At 7:02 pm, Shelby Walters was in the dugout with five no-hit innings under her belt, the game still scoreless. By 7:09 pm, Shelby Walters had recorded the first no-hitter in Blue Devil history.
No. 20 Duke erupted in the bottom of the fifth inning Thursday night to the tune of eight runs, with pinch-hitter Sydney Bolan walking off the 8-0 run rule win against N.C. Central with an opposite field home run. Naturally, the Blue Devils screamed out of the dugout to celebrate. But unlike for a typical walk-off home run, their focus quickly turned away from the batter who just cliched the victory, and toward a bewildered Walters.
“I wasn't really fully aware that it was happening, and then just literally 24 other girls are just like, ‘Oh my god, you just threw a no-hitter!’ and I'm like, ‘Oh whoa, whoa, okay sorry wait. I'm a little overwhelmed right now,’” Walters said. “I think, maybe the second inning, I was just like, 'Okay, things are going well,' and then after that, I don't really remember much. I'm always kidding with [head coach Marissa Young] that all my good games, I'm basically blacking out in the game, like I don't really know what's going on. So, maybe by the second inning I was like, 'Okay, things are rolling, things are good. [The umpire] has a good strike zone, defense looks good. You know, bats will pick up.' And by that point, I was like, 'Well, okay,' and then, you know, the rest is history.”
“It really caught her by surprise, but couldn't be more proud of Shelby,” Young added. “She's worked so hard this year to be ready for moments like this, and I'm just glad to see her dominating in the way she has the beginning of the season.”
The accolade didn’t just come as a shock to Walters. It came as a shock to Young herself, and probably everyone else watching, too. Through the first four innings, Duke (14-1) was held to just two hits by N.C. Central (0-10) southpaw Kiara Hurley, coming closest to breaking the scoreless tie in a couple of runner-on-second-one-out instances and one bases-loaded-two-outs state. But nothing was chaining.
Not that it mattered to Walters. Each of her pitches were at their best throughout the night, and just a first-inning hit batsman was the lone mark standing between her and perfection. She’s never been a strikeout artist, whiffing just three Eagles, but strikes are certainly overrated when you can induce seven groundouts, a pop out and a foul out.
Softball is a game of excruciatingly slow development and precipitately instantaneous actions. For four innings, the two-seamer, the changeup, the curveball could be improving, until suddenly a couple fastballs don’t run enough and stay in the down-and-in power zone to a couple of righties.
Which is how Walters nearly allowed two hits to lead off the fifth, except centerfielder Jameson Kavel got excellent jumps on both balls to subjugate the abrupt panic of hard contact to the routine tedium of fly outs.
“Kavel’s literally just so fast in the outfield and she just tracks [fly balls] down,” Walters said. “I'm not really worried about the defense. I know that they've got my back, so I'm not afraid to throw one if I need to.”
That Walters spent so much of the night immersed in the humdrum of America’s Pastime could not have contrasted more with how she began the evening. Whereas Bryce Jarvis was loose in the warmups before his perfect game last year, Walters was as jittery as a june bug in a hen house.
“I was talking to [catcher Kelly Torres], actually, before the game…and I was like, ‘I'm like so hyper right now, like I don't know why,’" Walters said. “So we were like kind of meditating in the bullpen before, so I don't know if that had anything to do with [the no-hitter]. And I might just adopt it now into the bullpens, doing a little meditating before.”
A groundout followed that sequence of fly balls in the top of the fifth, and Duke came up in the bottom half of the inning praying for run support, any run support, to reward Walters’ immaculate performance. What followed was a drop-bunt single, a single to left, a single up the middle, consecutive successful suicide squeezes with runners safe at both home and first, a drag-bunt single, a bases-clearing double and, finally, Bolan’s walk-off.
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“[Walters has] really been on fire since the start of the season,” Young said. “And honestly, no different than any other start. But I know she loves the big moments, and playing at home, on TV tonight, definitely lit a fire in her, and she was ready to shine.”
In a game associated with lazy Sunday afternoons and summers that stretch past the skyline, the time given within the game to appreciate the possibility of Walters’ accomplishment lasted all of seven minutes. The ACC Network announcers didn’t even realize she’d pitched a no-hitter until several minutes after Bolan crossed home plate.
“I didn't know it was the first [no hitter in Duke history]—first one?!” Walters said. “And then afterwards, Coach is like, ‘It's literally like the. First. One. Like, ever.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, shoot.' That's so exciting. I can't think of anything more honoring. I'm just honored to be remembered for something.”
The Blue Devils get a couple days off before hosting UConn Sunday.