
"I didn’t have quite the command that I would have preferred today, but was able to kind of fight through that and work the ball to both sides of the plate as well as kind of keep them off balance with off-speed in some fastball counts," Stallings said.
Ryan Shetter, who replaced Dylan Dusek for the Red Raiders in the second, had two strikeouts in the fifth, but was unable to keep the Blue Devils from scoring. After hitting Crabtree and Herron to put them on first and second, Kone hit his second two-out double, driving home both baserunners to give Duke a three-run lead.
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Despite Stallings’ impressive fourth inning and a second strikeout in the bottom of the fifth, he added a fourth walk after a single to put runners on first and second. Texas Tech—the second-highest scoring team in the country—finally got on the scoreboard when Little hit a two-RBI double to bring the score to 3-2.
Senior Ethan DeCaster took over for Stallings in the sixth, throwing 11 pitches against the first batter he faced. A single, hit by pitch and walk led to a one-out, bases-loaded scenario for the Blue Devils. The middle infield continued to not let anything past them, with Miller flipping the ball to Kone at second to get one out despite a run scoring to tie up the game at 3-3. Herron caught a pop-up for the third out.
Crabtree made contact for the first time on the day to lead off the seventh, but flew out to left field. Two walks put Herron on second and Proctor on first, allowing Kone to bring Herron home on an RBI single and give the Blue Devils a 4-3 lead going into the seventh-inning stretch.
"We were really clutch with two outs. Both teams—Little has the big two-out base hit when we’re a pitch away from getting off the field right there in what would have been a 3-0 ballgame if we get off there," Pollard said. "We had a couple of really good two-out at-bats. They had a couple of really good two-out at-bats, so I thought both teams in those situations really competed."
During what looked like it was going to be a quick half-inning after two outs against big Red Raider hitters, Rheams—who had three homers in the Lubbock Regional—hit a two out homer to tie the game at 4-4.
Duke was not able to find its momentum after the Red Raiders’ tying run, going three up, three down, while Texas Tech looked like a different team than they had at the beginning of the day. The Red Raiders were able to take the lead on a one-out RBI single by Holt for the go-ahead run. Conine gunned it to third to get the out and minimize further damage, leaving Holt on first with two outs. But Klein followed that up with an RBI double to drive Holt in and give the Red Raiders a big two-run lead heading into the ninth, and Proctor hit into a game-ending double play with the tying run on first base.
"We knew coming into this ballgame that they were an exceptional offensive club, the best we’ve played I think. They rank in the top three in most offensive categories over the course of the season, and you can see why," Pollard said. "They just don’t give away at-bats. They spoil a lot of out pitches."
Duke will play game two in the series hoping to extend its season Sunday at 6 p.m. in Lubbock.