Baseball is a game that can be won or lost on the outcome of a single play, whether that play comes late in the contest or in the first inning. And that could not have been more evident for Duke than this past weekend in Coral Gables, Fla.
The Blue Devils dropped two of three to No. 14 Miami to end their regular season, splitting the first two contests of the series Thursday and Friday before falling in the rubber match on Saturday. Misfortune plagued Duke in its two defeats, with the first example of this coming in the form of an unlucky bounce Thursday evening.
The Blue Devils entered the bottom of the sixth ahead 3-1, though back-to-back homers by the Hurricanes’ Alex Toral—his second dinger of the game—and Michael Amditis tied up the game at three apiece. Two innings later, a leadoff walk and sacrifice bunt put the leading run at second base with two down. Miami outfielder Jordan Lala dribbled a ball down the first-base line that appeared to be an easy out to end the inning, but the ball bounced off the bag and into right field, resulting in an RBI single that would prove to be the game-winner in a 4-3 victory for the Hurricanes.
“We kind of had some bad luck in that game,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “Two outs, two strikes, bottom of the eighth—ground ball looked like it was going to be a routine out at first base and the ball hit the bag...our first baseman was not able to corral it. And then we had our chances in the top of the ninth to tie it and we were not able to push a run across.”
Saturday afternoon saw another play that changed the course of the ball game, though this one came in the bottom of the first inning. With two on and two out, Miami infielder Raymond Gil knocked an RBI single to right. The Blue Devils then had catcher Adrian Del Castillo in a rundown between second and third with a chance to limit the damage at one run.
Instead, a throwing error by shortstop Ethan Murray allowed Del Castillo to score, and a JP Gates RBI-double later in the frame gifted Miami an early 3-0 advantage.
“The biggest play for me in the ballgame today was we had them in a rundown in the first with a chance to get off the field down 1-0—we did not handle that situation well,” Pollard said. “That put us [from] potentially making a pitch and getting off the field 0-0 or at worst getting off the field down 1-0 [to] down 3-0. I thought that was big.”
Duke (30-24, 15-15 in the ACC) would only total one run and four hits in the rubber match, eventually falling 5-1. Sophomore starter Chris McMahon was the star of the afternoon, tossing five innings of one-hit ball while striking out six.
“McMahon is a really good arm,” Pollard said. “I think he is going to be a first rounder this time next year. You do not want to spot a guy like that a three-run lead.”
It was not all a series of unfortunate events for the Blue Devils. In between their two tough defeats came one of the best offensive displays of the season on Friday, with Duke powering its way to a 12-3 victory to clinch a .500 conference record. Chris Crabtree did a lot of the damage with three hits and three RBIs, while Joey Loperfido and Kyle Gallagher added multi-hit games as well.
Furthermore, despite the series defeat, the Blue Devils did a solid job at handling a Miami offense that entered the weekend averaging over seven runs a game. Starters Ben Gross, Bill Chillari and Cooper Stinson allowed five earned runs across 10.1 innings, while the bullpen limited the Hurricanes (38-18, 18-12) to only four more over the remaining 14.2 frames.
“I think any team in this league would walk away from that feeling like we pitched well,” Pollard said. “And we did. So that is a positive that we can take into the [ACC] tournament.”
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Duke’s ACC tournament run will begin on Tuesday, with the Blue Devils receiving a No. 7 seed. Pollard’s squad will be joined by second-seeded Georgia Tech and 11th-seeded Notre Dame in Pool B, with the winner of that group advancing to the tournament semifinals next Saturday.
“It is a new season,” Pollard said. “I am proud of what we accomplished in the regular season...with all the injuries we have dealt with. It is a brand new season, so a chance to make a run here in the postseason.”