After a month with its back up against the wall, Duke has finally taken care of business.
The Blue Devils swept their last series of the regular season, outscoring Clemson 23-11 and receiving encouraging performances from key players. On the mound, Jack Carey started Thursday and fired seven four-hit, one-run innings with nine strikeouts, while Luke Fox started Saturday and threw 4.0 quality innings despite some rough breaks, and Marcus Johnson tossed 5.2 innings of one-hit relief with seven strikeouts. At the plate, Chris Crabtree, Ethan Murray and RJ Schreck combined to go .333/.442/.833 with four stolen bases. Chase Cheek came off the bench to deliver a pinch-hit, two-out, go-ahead home run in the top of the ninth Saturday, extending Duke’s win streak to eight along with winning 14 of its last 19 games and three of its last five ACC series.
“[This turnaround] has been absolutely humongous,” Schreck said. “Everybody on the team is starting to get to know each other a little bit more, as COVID regulations are loosening up, and we're starting to really bond as a team and find our groove. And hopefully we can get a few more wins and the committee will be nice enough to put us in the tournament and we can make a run—it's something that Duke baseball does a lot towards the end of the year. It's just something about classes ending, and just getting to play baseball, that fires us up, gets us playing well.”
Duke (28-20, 16-17 in the ACC) sweeping Clemson (24-26, 16-20 ACC) should cap off a remarkable season comeback by the Blue Devils. The team started its season taking two of three from Coastal Carolina, dropped its first ACC series to unranked Boston College and both its games against now-No. 10 East Carolina and won just one of its first six ACC series. The Blue Devils sat at 14-16, and 6-13 in the ACC, after dropping the first game to Wake Forest in a late-inning collapse.
Then Duke’s bats came alive, and the pitching started to iron itself out just enough. It took the last two against Wake Forest, scoring 11 in each, and took one win against Louisville, enough to make a series loss stomachable. And the team headed into its last two series, against Virginia Tech and Clemson, likely needing to win five of six to give itself a chance to have an NCAA tournament-worthy resume before the ACC tournament.
The Blue Devils hammered the Hokies in Game One and dramatically took games two and three in the late innings to sweep, then decimated Davidson for the rare run-rule. Duke now sat four games under .500 in conference play—just one win would give the Blue Devils a 60% chance to make the NCAA tournament, according to the ESPN broadcast's historical odds in the ACC.
Then Carey pitched seven incredible innings, while Crabtree hit two first-pitch homers in a 5-1 Thursday win. Friday was even more hopeless for the Tigers, with Duke racing out to a 13-1 lead behind Schreck and Crabtree each reaching base safely three times and hitting a homer in the first four innings.
On Saturday, Fox pitched well, and the bullpen survived long enough to get Cheek a pinch-hit appearance in the top of the ninth. After getting a fastball-heavy diet in each of his pinch-hit appearances in games one and two, he knew there’d be a fastball for a strike at some point. On 1-0, he didn’t miss it, and Johnson finished off the ninth for the 4-2 win and the sweep.
“I am so proud of Chase Cheek, I'm so happy for him,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “Everything he's meant to this program—the leadership, everything he's persevered through. Man, there was nobody else that I would rather have to have a moment like that.”
If the late-season comeback hasn’t been storybook enough for Duke, a team who used a similar run in 2019 to go all the way to the Super Regionals against Vanderbilt, the names and faces leading this surge makes it almost trite and contrived:
- Johnson, who gave up the walk-off grand slam on the second game of the season, is the team’s best pitcher, an All-ACC-level closer since late March and has thrown the third-most innings on the team
- The team leader in innings pitched is Carey, who had an ERA hovering around six before making a mechanical adjustment last month and looking like a frontline starter.
- Peter Matt and Schreck , the team’s everyday corner outfielders, were most of the offense through Duke's disappointing start. Matt is setting career-highs across the board after transferring from Penn, and Schreck, owner of a sub-Mendoza-Line batting average coming into the season, ranks sixth in the ACC in OPS and fifth in home runs.
- Shortstop Ethan Murray and catcher Michael Rothenberg, two of the team’s core two-way superstars, have raised their respective batting averages from .264 and .222 to .298 and .243 since April 13.
- Freshman Luke Fox has allowed four earned runs in 23.1 innings, good for a 1.56 ERA to go along with 36 strikeouts, all while stretching out and securing the Sunday starter role.
- Crabtree, a senior, owned a sub-.400 career slugging percentage (SLG) over the past two seasons. With over half his hits going for extra bases, he’s raised his career SLG to over .500.
And if all that wasn’t enough, the regular season was capped off by Cheek’s home run. Cheek, who tore his ACL and meniscus after his breakout junior season, couldn't have picked a more clutch time for his first home run of the year.
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“He'll remember that at-bat for the rest of his life,” Pollard said.
The Blue Devils will look to see whether their magic continues into the ACC tournament next week in Charlotte.