NASHVILLE, Tenn.—It was fun while it lasted.
From the moment Vanderbilt leadoff batter Austin Martin sent Blue Devil starter Bill Chillari's second pitch of the afternoon over the center field fence, it was clear that the Commodores' SEC-leading offense would not be quieted again.
Duke’s magical NCAA tournament run and season came to a close Sunday, as the Blue Devils were blown out 13-2 at the hands of No. 2 Vanderbilt in the winner-take-all Game 3 of the super regional at Hawkins Field. The Commodores now head to the College World Series, their fourth trip to Omaha since 2011. A four-run first inning provided the spark Vanderbilt needed, chasing Chillari out of the game after only an inning of work and five earned runs.
“First and foremost congratulations to Vanderbilt on a historic season to date,” Duke head coach Chris Pollard said. “I said before the super regional started that I thought they were a historically good team, meaning I think they’re one of the best teams in college baseball in the last five or 10 years, and they certainly looked like that over the last two days. Absolutely have a team that can go out to Omaha and win it.
“I have tremendous respect for Coach [Tim] Corbin and his staff, the way they do things. I’ve said over the years they’re a blueprint for us and our program.”
Vanderbilt’s offensive outbreak was led by Martin—who finished the regular season hitting .414, sixth in the country—as the Jacksonville, Fla., native blasted two home runs and walked twice on the afternoon, driving in three, while Pat DeMarco added a dinger and three RBIs as well. Left fielder Stephen Scott and first baseman Julio Infante also added a home run apiece.
Attempting to follow up Kumar Rocker’s no-hitter is no easy task, but Commodores starter Mason Hickman did as good a job as anyone. The sophomore right-hander tossed four innings of two-run ball, striking out nine in the process. Two solo home runs from the Blue Devils’ Rudy Maxwell and Michael Rothenberg were the only blemishes on Hickman's statline.
After a pitchers' duel highlighted Saturday night, it didn’t take long for the scoring to begin this time around. Martin's leadoff shot set the tone, falling just out of the reach of a leaping Kennie Taylor. Taylor surprisingly returned to action Sunday after getting hit in the face by a Rocker fastball Saturday night.
“Once all the images showed up, that everything was all clear, I was all in to play in this game,” Taylor said. “I already missed one Game 3 of super regionals last year, and I wasn’t going to miss another one.”
The scoring didn’t stop there for the Commodores. After Chillari got right fielder JJ Bleday to groundout, continuing the slugger’s series-long slump, shortstop Ethan Paul reached on an infield single. The speedy senior then stole second and third before catcher Phillip Clarke drew a seven-pitch walk to put two men on for DeMarco.
The sophomore, who was robbed of a near home run Saturday by Blue Devils center fielder Damon Lux, blasted a shot over the Green Monster-esque left field wall to a roaring Hawkins Field crowd. They knew their team just got one swing closer to Omaha.
In the top of the second, catcher Michael Rothenberg laced a single to right to give Duke (35-27) its first base hit in over 40 hours. But the sophomore would stay on first base, as Hickman retired the following three Blue Devils in order. Duke hit 0-for-8 with runners on base and struck out 16 times, costly statistics in a do-or-die contest.
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"It's weird...we had such a good offensive approach on Friday night," Pollard said. "Today I don't know if going through [Rocker's dominance Saturday night] kind of put us in a funk a little bit, and you start to press...some guys had good at-bats, Rothenberg had really good at-bats, but there was too much swing-and-miss today and I think probably a little bit of that was still a funk from what we had to go through last night."
Chillari came in for the second inning, but walked the first batter he saw, prompting head coach Chris Pollard to take him out in favor of reliever Jack Carey. The switch didn’t help much, with Martin smashing his second dinger of the game and eighth of his season two at-bats later to stretch Vanderbilt’s lead to 6-0.
The third inning only saw the Commodores (54-11) widen their advantage. A Ty Duvall double and Infante single quickly added two more runs, chasing Carey from the contest as well in favor of left-hander Matt Dockman. Two batters later, a Bleday single brought Infante home, giving the SEC Player of the Year his first RBI of the series.
Duke scouted Bleday heavily coming into the weekend, presenting one of the more extreme shifts for the nation's home run leader when no runners were on—four outfielders and no infielders to the left of second base. The maneuver worked for the most part, with the No. 4 overall MLB-Draft selection finishing 4-for-13 over the series’ three contests, including zero extra-base hits.
Only a two-hour, 36-minute lightning delay in the bottom of the sixth could slow Vanderbilt's bats, as the Commodores would score just one run following the intermission. But the weather stoppage wasn’t in time to prevent Corbin’s squad from providing the offensive display most were expecting to see from the nation’s fifth-ranked offense coming into the series.
For the second consecutive season, the Blue Devils came just a game short from their first College World Series berth since 1961. But with two straight super regional appearances—the program's only such appearances in the 44 years the regional system has been in place—Pollard certainly has Duke headed in the right direction.
“Getting this close two years in a row should be a tremendous motivator to know how close we are to make that extra push to get [to the College World Series],” Pollard said. “It should be motivation for our coaching staff, it should be motivation for our returners, it should be motivation for our incoming players, it should be motivation for our administration.... For us getting to the College World Series, it’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story identified Vanderbilt's starter as Matt Hickman instead of Mason Hickman. The Chronicle regrets the error.