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Duke baseball continues hot streak with sweep against Clemson

Matt Mervis' home run in the top of the ninth inning Sunday secured the Duke sweep.
Matt Mervis' home run in the top of the ninth inning Sunday secured the Duke sweep.

In the bottom half of the ninth inning of the series finale, Duke left fielder Kyle Gallagher leapt for a highlight-reel catch over the left-field fence, bringing back a potential game-tying home run. 

And with one on and two out, the Tigers' designated hitter Davis Sharpe connected on another long fly ball to left field. The freshman flipped his bat and pumped his fist, only for Gallagher to catch the ball about 10 feet short of the fence to end the game, securing the Blue Devils' third victory of the weekend.

Duke swept No. 23 Clemson this past weekend at Doug Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson, S.C., winning all three games by a combined four runs. The weekend marked the Blue Devils’ first series win against the Tigers since 1993, and first sweep since 1948.

“Really proud of our team and our coaching staff,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “Thought we showed a lot of resilience and toughness.”

With Sunday’s victory, Duke (24-16, 11-10 in the ACC) has now won nine of its past ten games after losing three of its first four ACC series. The trajectory of the season has been eerily similar to that of the 2016 Blue Devils, a team that lost its first three conference series before turning it on late in the year for the program’s first NCAA Regional appearance since 1961.

But with the injuries Duke has faced over the course of the season, Pollard is proud of the way this year’s squad has been able to fight through despite not playing at full strength.

“[The 2016 team] never had to overcome injuries," Pollard said. "They got off to a slow start but it was really just the product of not playing well, whereas this team has had to overcome a lot with regards to injuries. A lot of guys have really stepped up in spite of other guys getting hurt and that is what I am really proud of about this group.”

The series began with Ben Gross on the mound, whose emergence as Duke’s Friday night starter came as a product of Graeme Stinson's extended absence. And while Gross has been typically lights-out in that role en route to a 3.18 ERA, he struggled this time around. 

Clemson (25-15, 11-10) lit the 6-foot-1 righty up for six runs over the first four innings to take a 6-4 lead. But Gross settled down to blank the Tigers over his final two frames, keeping the Blue Devils in the game.

“It was not the dominant performance that we’ve seen out of [Gross] over the previous four weeks,” Pollard said. “But it was gritty and the thing we liked was a clean scoreboard in the fifth and the sixth inning that kept us within striking distance when it could’ve gotten away from us on Friday night.”

A few innings later, Duke was down to its final strike, trailing 8-7 in the top of the ninth. But on a 2-2 count, freshman infielder Ethan Murray raked an RBI single to knot the score at eight. And after Clemson made a call to the bullpen, sophomore catcher Michael Rothenberg gave the Blue Devils the lead with an RBI double to the gap in left-center field.

Overall, the duo went 12-of-24 throughout the series, forming a staple toward the bottom of Duke’s lineup that gives opposing teams no easy outs.

“We had guys step up throughout the lineup,” Pollard said. “Ethan Murray was really really good this was neat just to get production and big at-bats from different guys”

Junior lefty Bill Chillari provided Duke’s best start of the weekend on Saturday, tossing 4.1 innings of one-run ball. A first-run sacrifice fly pitted the Blue Devils down 1-0 early, but plated five runs between the fifth and sixth innings—powered by two RBIs each from Rothenberg and Chris Crabtree—to take a commanding 5-1 edge.

Freshman Sam Hall cut the Tigers’ deficit in half with a two-run home run in the ninth, but Thomas Girard was able to shut the door to secure the series win.

Pollard said before the series that he would not determine the starter for the series finale until after Saturday’s contest, eventually deciding to roll with Cooper Stinson. But the freshman righty did not have his best outing Sunday afternoon, allowing seven earned runs across 4.2 innings. A six-run splurge provided the majority of the damage, transforming an 8-2 Duke advantage to a tie ball game.

Both bullpens, however, were dominant, with the contest staying tied until the top of the ninth. It was then that junior designated hitter Matt Mervis provided the deciding blow, springing a solo shot that would prove to be the game-winner. 

Next, the Blue Devils will take on North Carolina Central Tuesday before traveling to Chestnut Hill, Mass. for a three-game series at Boston College. With the end of the regular season just under a month away now, Pollard is just trying to ride this hot streak as long as he can. 

“We talk about earned confidence—the confidence you get from going through the struggles and coming out the other side of it tougher because of the experience,” Pollard said. “And that is what this team has now. They are battle-tested and they’ve gone through a rough patch and overcome it. They are playing very loose right now so not a whole lot to change—stay out of their way.”


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