Last year, Duke made it out of an NCAA regional for the first time since the format’s introduction in 1975. And Friday night, the Blue Devils took one step closer to doing it again.
Duke defeated Texas A&M 8-5 in the team’s first matchup of the Morgantown regional in Morgantown, W.Va., anchored by a stellar performance from starter Ben Gross. The graduate student out of Princeton tossed seven innings of one-run ball, striking out five and allowing only four hits.
“[Ben Gross] saved our season,” head coach Chris Pollard said in the postgame press conference. “We would not be here if it was not for Ben Gross. We had some injuries as well-documented, we were heading into week three of ACC play and we did not know who was going to throw on Friday night for us.
“[Gross] has taken the ball every Friday night [since] and given this club a chance to win baseball games and had he not stepped in and performed the way we did over the second half of the season there is no chance that we are here having this conversation right now.”
The Blue Devils offense, meanwhile, was powered by two three-run homers off the bats of third baseman Erikson Nichols and designated hitter Rudy Maxwell. Maxwell’s blast, which came after the freshman pinch-hit for Chris Crabtree in the top of the eighth, stretched Duke’s lead to 8-1 entering the bottom of the ninth.
With closer Thomas Girard, who sports a 2.20 ERA on the year, coming in to close the door, one would think a Blue Devil victory would be virtually sealed.
But Texas A&M (37-22-1) was not going to go down without a fight. The rally started with a hit batter and a walk, before centerfielder Zach Deloach notched an RBI single to right. Girard would hit another batter to load the bases with one out, with a wild pitch and passed ball scoring two more runs. Ty Coleman followed that frenzy up with an RBI single to center, cutting Duke’s edge to 8-5. And at that point, Pollard knew it was time for Matt Dockman.
“[Dockman] has earned a reputation in our program and on our team for being comfortable coming in and kind of cleaning up the mess,” Pollard said. “He is the guy above anybody else on our staff that we have confidence to put him in with runners on base.”
Dockman did just that, pitching against the top of Texas A&M’s order and forcing shortstop Braden Shewmake and second baseman Bryce Blaum to ground out to end the game.
The beginning of Friday’s contest id not contain nearly as much offense as those latter innings. John Doxakis took the hill to start the game for the Aggies, and for the first four frames looked every bit of a starter who finished the regular season fourth in the SEC with a 1.84 ERA.
Both teams were scoreless through three innings, with the only real threat coming in the bottom of the first against Gross. Shewmake led off the frame with a single and stole second before Blaum walked in the following at-bat. Designated hitter Cam Blake then moved the runners over with a sacrifice to third, putting men at first and second with one out.
But Gross would pull himself together, striking out two consecutive Aggies to keep the game knotted at zeros.
“It was just one pitch at a time,” Gross said. “You cannot look ahead to what if this happens what if that happens. It is just execute pitch one and go from there, execute pitch two and then I struck out the first guy and from there it was just do the exact same thing over and over again.”
Three innings later, in the top of the fourth, the Blue Devils (32-21) finally managed to break the scoreless tie. First baseman Matt Mervis led off the frame with a groundout before catcher Michael Rothenberg and left fielder Kyle Gallagher notched two straight singles to put two men on and one out for Nichols.
And on just the second pitch of the at-bat, Nichols smashed a bomb to left that handed Duke the lead for good.
“You got a guy in Erikson Nichols who embodies everything that is right about a Duke student athlete,” Pollard said. “He is premed, he is a tremendous leader in our program, he is a guy who waited patiently for his opportunity. [Nichols] had to wait behind a really good player in front of him for two years and now as a junior has stepped in and made the most of his opportunity as an everyday guy. Huge hit—could not happen to a better person on our team.”
Nichols finished the evening with three hits, with Gallagher adding a trio of hits as well.
Next, the Blue Devils will take on the host team, No. 15 seed West Virginia, Saturday at 7 p.m. Another win would guarantee Duke a spot in the regional final, keeping the team’s hopes of a second consecutive super regional appearance alive.
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