April 3, Duke lost 6-1 to then-No. 11 East Carolina to drop below .500 and suffer its fourth consecutive loss as part of a dismal 2-10 stretch.
Sunday night, nearly two months to the day since hitting rock bottom, the Blue Devils advanced to the super regionals for the second year in a row.
Duke knocked off Texas A&M 4-1, defeating the Aggies for the second time in three days to win the Morgantown, W.Va., regional. Kyle Gallagher led the charge for the Blue Devils, finishing the evening with three hits and four RBIs as the pitching staff pieced together another gem of a performance, a day after Bryce Jarvis tossed eight scoreless innings against West Virginia.
"I kept telling our guys as we prepared to come here to really embrace the joy in being here. This was the reward for them for staying in the fight through what has been a difficult and trying season at times for us. Having to go through the setbacks and injuries and getting off to a really slow start in the ACC, these guys had to stay really tough and resilient, and because of that they were in a position to pull off something really great this weekend" said Duke head coach Chris Pollard. "Pride doesn’t do a service to how I feel right now about these guys. They deserve this and they earned it."
With a super regional berth on the line, Pollard stuck with lefty Matt Dockman to close out the game in the top of the ninth. Leading by three and with the bottom third of the Texas A&M lineup due up, Dockman got two quick outs on a grounder and popup to start the inning, bringing up Ty Condel as the Aggies’ last hope. Dockman started him off with two fast strikes and then finished him off with an off-speed pitch to send the Blue Devils into the next round and erase any chance for A&M's second comeback of the day after the Aggies walked off the Mountaineers on a grand slam earlier in the afternoon.
"We were watching the [West Virginia] game earlier today, but we had the coolest customer on the hill in Matt Dockman," Gallagher said. "When he’s on the hill there’s no emotion, he’s locked in the entire time. I wasn’t worried with him out there."
Gallagher, a former backup quarterback at Cornell, got things started in the bottom of the first for Duke (34-25), sending a fastball over the plate into a crowd of his jubilant teammates in the right field bullpen for a three-run home run to give the Blue Devils the early lead.
In the top of the second, the Aggies (39-23-1) looked like they’d get a quick run back after Mikey Hoehner got things started with a leadoff double and advanced to third on a wild pitch. However, Duke starter Bill Chillari induced consecutive ground balls to Erickson Nichols at third base, and when Hoehner broke for the dish on the second Nichols easily threw him out to end the threat.
The following inning, Chillari couldn’t escape another jam after Bryce Blaum—Texas A&M’s walk-off hero against West Virginia—led off with a double and made it to third following a bunt single. The next batter, Hunter Coleman, hit a sacrifice fly to put the Aggies on the board.
Gallagher answered back for Duke in the home half of the inning, however, lining a two-out double off the top of the wall in left field to score Taylor and bring the Blue Devil lead back to three. Gallagher was virtually the only Duke player to have success against Chandler Jozwiak in the early going, as the Texas A&M starter managed to strike out a staggering 12 batters in five innings, despite giving up four runs.
Chillari also gave a strong start for Duke, at one point setting down seven batters in a row and giving up one run in just under five innings of work. After he exited in the fifth inning, reliever Jack Carey came in and picked up where Chillari left off, throwing 2 1/3 innings of scoreless ball himself to preserve the lead through seven innings. As a whole, the Blue Devils were sensational on the mound across the weekend, giving up just six runs across three games and one in their final 18 innings of work.
"The entire back end of the bullpen is all new to the roles they are in. Bill Chillari moved from the midweek to the weekend, Jarvis moved from the pen to a starting role, all the guys in the back of the bullpen are filling new roles," Pollard said. "Every guy with this staff has had to step up into a different and in most cases challenging role, so credit to them but also to the way coach [Dusty] Blake has prepared them for success."
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Duke threatened again in the home half of the seventh, but an unlucky break cost it a scoring chance in a rundown between third and home and sent the game into the eighth inning with the Blue Devils still ahead 4-1. Dockman entered the game in the top of the eighth and delivered a shut-down inning to keep the lead at three and tamp out another chance for more late-inning magic from Texas A&M, just a few hours after the Aggies scored ten runs in the final three innings against West Virginia.
"I’m still trying to process it. It feels a bit surreal right now. We said to our guys on Selection Monday that once you’re in you’ve got a chance, and anything can happen," Pollard said. "You bust your tail all year to get into this field of 64 because once you get in anything can happen."
With Sunday's win, Duke will advance to take on Vanderbilt in Nashville after the Commodores eliminated Indiana State to win their home regional.