Duke came into this week looking for its first ACC championship in school history. Unfortunately in the ninth inning, it slipped out of its reach.
Georgia Tech first baseman Tristin English skied a fly ball that just skimmed off the left field wall and bounced past the glove of Kyle Gallagher for a walk off 5-4 win against the seventh seeded Blue Devils on Friday afternoon at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The second-seeded Yellow Jackets now move on to the semifinals of the tournament, where they will face the third seed N.C. State.
“I said ‘good job’ because I thought it was [a fly out],” head coach Chris Pollard said. “I thought that ball would land about the edge of the warning track. The ballpark played difficult today in left with the way it was pushing, and we’ve got to go for the catch there. I think even if Gallagher spins there with [Luke] Waddell at second. He’s going to score if the ball drops. We’ve got to go for the catch I thought it was the right play by Gallagher.”
Duke (31-25) did more of the same from its win over Notre Dame on Tuesday, scoring three runs in the first frame. Catcher Michael Rothenberg, who led the team with five RBIs against the Irish, drove in Kennie Taylor with a single on an 0-2 count and came around to score with Matt Mervis on a base knock from Chris Crabtree.
It didn’t take long for the Yellow Jackets to respond, as English crushed a two-run home run off the Bull in left field, winning a free steak and cutting the deficit to one. The Blue Devils plated another run in the third, but this time it was Kyle McCann, who blasted his team-leading 23rd home run for Georgia Tech over the seats and onto the right field concourse to tie the game at four.
“We’re a couple pitches there early in the ball game away from having a 4-0 lead,” Pollard said. “I thought that both pitches were pretty well executed pitches. The pitch to English, and certainly the pitch to McCann was a well executed 0-2 pitch. Those guys are just a handful. Both of them are having All-American seasons and they’re a big emphasis on why Georgia Tech is in this position.”
Ben Gross started off the game for Duke, and despite the two home runs that both came with two outs, pitched five strong innings against the Yellow Jackets, who averaged 11 runs per game when the two teams met for a three game series just two weeks ago in Durham. Pollard then turned to Matt Dockman and Thomas Girard, the two relievers from Tuesday who again delivered shutdown innings until the walk off hit to end the game.
After Georgia Tech (40-16) tied the game in the third, the two teams traded near scoring chances over the course of the next six innings. With two on in the top of the sixth, Blue Devil sophomore Wil Hoyle, filling in at shortstop for All-ACC freshman team honoree Ethan Murray, turned on a pitch with a full count that was just tracked down at the warning track in left field by Colin Hall. Then in the bottom half with runners on first and second for Georgia Tech, it was Kennie Taylor coming up with a diving catch in center field to keep the score even.
Things looked bleak again for the Duke in the bottom of the eight frame, as Hall led off with a double to right field. After Pollard came out for a quick visit to the mound however, the Blue Devils pulled out some trickery. Figuring that the next batter would try to bunt, Hoyle sprinted to second base looking for a throw over right before Girard made his move to the plate. Hall dove back to the bag and froze, and sure enough Austin Wilhite bunted. Girard was able to get a huge first out and keep the runner at second base, allowing Duke to get out of the inning unharmed.
“The reason I went out to the mound was because I wanted to put two plays on,” Pollard explained. “So we put a play on for the first pitch, and then depending on what happened with that, we had a play on for the very next pitch. I didn’t want to sign both in. We had a plan there and executed it pretty well.”
After scoring four runs on four hits through the first three innings, the Blue Devils could only muster up five for the rest of the game. R.J. Schreck led the team individually with two base knocks on the day.
“We faced some good arms,” Taylor emphasized. “Guys that came after Connor [Thomas] like [Luke] Bartnicki and English are really good arms and sometimes you just have to tip your cap to those pitchers. Sometimes we just have to take a little bit more advantage of our offense and staying in our zone.”
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The Blue Devils will now have to wait and see if the selection committee offers them a spot in the NCAA Tournament, with teams announced on Monday at noon. Most projections have Duke in the field as an at-large bid, and Pollard showed similar confidence in his team.
“I’m always going to tell you that I’m confident in our club and our ability to keep playing and have success,” Pollard said. “What gives me confidence even more so, is that if you look at all the projections from the folks who really know this game, they’ve had us comfortably a three seed for the last several weeks, and I think the way we played this week did nothing to ding that.”