NASHVILLE, Tenn.— Few gave them a chance in the regional, where they swept through Morgantown, W.Va., with three comfortable victories. And even fewer gave them a chance coming into Nashville, facing off against what some call the best team in the country.
Maybe it’s time to start giving the Blue Devils a chance.
After rain and lightning delayed the start time for more than three hours, Duke rolled past No. 2 overall seed Vanderbilt in the opener of its best-of-three super regional 18-5 at Hawkins Field Friday. A 10-run eighth put the game to bed for the Blue Devils, whose 18 total runs tied for the second highest NCAA tournament total in program history. Duke is now just one win away from a trip to Omaha and the program’s first College World Series appearance since 1961.
“Everything that’s happened since our name popped up on Selection Monday is a bonus,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “I called it earlier today, I said it was the ‘Reward Tour’—meaning that this whole experience, this whole journey from Morgantown to Nashville is their reward for staying in the fight all season.”
With the Blue Devils holding a narrow 3-2 edge in the top of the third inning, Duke once again turned to left fielder Kyle Gallagher to provide a spark.
Second baseman Joey Loperfido singled to lead off the frame, with first baseman Matt Mervis drawing a walk two at-bats later. Michael Rothenberg followed suit with an RBI single to center field before Gallagher provided the fireworks of the evening, smashing a three-run bomb to center field to extend the Blue Devil lead to four.
Gallagher's home run came just five days after his three-run shot in Sunday's regional final pushed Duke to its second consecutive super regional.
Ben Gross took the hill and allowed five earned runs in 5 1/3 innings of work, striking out seven and walking five. At the plate, eight Blue Devils reached base at least twice as Duke (35-25) pounced for seven runs—five earned—on Commodore starter Drake Fellows over the first four innings of the ball game.
But in the bottom of the sixth and the Blue Devils’ lead at 7-4, it looked like the momentum was starting to turn in Vanderbilt’s favor. Gross walked second baseman Harrison Ray before catcher Ty Duvall singled to put runners on the corners and nobody out. The right-handed starter would promptly punch out first baseman Julio Infante for the first out of the frame, but the next two batters due up came in the form of arguably the best offensive duo in the country—third baseman Austin Martin and right fielder JJ Bleday.
At that point, Pollard decided to go to the bullpen, bringing in Matt Dockman to try and pitch out of the jam. The sophomore southpaw would allow Martin to bring one run in with a sacrifice fly to left, but followed it up by striking out Bleday to keep Duke’s advantage at two.
“I know that [Gross] really wanted to stay in the game right there when Martin came back up,” Pollard said. “He wanted to keep the baseball. It’s hard to take the baseball away from the fifth-year senior in that kind of spot...we felt like fourth time through it was important to give a different look.”
Martin—who entered the game batting .414—and Bleday—who led the nation with 26 home runs and was selected fourth overall in Monday’s MLB Draft—finished the evening with a combined three hits but no extra-base hits. And in the end, the Commodores (52-11) just couldn’t get that big hit when they needed it most, leaving 10 runners on base in the defeat.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
“That’s all Coach [Dusty] Blake, our pitching coach,” Pollard said. “He came into it with a terrific gameplan and I thought we executed really well. We were able to spin guys around there going fourth time through the lineup.”
After playing the role of visitor in front of an electric crowd in the Morgantown regional—specifically in its matchup against No. 15 West Virginia—Duke faced a similar set of passionate home fans throughout its opener in Nashville. Taunting, yelling and whistling were rampant, though the Blue Devils never let any of it get to them, staying focused on the task at hand. A surprisingly large Duke faithful behind the visiting dugout also helped in the matter.
Following the third inning, the Blue Devils added insurance runs in the fourth and seventh to widen their lead. But it was the 10-run eighth inning that would lick the stamp on the statement victory.
And by midnight, nearly the only fans remaining were the sea of royal blue behind the Blue Devil dugout.
“Our crowd was awesome tonight,” Pollard said. “Our folks have been great and I could hear the noise coming over the top of our dugout. And our guys absolutely felt that. That was a big shot in the arm to this team there’s no question about it.”
Now, Duke needs just one more win to secure a berth to the College World Series, its first opportunity for that coveted victory coming tomorrow at 9 p.m.
“Just get it done,” Loperfido said regarding what the Blue Devils need to do to finish off the series. “We know what it’s going to take and it’s more of what you saw tonight. We feel prepared, we feel confident, we’re just going to play loose and give it a shot.”