Prince said to party like it’s 1999, but 1961 seems to be a more fitting year for Duke.
For the first time in six decades, the Blue Devils brought home the ACC title, their first time doing it via the conference tournament. Prior to making history, No. 9-seed Duke found itself locked into a pitching battle of epic proportions at Truist Field, but managed to scratch a run across to best No. 3-seed N.C. State 1-0 Sunday afternoon. There were plenty of performances throughout the tournament that were responsible for the Blue Devil run, but junior Cooper Stinson and relievers Jimmy Loper and Marcus Johnson showed up in a big way in the championship game, delivering nine shutout innings against a Wolfpack team that led the ACC in batting average.
“I'm so elated for these guys. Honestly, I feel numb,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “It was an incredible ball game. What a great championship atmosphere. A tremendous crowd. Charlotte has put on an unbelievable event. We had so much fun here this week. And what a great baseball game.”
The game was deadlocked at zero for the first three innings, with both team’s starting pitchers using a lethal fastball-changeup combo to induce swings and misses. But just as the game started to get into the lull of a shutout, junior Ethan Murray arrived at the party. Murray laced a double off the left field wall with two strikes, setting RJ Schreck up for an RBI. Schreck swung and on contact, it looked like the lefty had gotten a hold of a home run, that is, until the Charlotte wind killed the baseball and allowed it to harmlessly float into N.C. State center fielder Tyler McDonough’s glove.
But fortunately for Duke, Murray used his speed to tag up and advance to third, bringing four-hole hitter Peter Matt up with just one out. Despite the Blue Devils struggling lately with runners in scoring position, Matt delivered with a sacrifice fly to right field that was deep enough to score Murray and ultimately decide the game.
It’s no secret that this season has not gone as most expected for Stinson, but regardless of the regular season struggles, the right-hander could not have picked a better time to rediscover his sophomore self. Stinson attacked the zone all afternoon, flipping in his slider and changeup at will to end his day with six strikeouts and allowing only three hits.
“I think it was the best start of [Stinson’s] career,” Pollard said. “He had a really rough start in his last start at Clemson...and it just shows his maturity and toughness. And then the one thing I love about Cooper is good start, bad start—his preparation for the next week never changes. He has a great process. He's an incredibly hard worker, and he never gets too enamored with his success and he never beats himself up too much when he struggles.”
After Stinson’s outing, Duke still had nine outs to get before it could claim its crown, and against a team with the offensive pop of N.C. State, that was no small task. Pollard turned to Loper for the seventh inning, and the redshirt sophomore retired the side in order. Loper came back out for the eighth, but after a one-out single, Johnson entered the game and completed the five-out save to seal the deal.
The closest N.C. State came to tying up the contest was in the bottom of the sixth inning, and the Wolfpack would have tallied a run on the scoreboard if it weren’t for a head-scratching baserunning mistake by Austin Murr. Murr was on third base when ACC batting average leader Jonny Butler stroked a sac fly to deep center. Loperfido winded up and fired the ball home, but it turned out the throw was unneeded as Murr left the bag early and had to go back to third to tag up. By the time he had recovered, the ball was halfway to catcher Michael Rothenberg’s glove and Murr was forced to remain at third.
In the middle of all that sixth inning mayhem, first-year pitching coach Chris Gordan called a mound visit, and in a moment where it would have been understandable for the Blue Devils to be pressing given the circumstances, Stinson left the mound meeting with a smile on his face.
“We talked before every game down the stretch here about just finding ways to enjoy the moment, to be loose, to have fun with this,” Pollard said. These guys have worked so hard. We've asked more of this year's team than any team and certainly in my coaching career with all of the protocols and some of the difficult things they've had to go through, so I really wanted them just to enjoy this ride down the stretch and it's great to see them doing it.”
To round out the day, Duke had three players selected to the ACC tournament First Team in Stinson, Rothenberg and center fielder Joey Loperfido, with Loperfido taking home tournament MVP honors.
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Now on a 12-game win streak, Duke has gone from missing the NCAA tournament to having an automatic bid to the big dance. Omaha is still a couple rounds away, but if the Blue Devils can keep riding this wave of dominant pitching and explosive offense, 2021 may end up being more than just the year Duke’s ACC title drought ended.