After inconsistent pitching plagued the Blue Devils last weekend against Boston College, it was a different story this time around.
Duke continued its three-week homestand this past weekend with a series victory against ACC foe Pittsburgh. The Blue Devils were anchored by a more settled-in pitching rotation, with their three weekend starters each posting arguably their best outings of the season.
Friday’s game featured junior ace Cooper Stinson, who fired seven innings of two-hit ball to go along with a career-high nine strikeouts. His sharp performance in combination with emerging star Henry Williams’ swing-and-miss stuff and Jack Carey’s road back to 100% health exemplified the strength and depth of the Blue Devils’ pitching staff. This all comes after the first few series of the year left fans wondering what Duke could possibly do to make up for the departure of star pitcher Bryce Jarvis.
After Stinson’s impressive Friday performance anchored the Blue Devils to a 3-1 win, Williams claimed his second straight victory in a blowout 8-1 win the next day. The sophomore tossed 6.0 innings of one-run ball and tallied a career-high 11 strikeouts.
“Saturday [is] your most important starter, because you're either trying to get back in the series or win a series," head coach Chris Pollard said. ".... Having a guy [like Williams] on Saturday can really be a shot in the arm when you’ve won on Friday night like we did.”
On top of the impressive afternoon from Williams, senior first baseman Chris Crabtree added some flair of his own when he crushed a 424-foot two-run home run in the fifth, shedding his batting gloves as he watched the ball soar over the right field wall. He finished the day a triple shy of the cycle, going 6-for-12 across the entire weekend with three runs batted in.
Duke (6-5, 3-3 in the ACC) led for most of Sunday, but Pittsburgh (7-3, 4-2) refused to let up. The Blue Devils spent the afternoon riding the bullpen as Carey continues to build his pitch count, with the junior recording season-highs of 3.2 innings and 80 pitches this time out. Despite three walks and two hit batters, Carey struck out a career-high seven, including four caught looking.
“I think Jack took a good step forward today, and I think he's in a position to go out and build off that next weekend,” Pollard said.
Carey has been on an increasing pitch count for his last three outings, and Pollard said he expects him to throw around 100 pitches next week against N.C. State.
The bullpen arms kept Duke’s slim lead in check until sophomore Marcus Johnson surrendered an eighth-inning two-run home run to the Panthers’ Nico Popa, who drove in three of Pittsburgh’s five runs on the day.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
The Blue Devil offense had plenty of missed opportunities to stretch out the lead Sunday, stranding the bases loaded in both the first and third innings. Duke finished a paltry 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position on the afternoon, with Pittsburgh’s bullpen shutting out the Blue Devils over the final 5.1 innings.
“We knew [Pittsburgh’s relievers] were good, we knew they were going to be able to kind of provide some shutdown innings and keep the game close,” Pollard said of his team’s struggles to push runs across. ”We had a couple of opportunities to separate a little better, to create a little bigger lead early with the bases loaded one out, and we came away both times with nothing, and that hurts late.”
Pollard also emphasized the strong play from his second and third basemen as of late: redshirt junior Will Hoyle and graduate student Erikson Nichols. The duo began the season on a platoon with sophomores Grant Norris and Graham Pauley mixed in, but Hoyle and Nichols have been on a tear to start the year, batting .296 and .444, respectively.
Duke hosts East Carolina Tuesday at 4 p.m. as the Blue Devils look to rebound from a Feb. 23 loss to the Pirates and split the season series.