On a scorching day in west Texas, Duke knew it needed its bats to stay hot. After scoring 11 runs Sunday to force a winner-take-all Game 3, the Blue Devils had faith in their arms.
It was just a question to whether they could find enough runs to match one of the nation’s most dangerous offenses.
Although Duke got plenty of hits, missed opportunities and some big-time Red Raider swings did the Blue Devils in as No. 9 seed Texas Tech pulled out a 6-2 win Monday evening to advance to the College World Series for the third time in five seasons. The Blue Devils stranded 14 runners on base and combined to go just 3-of-17 with runners in scoring position for the game.
"First and foremost, congrats to Texas Tech on a tremendous season," head coach Chris Pollard said in his postgame press conference. "I'm incredibly proud of our team, proud of the season they put together. I've never had more fun in my life being around a group of guys."
"The hardest part for all of us, certainly me, is that we're not going to be able to continue to spend that time together."
Down a run and with just nine outs left in its season, Duke looked to get back even with Texas Tech. But after going scoreless in the top half of the seventh, senior Ryan Day gave one run back to the hosts when Brian Klein golfed a ball out over the wall later in the frame.
Senior Max Miller started out the eighth with a leadoff walk and Jack Labosky reached on an error to put two men on with one out. After Chase Cheek grounded into a fielder’s choice, a chopped infield hit by Jimmy Herron loaded the bases with two gone.
But Chris Proctor flew out to dead center, preventing the Blue Devils from getting any closer. The Red Raiders then added a pair of insurance runs in the eighth to seal their trip to Omaha.
"We never feel like we're out of a game," Proctor said. "I don't think we've felt like we were out of a game the entirety of the season. Credit their pitchers—they made the pitches when they had to."
There was little action in the first couple of frames. Although Duke had chances to get on the board with six baserunners between the first and third innings, Miller struck out twice with two away to end any early Blue Devil threat.
Texas Tech then got on the scoreboard first, striking in the third with a solo shot from leadoff man Gabe Holt for the Red Raiders’ first hit of the game to make it 1-0. But Duke responded the very next half-inning—an epic 11-pitch at-bat by Chris Crabtree led to a double down the right-field line before an infield single by Jimmy Herron brought the freshman home.
Chris Pollard lifted starter Bryce Jarvis to start the 4th inning, and after pitching 1 2/3 scoreless innings Sunday, Matt Dockman needed just four pitches to give the hosts back the lead. Texas Tech cleanup hitter Zach Rheams roped a ground-rule double and the very next pitch, Dockman served up a hanging breaking ball that Michael Davis launched for a 2-run blast.
It wasn’t until the sixth that Duke could get its offense going again. With two outs, Cheek—filling in for injured outfielder Kennie Taylor—lashed a double into deep right-center, advancing to third on an error. The next batter, Jimmy Herron, lined a triple that was misplayed by Red Raider right fielder Gabe Holt to make it a 3-2 game.
Still the Blue Devils stranded yet another runner in scoring position when Proctor struck out to close the half-inning.
"We were really close," Pollard said. "If you had told me coming into this weekend that we were going to limit them to six, two and six runs...I would've liked our chances. Obviously, we had a couple of close plays that didn't go our way.... We had a couple of opportunities to get a big hit when it was a close ballgame, a couple of chances to get off the field when we didn't and those are the difference in a ballgame like this."
Monday’s loss brought Duke’s historic season to a close. The Blue Devils won an NCAA tournament game for the first time in more than a half-century and Pollard’s squad collected a program-record 45 wins, including 18 in ACC play.
Questions will linger into the coming days, though. On top of graduating starters Jack Labosky, Mitch Stallings and Max Miller, Duke is likely to lose right fielder Griffin Conine as well as Herron, both of whom were picks in the first three rounds of last week’s MLB draft.
Pollard also hinted that Proctor could leave Duke and classmate Zack Kone—also a 13th-round selection—might also opt to turn pro.
"Right now, it really stings being one game from Omaha," Herron said, choking back tears. "Just because the scoreboard says what it says, that doesn't change the journey or any of the memories we've made. This team will be my brothers for life."
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."