The last few weeks have been a rollercoaster, but the Blue Devils gave a glimpse of their earlier season form over the weekend.
Duke entered the series against Louisville riding a 1-8 stretch that sent the Blue Devils way off their throne at the top of the conference and nearly out of the national top 25. Friday’s game made it look like the unfortunate streak was likely to stay—at least up to Saturday afternoon. Louisville blanked No. 24 Duke, marking the Blue Devils' third time getting shutout in the last four games, as Duke’s offense managed to get only two runners to second base. Peyton St. George dropped her sixth straight game, head coach Marissa Young’s team lost its first game to a team with a below-.500 record and the Blue Devils were now victorious only once over the previous two weeks.
Then, boom. The fireworks exploded for Duke and the Blue Devil hitters seemingly all broke out of season-worst slumps during the same game.
“[Scoring early] has been the name of our game from the start, so just to get back to that and be able to score in multiple innings is really what we're looking for,” Young said.
Sunday’s game clinched Duke's first series win since its games against Syracuse, and it wasn't without drama.
Duke (30-10, 18-10 in the ACC) sprung out to a 4-0 lead entirely built by the two through five spots in the lineup, with senior Sydney Bolan driving in two and Jameson Kavel scoring twice. Bolan, typically a pinch-hitter, this time made it into the starting lineup at first base.
“[Bolan's] been successful and driving the ball, scoring runs for us, doing a really good job,” Young said.
Bolan wasn’t the only one in unfamiliar waters Sunday, as Kavel proved to be the Blue Devils’ secret weapon as a shortstop. Her defense was steady, and her batting throughout the weekend was as good as it gets, as she went 6-for-15 with three runs batted in.
“[Kavel] has incredible range at shortstop and can cover a lot of ground,” Young said, also hinting that the Blue Devils’ star may be playing some more infield down the road.
Despite Duke’s creative rearrangements on both sides of the ball, the 4-0 lead was not enough. A two-run homer in the fourth cut the lead in half, and with a runner on first with one out in the seventh inning, St. George had a pitch returned over the outfield fence to tie the game and send it to extras.
“Missing a pitch and giving up a home run is not what [St. George] wanted to do," Young said. "But she was able to stay in the fight with us so we were able to score that go-ahead run and then close it out.”
St. George did manage to keep Duke within striking distance, and the Blue Devils scored the series’ final run with two outs in the eighth inning off a Gisele Tapia dribbler to seal the 5-4 game and series win.
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“It was great to see us get back on track offensively and get some runs up on the board and I thought we played solid defense and had great pitching in the circle," Young said. "Really good to come out on top and take the series from Louisville."
In the second game Saturday, Duke jumped out to a 5-0 lead, only this time the margin would shrink down to one in the home half of the seventh inning. With pitcher Shelby Walters already done for the game and Butler in a jam, Young turned to her other ace, St. George, to close the game out.
“[St. George] started her career as a great reliever for us, and closing games out and being in these pressure situations is what she lives for,” Young said.
St. George came in with two outs and the tying run on second, and clinched the doubleheader sweep with a huge strikeout of Louisville’s Charley Butler, sealing the 5-4 win.
Earlier that day, the Blue Devils erupted for five runs in the third frame of the first doubleheader game, which was more runs than they had scored in any entire game since March 21. The offense put together a keep-the-line-moving kind of inning, but more impressively, all of the runs scored with two outs. The sudden parade of scoring initiated by Kavel catalyzed the eventual 9-1 run-rule win, as Duke’s offense chugged along with the added benefit of five Louisville fielding mishaps.
Senior pitcher Brianna Butler also saw her first action in two weeks, a sign that the pitching duties can be at least somewhat lifted from the shoulders of Walters and St. George. Walters, who started both Saturday games as well as Sunday’s game, was certainly more consistent than she had been over the last several weeks, as she held Louisville (16-20, 10-15) to only five hits across her 12.1 innings of work.
“She's almost 100% now from a health perspective,” Young said of Walters, who had been dealing with an abdominal strain. “She just continued to battle her way to the top and separate herself in the circle, and it’s been really good seeing her grit and determination.“
Now on a three-game win streak, Duke will be challenging Virginia Tech for the third seed in the ACC over the season’s final weeks. Up next for the Blue Devils is rival North Carolina, who will be looking to end a five-game losing streak when the two teams face off in Durham.