How do you ignite a struggling baseball team composed of college students? All you need is a little taste of popular culture.
Country-rap mashup “Old Town Road” accompanied designated hitter Matt Mervis to the plate in this weekend’s series against Pittsburgh, where he mashed up Panther pitches at will.
Mervis let the horses loose this weekend, driving in the go-ahead run in the first leg of Saturday’s doubleheader, and then recording four more RBIs, smacking a dinger and scoring the winning run Sunday. The 6-foot-4 junior’s effort led Duke to a three-game sweep of the Panthers at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, breaking the Blue Devils’ three-series losing streak.
“[Mervis] is one of our top OPS guys right now,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “He has been a huge shot in the arm for us ever since being inserted into the lineup at Virginia. Now, we’re able to [play him at designated hitter] instead of having to play him at third. What great at-bats today.”
Second baseman Joey Loperfido, who returned to action April 3 for the first time since Feb. 23, played the late-game hero this weekend. His two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning clinched the series for Duke Saturday night, and Loperfido walked it off Sunday with a base hit in the bottom of the 10th.
“Having Joey back strengthens our defense and gives us a tremendous athlete at the top of the lineup and a great competitor,” Pollard said. “He is also one of our best leaders, so we have that leadership factor when he’s out on the field.”
Graduate right-hander Ben Gross dominated the Panthers (8-22, 2-13 in the ACC) in the first leg Saturday, allowing only two hits and tallying 10 strikeouts in seven shutout innings. An RBI single from Mervis and an RBI triple from right fielder Chase Cheek were all the scoring the Blue Devils (17-15, 6-9) could muster up in that first game. It was enough, though, as Thomas Girard managed to hold Pitt scoreless in the final two frames in a 2-0 victory for the Blue Devils.
The second game of the day was much more suspenseful. Pitt had a 5-4 lead after six innings, but Loperfido sent a ball into the right field stands to give Duke a 6-5 lead , which Bryce Jarvis held for the save, stranding a man on third to end the game.
Sunday’s game showcased the Blue Devils’ resilience. Freshman right hander Cooper Stinson struggled on the mound, especially in the third inning. Pitt loaded the bases, which prompted Pollard to remove Stinson, marking his second-shortest start of the season.
Hunter Davis, who replaced Stinson, hit designated hitter Kyle Hess in the leg on his first pitch, scoring one, and an errant throw on a potential double play allowed another run to score. Only a diving stop and hurl to first from Duke third baseman Erikson Nichols ended a disastrous inning.
Panther starter Christian Camacho left early clutching his elbow, and he was replaced by Chris Gomez. Then, Mervis walked up to the plate and crushed a ball off the top of the left field wall for a two-run double. A passed ball let Mervis take third, and another passed ball let Mervis score. With that run, the Blue Devils took a 3-2 lead—their first of the game.
Jarvis, pitching for the second time in two days, gave up three runs in the fifth inning. An RBI single from Pittsburgh second baseman Luca Lotito and a two-run double from first baseman Bryce O’Farrell gave the Panthers a 5-3 lead.
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“[The doubleheader] put a big strain on us,” Pollard said. “That shortened, compressed series puts a lot of pressure on you from a pitching standpoint. We had to really go further with some guys than we would have liked to.”
It didn’t stay that way for long. Cheek’s single to center drove in Loperfido, who was hit by a pitch to get on base. After left fielder Kyle Gallagher walked, Nichols doubled down the left field line, scoring Cheek and Gallagher and giving Duke back the lead at 6-5. O’Farrell bungled a chopper off the bat of—who else—Mervis, letting Nichols score.
But it still wasn’t over. Jarvis gave up two homers that tied the game up at nine apiece, but Mervis scored the winning run on Loperfido’s walk-off single in the bottom of the tenth to close it out at 10-9.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Pollard said. “They had to really work to get it. Pitt played exceptionally tough baseball. We were fortunate, stayed in the fight and got the sweep.”
Duke will head battle crosstown rival N.C. Central Tuesday at the Durham Athletic Park at 6 p.m.