In 2019, Duke shut out its opponents six times in 62 games. This year, it’s taken the Blue Devils just 12 games to match that total.
No. 16 Duke blanked Campbell 5-0 Wednesday evening at Durham Bulls Athletic Park behind another strong opener from senior Bill Chillari and a succession of dominant relievers. Junior Michael Rothenberg's third-inning grand slam provided all the offense the Blue Devils needed as they rebounded from a tough loss Sunday to Iowa.
“I thought Bill Chillari really set a tone for [stranding runners]," head coach Chris Pollard said. "He had to make some big pitches with runners on early when we didn’t have any lead, any cushion, and he just executed. I felt like we got stronger on the mound as the game went.”
Chillari picked up his third win of the season and continued his scoreless innings streak to eight without allowing a run to begin the 2020 campaign. He was not the only Blue Devil to continue such a streak Wednesday night, as redshirt freshman Jimmy Loper picked up his sixth consecutive scoreless frame to open the year in his first season on the mound for Duke (10-2). Loper retired the side in order in the seventh inning, needing just 14 pitches to strike out all three batters he faced.
“I’ve been so impressed going back all the way to the fall with the way Loper has thrown,” Pollard said. “I thought tonight was his best inning so far.”
In addition to Chillari and Loper, Josh Nifong, Eli Herrick and Thomas Girard rounded out the quintet of Blue Devil pitchers enlisted for the midweek contest. Nifong was particularly impressive, settling down after giving up two hits in his first inning on the bump to retire seven consecutive batters to close out his three innings of work. And even more importantly, he and Chillari ensured that none of Duke’s main relief options were overtaxed against Campbell (5-7) ahead of the Blue Devils' weekend series against No. 14 Florida State.
“The plan was tonight to not have Loper or [Matt] Dockman or Herrick or Girard throw more than one inning," Pollard said. "We wanted those guys to all be fresh and ready going into Friday night, and I think that was mission accomplished thanks to the job by Nifong. He threw exceptionally well in the middle innings for us.”
The pitching staff got a big bump of support in the third inning courtesy of Rothenberg, as usual. Through the first two innings, Campbell starter Fred Sisco held the Blue Devils in check, surrendering just one walk and one hit. He skirted around a leadoff bunt single in the third when the runner, Wil Hoyle, was cut down trying to swipe second. However, the next three runners all reached base, highlighted by an Ethan Murray double, to set the table for the heart of Duke’s lineup: Rothenberg and first baseman Matt Mervis.
As Chase Cheek jogged down to first base after being issued a four-pitch walk and Rothenberg stepped up to the plate with Mervis looming on deck, disaster felt imminent for Sisco. Sure enough, after watching a ball and a strike go by, the Duke catcher launched a 106-mile-per-hour missile over the right field wall, his second career grand slam.
Sisco settled back down and induced a pair of flyouts to end the inning, but on a day when baserunners were like mirages for the Fighting Camels, Rothenberg’s blast seemed to slam the door shut for the visitors. The Blue Devils tacked on another run in the eighth for good measure with four batters reaching base in a row before the Campbell bullpen finally pulled together to escape a bases-loaded, no-outs jam.
At the top of the lineup, Duke got a boost from Murray, who led off Wednesday with the Blue Devils’ typical leadoff man, junior Joey Loperfido, resting with an illness. Murray notched two hits and is beginning to see results at the plate after getting off to a frustrating start to the year. The sophomore shortstop has now notched a hit in four consecutive games, including back-to-back two-hit games.
“He’s had tough luck to this point, hit a lot of balls hard, not much to show for it," Pollard said. "He’s been frustrated with that and the message has been just keep doing what you’re doing, and he had balls starting to fall in for him tonight which is good. He’ll relax and just play now, which is all he’s needed to do all along.”
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With another solid midweek win in the bag, Duke can turn its attention to this weekend’s matchup against the Seminoles. The three-game set is the Blue Devils’ first conference series of the year and will be a good measuring stick for a team that has looked sharp so far this season but has yet to face a ranked opponent.
The first game in the series will be Friday at 4 p.m. at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, with two more games at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.