In a weekend of baseball that included a walk-off grand slam and 50 runs scored, it was an eighth-inning bunt play in the rubber match that ultimately tilted the series in Duke’s favor.
Although the 16th-ranked Blue Devils eked out an opening series victory, it wasn’t always pretty. After beating Coastal Carolina 12-4 Saturday afternoon in its season opener, Duke found itself on the wrong end of a walk-off grand slam Sunday in the second game of the weekend. Game 3 followed almost immediately, and after over four hours of sloppy baseball from both sides, a Rudy Maxwell sacrifice bunt and a Chris Davis RBI single allowed the Blue Devils to escape out of Conway, S.C., with a series win.
“I think it really showed me a lot of toughness…. I told our guys after this was over with—I’ve been a part of a lot of great wins at Duke, but I would put this one up against any of ‘em,” head coach Chris Pollard said of the team’s Game 3 victory.
It was an offensive barrage all weekend for Duke (2-1), but the best single-game performance has to go to graduate third baseman Erikson Nichols. After not seeing the field for either of the first two games, Nichols almost single-handedly willed the Blue Devils back into Game 3 after Coastal Carolina (1-2) had jumped out to an early 5-0 lead.
The New Jersey native racked up six RBIs and a home run in the contest, with his three-run blast in the top of the second inning jump-starting an otherwise stagnant Duke team.
“[Nichols is] a pro,” Pollard said. “He sat over there and watched the first two games, didn’t play in either of the first two games, and then got the start in the third game and comes out and has great at bats for us and offensively was a difference-maker.”
Outside of Nichols, an array of other Blue Devils—including Ethan Murray and RJ Schreck, to name a couple—proved that the preseason hype surrounding the juice of Duke’s lineup was true. What jumps out most about that lineup is depth, and not just from its leadoff to its nine hitter but also with the guys who may not play every day.
Pollard put the depth of his squad on full display this past weekend, utilizing three completely different lineups in each respective game.
“In a long two days, which is what this was, depth is important, and we really showcased that today,” Pollard said Sunday.
Prior to this season, there was quite a bit of buzz surrounding seniors Joey Loperfido and Michael Rothenberg, and deservedly so. But Duke managed to score at least seven runs in each game without major contributions from either of those two players, with the duo going a combined 4-for-19 from the plate over the weekend.
That’s certainly not a knock on Rothenberg nor Loperfido, who will be essential to this team’s success, but it more so indicates that this Blue Devil roster has considerably more offensive starpower than previous years.
However, this opening series also exposed a glaring issue that Duke needs to iron out: its pitching rotation. While several Blue Devils posted solid individual outings from the mound, the problem was that they often served as damage control after Coastal Carolina hung a lopsided number on the scoreboard.
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A perfect example was freshman Josh Allen’s save in the final game of the series. While Allen definitely made his case for a chance at Duke’s closer role, he entered the game after three walks by fellow freshman Nick Conte made for a far more dramatic ending than any Blue Devil fan would have liked.
“I told him afterwards, I am so proud of Josh Allen. He had a rocky fall. He had an up-and-down fall but stuck with it,” Pollard said. “[He] never wavered in his commitment to the process and it was really cool to see him be able to go out and have that kind of success in his first collegiate outing. I told him that’s an outing and that’s a moment that he’ll remember for the rest of his life.”
Another freshman, lefty Luke Fox, also made an impact this weekend, throwing three scoreless innings in the second game and showing the public why Pollard spoke so highly of him in the preseason.
“There’s no doubt there’s a bigger role for him down the road. Ever since we started workouts in the fall he’s shown us to be a guy that really understands process,” Pollard said. “He’s a very good process guy and he’s a really, really good competitor and he showed off both those things today.”
This weekend was the first test for the Duke pitching staff to fill the void left by Bryce Jarvis and Thomas Girard, who both departed for the pros. And although there were some positives for the Blue Devils to hang their hat on, there’s still a long ways to go to replicate the production of that aforementioned duo.
Duke will look to build off its strengths and patch up its weaknesses when it takes on No. 24 East Carolina Tuesday afternoon in Greenville, N.C.