Duke had two options heading into its last home series of the year: crumble and watch its postseason wishes fade away, or find a way to get a much-needed series win.
The Blue Devils chose the latter.
Head coach Chris Pollard and his squad hosted Virginia Tech at Jack Coombs Field over the weekend, with Duke sweeping the Hokies in commanding fashion and capping the weekend off with a 2-1 walkoff win Sunday courtesy of an Erikson Nichols single into left field on Senior Day. The Blue Devils’ performance clinched them the final spot in the 12-team ACC tournament, and kept their hopes of an NCAA tournament bid alive.
“It was almost like a [Derek] Jeter moment for me honestly,” Nichols said of his walkoff. “I grew up a Yankees fan and [I'm] definitely not Jeter, but that’s always my hero and we play at [Durham Bulls Athletic Park] and so to do it at [Jack Coombs Field] is kind of special, see where this program’s come in the five years that I’ve been here.”
Prior to Nichols’ big moment, Graham Pauley knocked in the game-tying run and a bevy of other Blue Devils found a way on board to load the bases, putting Nichols in position to finish the game with one swing of the bat.
“I couldn’t be prouder,” Pollard said of the team’s play. “When we got back from Louisville on Sunday evening we had a really tough conversation, a hard conversation, and I could not be prouder with how our players responded this week.”
While there was plenty for the Blue Devils to be pleased with this weekend, the aspect of their game that is most encouraging heading into the final stretch is the pitching display the entire staff put on.
“We may have pitched as well this weekend as we’ve pitched all year against a really good offense, a team that was scoring a lot of runs,” Pollard said. “I love the three starts that we got and we got great performances out of the pen. I think it’s exciting to see us coming together in all three phases at the most important time of year.”
Of all the Blue Devil pitchers that toed the rubber this weekend, none had a more impressive outing than freshman southpaw Luke Fox. The Waukesha, Wisc., native was someone Pollard spoke highly of before the first game of the season, and he had been delivering all year prior to the culminating moment in a 10-strikeout, one-run outing spanning a career-high 5.2 innings Sunday.
“[Fox is] a special player because he has a really rare combination of physical ability, mindset—he’s got a great mental approach to his performance—and he’s a terrific competitor and so he’s really, really advanced in all three areas,” Pollard said.
In addition to Fox’s stellar outing, the other two weekend’s starters showed promising signs for a previously struggling pitching staff. Junior Cooper Stinson looked to return to his sophomore form, throwing six innings of one-run baseball Saturday, and junior Jack Carey grinded through seven innings with four earned runs Friday.
But the pitching performance would not have been complete without several bullpen arms shutting Hokie hitters down. Marcus Johnson recorded a save Saturday and the likes of Jimmy Loper, Josh Allen and Matt Dockman gave up no runs in their relief appearances.
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As important as the pitching was in giving Duke its first sweep of the season, first baseman Chris Crabtree set a tone for the weekend with his five-hit game Friday. The Bahama, N.C., native whalloped a 464-foot homer and then an RBI-single two innings later to tie the game and set up the ensuing comeback.
Crabtree deserves a great deal of credit for jumpstarting the offense this weekend, but Duke also flashed the depth of its lineup with eight different Blue Devils logging an RBI over the weekend.
Although Duke bettered it's chance at an NCAA tournament bid, a postseason trip is not locked up just yet.
With the layout of the ACC, the Blue Devils can be sure they will have a brutal slate in the conference tournament, so next weekend’s series is all the more important if they want to avoid getting thrown in a pool with No. 4 Notre Dame, which already took a series from Duke this year.
Even if everything fell in the Blue Devils’ favor, meaning they swept Clemson next weekend and North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and Virginia got swept in their respective series, Duke would not be looking at a cake-walk to advancing out of the initial pool play. Its best-case scenario is a No. 7 seed and even at that, all five lower seeds have plenty of talent to make every game a battle.
Nonetheless, Duke is sitting in a similar position to its late-season run in 2019, and with Davidson and Clemson on the horizon this week, it will be crucial in seeing if the Blue Devils can ride a hot streak into the NCAA tournament.
“I think a lot of eyes are gonna turn to Duke baseball and say we’re getting hot and they’re gonna act like it’s a surprise,” Nichols said. “But I don’t think anyone, any of the coaches, any of the players, this is not coming as a surprise to us."
Jake Piazza is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.