When it rains, it pours.
After a gritty, mistake-filled Friday and Saturday of baseball, it was a perfect storm for the Blue Devils Sunday for the rubber match.
Head coach Chris Pollard and his squad hosted the Army Black Knights at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park for a three-game series to open up the season. The first two games were split at a game apiece, with Army eking out a 3-2 win Friday and No. 15 Duke walking it off Saturday for a 9-8 victory. Sunday marked the first time the Blue Devil squad played up to par, as Duke defeated Army 7-0.
“I thought we came out a little bit soft [Saturday] to be honest with you,” Pollard said Sunday. “We played a little bit timid and we got better as the game went on and I like the fact that we stayed in the fight. But today we came out and we played tough and we played aggressive.”
There was the usual amount of cobwebs for an opening weekend, but everything clicked in perfect harmony Sunday. The pitching outing from Cooper Stinson and offensive pop from catcher Michael Rothenberg and first baseman Matt Mervis undoubtedly stuck out from the eventful weekend.
“It’s going to be hard to keep him off the weekend [rotation] if he throws like that,” Pollard said. “Early in the year you’re looking for guys to make some statements and certainly that was a big statement by Cooper Stinson today….I thought the stuff was really live.”
Stinson went 5.2 innings on the bump, flirting with perfection until an infield single ended the hopes in the fifth inning. Despite his whole arsenal working, nothing was more important than his first pitch strike ratio. Out of the 19 batters faced, he threw 17 first pitch strikes, allowing the Norcross, Ga., native to flip his slider in on command and finish with six strikeouts on the day.
“I can wake up and throw that pitch for a strike any day of the week,” Stinson said.
The other half of the starting battery for the Blue Devils (2-1) began his season off on the right foot, too.
Rothenberg hit .429 on the weekend, showing his swing is locked in and ready to handle the production that is expected out of one’s number three batter. His weekend was highlighted by a wall scraping home run to right field from the left side of the plate. Army pitcher Ray Bartolli fell behind 3-1 to the switch-hitting catcher, allowing Rothenberg to jump on a middle-in fastball and deliver the knockout punch to the Black Knights.
The guy who takes the field just 90 feet up the first base line from Rothenberg had the “Mervis” touch this weekend, with nearly all of his at bats resulting in golden outcomes. Mervis blasted a grand slam on Saturday afternoon that brought the Blue Devils within one run of the Black Knights, ultimately setting up the walk-off. After tallying four hits in the first two ball games, the co-captain did not get many pitches to hit Sunday, as he drew three more walks to raise his on-base percentage to a whopping .600.
“That’s a tough three and four combination right there,” Pollard said. “That’s a tough punch right there in the middle of the lineup for us right now.”
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The Black Knights (1-2) made for a rough first game of the Duke season, as pitcher Logan Smith dazzled for seven scoreless innings and ten strikeouts on Friday night. The Army hitters made for a tough out in the first two games as well, totaling 18 hits in two games.
After a sloppy start to the weekend, Duke seems to be settling in nicely to its No. 15 rank. While there are still some serious lingering questions, there is no doubt that this Blue Devil team is a legitimate contender. Tuesday will be a true test of the depth of its pitching staff as it will host a midweek contest with the College of William and Mary.