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ChronSports' Top 10 of 2018 — No. 1: Duke baseball rallies 4 straight times to win Athens Regional

Duke beat No. 8 national seed Georgia twice on the Bulldogs' home field to clinch the Athens Regional.
Duke beat No. 8 national seed Georgia twice on the Bulldogs' home field to clinch the Athens Regional.

With the end of 2018 quickly approaching, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest sports stories of the year. Each day, we reviewed a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year in Blue Devil athletics.  

Coming in at No. 1: Duke baseball picked up four dramatic wins in a row with its back against the wall to win the NCAA tournament's Athens regional and make its first super regional appearance in program history. 

It seemed far-fetched that Duke's most memorable athletic accomplishment of 2018 would take place at Foley Field when the Blue Devils returned to the field to finish their game against Campbell on the evening of Saturday, June 2 following a 97-minute lightning delay. 

Duke faced a daunting 8-1 deficit and was nine outs away from a disappointing early exit in the NCAA tournament in Athens, Ga. A loss would have made it the second winless regional in three seasons for the Blue Devils, who were still searching for their first NCAA tournament win since 1961. 

In the next 48 hours, Duke picked up four tournament victories. 

The miraculous run began with a ninth inning for the ages against the Fighting Camels—the Blue Devils chipped away at the deficit with two runs in the seventh and eighth innings to cut it to 8-5 before exploding for 11 runs in the final frame to win 16-8. The decisive swing came from freshman Chris Crabtree, who smacked a go-ahead three-run double down the right-field line with one out in the ninth inning in just the 16th at-bat of his collegiate career. 

Crabtree one-upped himself the following day against Troy, the same team that had easily beaten Duke 6-0 to start the weekend on Friday and sent the Blue Devils to the losers' bracket. The Trojans took a 4-0 lead in the first inning before Duke even got a chance to hit, but the Blue Devils quickly took control with the help of two Crabtree homers in his first career start on their way to a 15-6 win. 

Those two victories salvaged a respectable weekend, but it was still hard to envision Duke's season lasting longer than another day. No. 8 national seed Georgia was waiting Monday in front of its home crowd, and the Blue Devils needed to beat the Bulldogs not once, but twice on the same day to win the regional. 

Once again, Duke fell behind early, as Georgia scored four times in the second inning to take a 4-1 lead in the first game of the day. But Jimmy Herron tied it up in the sixth with a two-out RBI double, and home runs by Griffin Conine and Kennie Taylor in the seventh inning lifted the Blue Devils to an 8-5 win, forcing a winner-take-all game for the regional title. 

Head coach Chris Pollard handed the ball to Mitch Stallings on one day rest after he had been hit hard by Campbell in four innings of work, and the senior responded with a Herculean effort, somehow gutting his way through seven innings with 114 pitches while giving up four runs. That was good enough for an 8-4 win, thanks to a three-run shot by Zack Kone and two more home runs for Conine, including one towering shot that cleared the enormous scoreboard in right field. 

Conine, who was selected in the second round of the MLB Draft later that week and was the Blue Devils' most dangerous slugger all season, had a nightmarish start to the regional with strikeouts in his first six plate appearances. But after Crabtree and the rest of Duke's lineup helped keep his college career alive, he delivered in a big way on the biggest day of the Blue Devils' season. 

In the super regional a week later at No. 9 seed Texas Tech, Duke narrowly lost the first game before rebounding with an emphatic 11-2 win to force yet another winner-take-all game with a trip to the College World Series on the line. This was where the Blue Devils' dream season ended, as they left 14 runners on base in a frustrating 6-2 defeat. 

Although Duke lost most of its top performers to a combination of graduation and the draft, it did lock up its head coach with a contract extension through 2025. With Pollard at the helm, the Blue Devils appear poised to stay nationally relevant for the long haul. 

READ MORE on Duke baseball's 2018 NCAA tournament

FEELING SUPER: Duke baseball takes pair from Georgia to make first-ever super regional

Duke baseball scores 15 in final 3 innings to earn stunning comeback victory

Crabtree continues recent breakout, leads Duke baseball to victory with pair of home runs

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

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

ROBBED OF HISTORY: Texas Tech ends Duke baseball's College World Series quest

A look at the rest of our top 10 countdown:

No. 10: Duke volleyball earns first postseason bid since 2014

No. 9: Duke women's tennis rides dominant play for a trip to the national semifinals

No. 8: Duke men's golf surprises with a Final Four spot

No. 7: Duke football picks up bowl eligibility in the Miami rain

No. 6: Duke women’s basketball makes Sweet Sixteen run

No. 5: Duke men's basketball's strong Maui Invitational showing

No. 4: Duke men's lacrosse advances to the national championship

No. 3: Duke men's basketball comes up inches short of a Final Four appearance

No. 2: Duke men's basketball routs Kentucky in Champions Classic


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