After a strong start to the season, the beginning of ACC play has not been kind to Duke. And this past weekend, the Blue Devils’ struggles only continued.
Duke dropped two of its three contests at the hands of Wake Forest at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, its second consecutive series defeat to a conference foe. The weekend began with the Blue Devils breaking their four-game losing streak via a 16-2 bashing of the Demon Deacons Friday night. But Duke then proceeded to fall on the losing end of a close 9-8 battle Saturday before dropping the rubber match 5-4 in a 12-inning, near five-hour marathon Sunday.
“Just disappointed,” head coach Chris Pollard following Sunday’s defeat. “We came out and played really really well on Friday night, we come into Saturday in a position to win the series and then we just had so many chances. We had so many chances [Saturday], [and] we had so many chances today where a base hit would have won the series for us and we just did not get it. It is disappointing. We have to keep working. There is a lot that we have to clean up, there is a lot that we have to continue to get better at.”
Friday was just one of those nights where everything was going right for the Blue Devils. Duke (13-11, 3-6 in the ACC) led just 2-1 heading into the bottom half of the third inning, but strung together 14 runs over the following three frames. Eight of those runs came via the longball, including the first career home run for junior outfielder Chase Cheek.
Graduate student Ben Gross got the start on the mound, allowing only one run on one hit over his five innings of work. Junior Adam Laskey relieved him with a clean sixth inning—the southpaw’s first appearance on the year after battling shoulder inflammation early in the season—and freshman Cooper Stinson finished the job with three one-hit frames to end it.
“Guys were aggressive in the box,” Pollard said. “The competitiveness in the batter’s box was contagious, so we just kept pouring it on. We got a great start from Ben Gross—it is a recipe for success.”
Duke’s bats stayed hot in the early going Saturday, notching four runs on the board in the bottom of the first. The Blue Devils held their lead for the majority of the afternoon, but Wake Forest (15-10, 5-4 in the ACC) fought back to keep its deficit at 8-6 entering the sixth. And from there, it was all Demon Deacons.
Two singles off the bats of Michael Ludowig and Patrick Frick in the sixth and seventh tied the game for Wake Forest, though Duke would have its own opportunity to break the contest open yet again in its own half of the seventh inning. Nevertheless, Rudy Maxwell struck out with the bases loaded, and an eighth-inning home run off the bat of sophomore infielder Bobby Seymour proved to be the game winner.
Sunday marked a grand finale, with the two teams battling it out for 4 hours and 55 minutes in perhaps the best weather Durham has seen all season. Wake Forest struck first with three runs in the third, but the Blue Devils would knot up the score at four by the sixth. For the following five frames, however, it was all blanks.
The trend of Duke’s missed opportunities continued, with Pollard’s squad leaving 10 total runners on base and at least one in five of the final six innings. Fricks would finally give the Demon Deacons the lead with a single in the top of the 12th, the game’s first run in over two hours. And with one on and one out in the bottom half, Erikson Nichols lined out to Seymour at first, who promptly stepped on the bag for the series-clinching double play.
“It seemed like early on in the year every time we needed a big two-out hit we got it,” Pollard said. “You saw it on Friday night—we hit really well with two outs on Friday night. And then over the second half of these two ball games we just did not...We got to keep working and guys got to stay together and understand that this will turn.”
Next, Duke will head to Charlotte to take on Davidson Tuesday before a big three-game set at North Carolina next weekend. But if the Blue Devils want to get out of their current slump, they need to start getting hits when it matters most.
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“Got to grow from it,” Pollard said. “I ask our guys and I ask our staff every time that something does not go well—in a win or a loss—to assess what we can learn from it. That has got to be a big part of this. If we are going to have a growth mindset and try to get better as we go—meaning develop and be playing our best baseball at the end of the year—then one of our big challenges is when we do not do things well we got to figure out how we can learn from it.”