As the legendary boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” and that’s really the only way to describe Duke’s performance against favored Florida State.
The majority of factors heading into this game leaned in the Seminoles' direction, but the ninth-seeded Blue Devils came out swinging in the first inning, and Michael Rothenberg’s grand slam delivered the knockout punch in that first frame en route to a 12-1 victory in Duke’s first ACC tournament game at Truist Field in Charlotte. After Rothenberg’s homer, No. 5-seed Florida State was never able to string together any rallies of significance and the Blue Devils rode the arms of Billy Seidl, Matt Dockman, Jimmy Loper and Marcus Johnson to its first-ever ACC tournament win against Florida State.
“We've been pretty good at that,” head coach Chris Pollard said of scoring runs early. "We've been pretty good at hot starts and we did that on Friday at Clemson and you look at our offensive production in the first inning and the gap there where we've outscored our opponents in the first, we’ve been a fast-starting team. What you need when that happens is you need your pitchers to go out and pound the zone and that's exactly what we did today.”
Prior to Rothenberg’s home run, leadoff man Joey Loperfido and two-hole hitter Ethan Murray set the table for the rest of the lineup with a single and a walk, respectively, and after an RJ Schreck RBI-single and Peter Matt walk, Rothenberg came to the plate.
The Boca Raton, Fla., native found himself in a 1-1 count when Florida State pitcher Tyler Ahearn challenged Rothenberg with a fastball over the heart of the plate, and he gave it a ride to right-center to ignite Duke’s day for his second career ACC tournament grand slam.
“The postseason is obviously a different animal. It's great playing in this event, it's usually been in Durham, and this ballpark rivals Durham and any one in the country. So just being around every team in a really competitive environment like this, I love this event. And I'm excited to keep playing,” Rothenberg said in response to what allows him to elevate his game in postseason play.
Heading into Wednesday’s game, it was unclear who Pollard would give the nod to start the game, and instead of going with one of his three typical weekend starters, Pollard turned to the talented, but largely unproven sophomore Billy Seidl.
And the decision paid dividends right away.
Seidl dosed the Seminoles with a healthy three-pitch mix of his two-seam fastball, slider and change-up, logging a career-high six strikeouts over 3.1 innings. Seidl’s outing had its share of highlight pitches, but the two that he’ll likely remember the most are the fastball and slider he flipped across the plate to strikeout ACC Player of the Year Matheu Nelson twice.
“I have had a couple starts before so it wasn't as much of a surprise [when I learned I was starting] but I knew I just had to go and just give it my all, it’s the ACC tournament it's a really cool [ball]park,” Seidl said. “And so I just knew I had to go out and throw strikes, just keep doing my thing and I was excited, pumped up and glad it went well.”
Seidl did get into a bit of trouble in the fourth inning after giving up a homerun to right fielder Robby Martin, but Pollard turned to Dockman to get Duke the last two outs of the inning before Florida State could turn the fourth into a run-fest.
Dockman then passed the rock to Loper for the next 4.0 innings before Loper handed off to Johnson to finish the ninth and hold Florida State to one or less runs for just the fifth time in the Seminole season.
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While all the runs after Rothenberg’s grand slam were really just gravy, the Duke lineup continued to add pressure the entire game by getting at least one runner on base in each of the first six innings. And even in the top of the ninth inning with a 9-1 lead, Erikson Nichols and Murray each homered, with that being Murray’s first of the season.
The Blue Devils are now completely in control of their own destiny in terms of advancing out of their pool. A win against Miami would automatically put them atop their pool and into the semifinal game of the tournament Saturday, but that’s far easier said than done, and that win would be an especially sweet cherry on top of Duke’s NCAA tournament resumé considering Miami swept Duke earlier this year.
With all that being said, Duke finds itself in a comfortable position from a pitching standpoint heading into its Thursday bout. Pollard will give the start to Jack Carey against Miami, and he still has a well-rested Johnson and Dockman in his back pocket for the late-innings, not to mention Cooper Stinson and Luke Fox if any unusual circumstances arise early on.
Duke’s aforementioned matchup against No. 4-seed Miami will be at 11 a.m. Thursday, where the Blue Devils will have an opportunity to turn this nine-game win streak to 10 and pick up even more steam heading into the rest of the tournament.