It’s tough to top what Ben Gross did in his seven-inning, one-run effort Friday afternoon against Texas A&M. But Saturday night, Bryce Jarvis did just that.
Led by a magical outing from the sophomore right hander, the Blue Devils pushed past No. 15 West Virginia 4-0 for their second upset in as many days, clinching a spot in the regional final. Jarvis shut out the Mountaineers in eight innings of work, tossing 126 pitches and striking out a career-high 11 in the process.
What made the Franklin, Tenn., native’s performance even more impressive was his ability to stay poised in front of a rowdy home crowd. Over 4,000 fans packed into Monongalia County Ballpark in Morgantown, W.Va., to see their hometown Mountaineers, one of the most electric environments Duke has been a part of this season.
“I’d like to say it’s kind of fun,” designated hitter Chris Crabtree said in the postgame press conference. “You make it what it is. You hear a few jokes and they’re pretty good sometimes—you smile, you laugh at it. Just keep it light. Don’t take it too serious.”
Despite the result, Jarvis was not heralded as the star pitcher to look out for coming into the matchup. Rather, that title belonged to West Virginia junior Alek Manoah. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound righty and Big 12 Pitcher of the Year is projected to be a first-round pick in Monday’s MLB Draft, someone Mountaineer head coach Randy Mazey specifically held out for this Saturday night contest.
But the Blue Devils (31-25) struck Manoah early, putting two runs on the board in the bottom of the first. First baseman Matt Mervis started off the rally with a two-out double, before catcher Michael Rothenberg crushed a 96 mile-per-hour fastball to dead center for an RBI triple. Two batters later, a wild pitch gifted Duke its second run of the ball game.
“I thought it was a great job with two outs by Mervis and Rothenberg,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “Mervis gave us a tremendous at-bat right there with two outs to extend the inning after Manoah was really dominant the first two batters and so I thought that was huge at the time. I thought just extending the inning was a small victory because we were very conscious of trying to grind Manoah’s pitch count as much as we could. We knew he’s been really good at getting deep into ball games.”
But that wouldn’t be all, as the Blue Devils struck again in a wild bottom of the third. Three walks loaded the bases with two outs for third baseman Erikson Nichols, who sent a check-swing chopper to the mound. Manoah fielded the ball cleanly before firing home to catcher Ian Gonzalez, who appeared to straddle the plate with his feet before moving barely in time for the force out.
The umpires initially called a sliding Joey Loperfido out to end the inning and keep the score at 2-0 in Duke’s favor. But upon further review—and much to the anger of the passionate home fans as well as Mazey, who was promptly ejected—they concluded Loperfido had reached the plate just before Gonzalez, stretching the Blue Devils’ advantage to 3-0 and extending the inning.
“Honestly I thought when the play happened that Loperfido was out,” Pollard said. “But I thought it was close enough, and the way replay works [is] any play at the plate is not charged to the team or the coach. So you’ve got two times that you can...initiate a challenge, but any time there’s a play at the plate that is an automatic review if requested. So, even though it appeared from my angle that Loperfido was out, I felt like we had nothing to lose by sending that to challenge.”
Crabtree followed the long delay up with an RBI single to center, plating Duke’s fourth and final run of the ball game before Rothenberg was thrown out at home to end the frame—this one not close enough to warrant another overturned call, although it went to review.
Manoah, in potentially the last start of his collegiate career, would finish the evening with four earned runs over six innings, walking four and striking out nine.
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And with a 4-0 edge entering the top of the ninth, Pollard called upon closer Thomas Girard to finish off what he couldn’t the night prior. Just over 24 hours earlier, Girard came in with an 8-2 lead before surrendering three runs and forcing Matt Dockman to clean up his mess and shut the door. But this time around, the sophomore righty wouldn’t need a teammate to bail him out.
Girard required just nine pitches to finish off West Virginia (38-21), throwing eight of them for strikes and punching out two.
“We preach process,” Pollard said. “We preach next-pitch mentality. We talk all the time about being where your feet are and the only way you can do what [Girard] did tonight is to be in the moment. If you have any part of you that’s still worried about, still fretting about yesterday you can’t go out and do what he did. He’s a perfect example of why our kids play with process.”
The Blue Devils now move on to the regional final, where they will face off against the winner of West Virginia vs. Texas A&M Sunday at 6 p.m. Now 2-0 in the region, Duke will get to play two more games if necessary Sunday and then Monday, needing to win only one of those to secure a second consecutive super regional appearance.