Kyle Gallagher was due.
Duke’s left fielder had gone hitless in four tries when his spot came up with two outs in the top of the ninth and a man on first, the score knotted at five. On a 3-2 pitch, the graduate student roped a ball towards the short porch in right field, barely 300 feet from home plate. The ball carried just enough to escape the reach of N.C. Central’s right fielder and drop for the eventual game-winning double, landing just in front of curious onlookers on the porch at The Rickhouse beyond the fence, as the Blue Devils held on to win 7-5.
Even the omnipresent pollen couldn’t detract from a beautiful Tuesday night at the historic Durham Athletic Park, as the two teams from Durham met for the first leg of a home-and-home series this season. The Blue Devils came back from an early 3-0 hole in a game that featured a bit of everything—including a three-run, inside-the-park home run. Duke stretched its current winning streak to four games, and its all-time record against the Eagles to a perfect 24-0.
“[Former MLB player and coach] Steve Springer talks about wanting the fifth at-bat. It’s just a great job of going up there and really competing,” Blue Devils head coach Chris Pollard said. “Matt Mervis extends the inning, Gallagher has a great at-bat with two strikes, and then Chase Cheek has a great at-bat with two strikes to give us separation. Great job there with two outs in the ninth inning.”
Despite notching the game-winning RBI, Gallagher was far from the only hero in the Duke dugout, which relied on a total team effort—every starter reached base at least once—to get the midweek nonconference win. Prior to Gallagher’s heroics, Duke (18-15) had to play catch-up early after the Eagles plated three quick runs against Adam Laskey on a fielder’s choice and pair of hits, including an infield single. Chris Crabtree’s three-run inside-the-park homer run in the top of the second, however, quickly erased N.C. Central’s advantage.
In the top of the fourth, Duke’s Kennie Taylor led off the inning with a double, his team-leading 16th of the year. After advancing to third on a botched pickoff attempt by the Eagles, the next two Blue Devils failed to knock him in before Cheek smacked a double of his own to put Duke in front.
Taylor was also critical in keeping Duke in the game in a difficult bottom of the sixth, as N.C. Central (14-18) rallied for two runs off the Blue Devils’ Jack Carey to tie the game at five. After an error allowed the Eagles to score the tying run, N.C. Central had men on first and second when Nick Fajardo launched a shot into deep left-center field. Taylor, who already had a diving grab in his back pocket from earlier in the game, caught Fajardo’s hit just shy of the warning track on a dead sprint to prevent the Eagles from taking the lead.
One inning later in the top of the seventh, Erickson Nichols jacked a bomb to right center, but Fajardo answered with a Sportscenter-worthy grab of his own, crashing into the fence to take away a potential go-ahead home run for the last out of the inning.
“Credit to [N.C.] Central, I thought both teams played well. I thought they swung it well, I thought we had some really good at-bats,” Pollard said. “Both teams made some terrific plays defensively, both centerfielders made some unbelievable plays. It was just a really good baseball game.”
On the bump, Duke relied on a succession of relievers after Laskey exited following the second inning. Carey, Aaron Beasley, Matt Dockman, Eli Herrick and Thomas Girard combined to allow just the two runs in the sixth inning, of which only one was earned.
“[Matt] got us off the field, he got us through the start of the eighth. He pitched great, and Beasely pitched great. Eli Harris came in and did his job,” Pollard said. “I thought Jack had a really good first inning. I was really pleased with Adam. His stuff was good—I thought he was a victim of bad luck there in the first inning.”
The Blue Devils’ current four-game winning streak is their longest in more than a month, as the last time they strung together four consecutive wins came all the way back against Lehigh and Northwestern in late February. Prior to Friday’s win against Pittsburgh—the beginning of their current run—Duke had won just two of its previous twelve games. The Blue Devils will have the chance to continue their newfound momentum at home this weekend with a three-game series at Jack Coombs Field against Virginia Tech.
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