For a Duke team opening up the postseason at one of its own fields, it certainly seemed to know how to find home—a lot.
The seventh-seeded Blue Devils took advantage of inconsistent Notre Dame pitching and put up runs in an assertive first two innings to defeat the eleventh-seeded Fighting Irish 10-6 Tuesday night on the opening day of the ACC tournament at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Duke was powered by a Mike Rothenberg grand slam in the first inning, leading them to their third straight opening game victory since the tournament moved to pool play in 2017.
“Plain and simple, I'm incredibly proud of our team," Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. "We had a tough fourth and fifth inning there, and credit Notre Dame. We got up; they didn't go way. They kept chipping their way back in the baseball game. We knew they were very offensive and capable of scoring runs in bunches."
Coming into the week, most pundits projected the Blue Devils to sneak in the NCAA Tournament’s field of 64 as an at-large bid, but losses in seven of their last nine games over the final two weeks of the regular season might have put a little more importance on winning games this week in Durham.
Tuesday was far from a pitcher’s duel with neither starter making it past the fourth inning, however Duke received a huge boost from its bullpen with Thomas Girard who picked up the save after 2 2/3 innings of work and six strikeouts, as well as working his way out of multiple sticky situations. The game also did not feature a 1-2-3 inning, with each team putting a baserunner on in each frame. Fighting Irish starter Cameron Junker struggled for a second straight start with five walks given up.
Duke (31-24) wasted no time putting runs on the board early, as after a Kennie Taylor single and two walks, catcher Mike Rothenberg cranked a 1-0 pitch to right center for a grand slam, his team-leading tenth home run of the season. Then in the second, the Blue Devils loaded the bases again and a passed ball scored two more.
“First pitch slider I was able to lay off, and then I knew he was going to try to get back in the zone with a fastball,” Rothenberg said. “He just kind of left it over the middle, and I knew if I was just able to stay loose with my hands with my pre-pitch process, I knew I was able to get a good swing off and that’s what I did.”
After taking a commanding 6-1 lead after the second inning, Duke failed to keep its momentum going in the following innings. Once the fifth frame rolled around, Notre Dame had cut its deficit to one.
Notre Dame (24-29) was plagued by subpar control from its pitchers all night with 12 walks given up to the Blue Devils, almost triple its season average. The Fighting Irish also shot themselves in the foot with three errors, including a botched ground ball by first baseman Daniel Jung in the bottom of the fifth that let Duke grab back some momentum and keep its distance.
“We talked in our pregame meeting about the fact that Junker, who is a really good arm, in his previous start against Boston College had lost fastball command and had struggle to execute his fastball for strikes,” Pollard said. “So we talked in our pregame meeting about going up there and trying to be in a really small zone and if he showed any signs of not having fastball command, we were going to take.”
A scary moment occurred in the bottom of the fourth when Notre Dame pitcher Andrew Belcik lost control of a pitch that caught Duke shortstop Ethan Murray in his face. Murray, who was named to the ACC’s All-Freshman Team on Monday, was on the ground for a few minutes before leaving the field under his own power with a towel covering his face.
“And then we have the injury. It was clear to me that it affected our team,” Pollard said. “I think it affected our team emotionally. We got on our heels a little bit, and credit Notre Dame, they were in a position to take advantage of that. I thought we did a great job regrouping.”
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With Murray out, the Blue Devils needed a capable replacement, and reserve Wil Hoyle, who came into the game with zero career RBIs, did not disappoint. The Durham native drew two walks, including one with the bases loaded, and made the defensive plays necessary to hold Notre Dame’s rally in check.
“I think Wil Hoyle has had a really great next man up mentality throughout this year,” senior captain Kennie Taylor said. “Every time he’s out on the field, taking audio or taking balls in batting practice, he always takes it as if he was a starter, and I think that mentality really showed today.”
After the Hoyle base on balls to push the lead back to two, Rothenberg picked up his fifth RBI of the night on a sac fly and Taylor scored on another Fighting Irish error to put the Blue Devils up comfortably 10-6.
Notre Dame threatened again in the eighth, loading the bases with one out, but Girard stepped up big, striking out the next two batters, including the hot hand Eric Gilgenbach, to get Duke out of the inning.
The Blue Devils will wrap up pool play on Friday at 11 a.m. against No. 2 seed Georgia Tech, likely needing a win to advance to the tournament semifinals. The Yellow Jackets were in Durham two weeks ago, taking two out of three against Duke, while putting up an average of 11 runs per game.