Duke softball's Achilles' heel shows in series loss to No. 14 Virginia Tech

Deja Davis has started in all 33 of Duke's games this season.
Deja Davis has started in all 33 of Duke's games this season.

Duke’s Achilles’ heel has been found, and Virginia Tech made sure to exploit it. 

The 22nd-ranked Blue Devils dropped three out of four games in their weekend series with the 14th-ranked Hokies, getting outscored by a total of seven runs and only leading for a total of two innings across the first three games of the series. Duke once again got more than a bit unlucky in RBI opportunities, batting 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position across the weekend. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech star pitcher Keely Rochard started three games in the series, helping lead a Hokie staff that held the Blue Devils to a .206 clip from the plate across the whole weekend.

“We talked a lot about just having fight and controlling the controllables,” Blue Devil head coach Marissa Young said after Sunday’s win. “For me, it was just wanting to see them playing a little more aggressive…so they came out determined to make some adjustments and it was a battle. We only had three hits in the game, and managed to fight through it.”

Achilles’ prophecy foretold that he would be of great strength, an invincible soldier, but would die if he were to kill Hector. But when Hector slays Achilles’ lover, Patroclus, Achilles becomes consumed by the drive to avenge him. He does get his revenge, but is immediately felled by Paris when Paris shoots an arrow into Achilles' heel

As for what has been Duke's Achilles' heel this season, all signs point to the Blue Devil defense.

Star shortstop Deja Davis has always been a better hitter than fielder—she committed 10 errors her freshman year—but her knee injury from a season ago has made her defense suffer even more, leading to a .849 fielding percentage since the start of last season. She’s committed 14 errors this season, largely due to her knee injury limiting her range in all directions and forcing her to overthrow in compensation.

This finally came to a head during the first game of Saturday afternoon's double header, a game in which Duke (27-6, 15-6) fell 7-3. After Davis allowed a run on a throwing error, she was pulled from the field and spent the last 15 innings of the series at designated hitter. Gisele Tapia moved from third to shortstop, and Kamryn Jackson moved from designated hitter to third.

The problem with those moves is that Tapia is naturally a second baseman, given her good range and glove but lackluster arm. She moved to the hot corner when star third baseman Raine Wilson suffered a season-ending knee injury March 4, while designated hitter Kristina Foreman moved to second. The problem with Foreman in the middle infield, though, is that while she has a good glove, she simply does not have the requisite range for second base. Jackson, it’s worth noting, has filled in nicely at third, and has even flashed some good reflexes there.

The biggest victim of all of this was pitcher Shelby Walters. The right-hander came into the Virginia Tech series leading the nation in ERA (min. 58 IP or 12 games), but allowed three earned runs to the Hokies (23-6, 16-6) in just the third inning of Saturday's first game. The box score says she allowed three hits to lead off the inning, but what happened was that there were two grounders that snuck through the second base hole, raising the question of whether all the defensive shuffling created additional gaps that wouldn't have otherwise been there. A couple barely-fair balls down the foul lines later, and Walters was pulled without making it through three innings.

There’s no clear solution to Duke’s problem. The team shouldn’t have needed to rely on its only shortstop to hold together its infield defense, but a program in its fourth year of existence can’t exactly expect to have the necessary depth to replace a preseason All-ACC player. And Achilles shouldn’t have fallen in love with a soldier fighting a war against Hector, but how was he supposed to help himself?

It was Achilles’ love that sent him into a vengeful fury defiant, and it is the Blue Devils’ need for Davis at-bats that has kept her from taking extended time off and nursing her knee. Just as that need perpetuates Duke’s defensive infield snafu, so too did Achilles’ killing of Hector effect his own death.

“I think we're just at a point where we're playing really quality teams,” Young said. “And [we are] just expecting the ball to be hit on every play, so that we're not caught reacting, [and have] a little bit better anticipation. I thought they did a good job of that [on Sunday].”

The Blue Devils will have the chance to turn around their recent skid against No. 9 Florida State next weekend.


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