Duke’s late-season magic just keeps coming, and its lead magician just keeps delivering.
Blue Devil catcher Michael Rothenberg, the man able to pull strikes out of nothing, who turned a rough beginning of the season into another stellar two-way year, who has hit the two most recent grand slams in ACC tournament history, once again led Duke to victory.
Rothenberg drove in all of Duke’s runs, as the ninth-seeded Blue Devils notched a 3-2 win against No. 4-seed Miami in ACC pool play Thursday afternoon, guaranteeing the Blue Devils would be the Pool D team moving on to the ACC semifinals. Duke starter Jack Carey and Miami starter Jake Smith were locked in a pitcher’s duel for the better part of five-and-a-half innings, combining to strike out 14 and allow only eight baserunners. The Blue Devils were able to break through to tie it in the seventh, before Rothenberg walked it off.
“I think since we got back from Louisville, that's our fifth come-from-behind win. So they have absolutely answered the call to play tough regardless of the circumstances; today was a great example of that,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “During the middle of the season, if we had that play happen in the sixth, it would've led to a big inning. It would've led to us falling behind and losing energy and losing fight.
“But we were tough enough to make pitches to get off the field right there—Jack Carey was really tough, the play by Mike Rothenberg—the backpick at first right there on the strikeout got us off the field. We had really good at-bats in the bottom of the seventh…. And that last inning, it couldn't happen for a better person; you've got a South Florida guy who's grown up playing with a bunch of those kids from Miami.”
After bringing in First Team All-ACC closer Carson Palmquist in the eighth inning, the Hurricanes went back to him for the ninth. Right fielder Peter Matt led off and popped up behind third for the first out, and Rothenberg fell behind 1-2 to Palmquist. But the catcher decided he wanted to create some magic one more time, and guessed he was getting another high fastball.
Rothenberg guessed correctly.
“We've won 10 in a row, and it's not from just getting a lead to start and just riding it out. We've had to win games like this before,” Rothenberg said. “And that's the thing about this team, is we've won a lot in the past, we're a very veteran team, and we know how to get it done. Coach [Pollard] talks a lot about winning whatever game ends up coming to play; so whether it's a high-offensive game, low-scoring game, just kind of finding a way to win and we did that for the third time in a row today.”
The game featured premier pitching from the very first inning. Carey came out firing, finishing behind the count to just one of the first 12 batters he faced and notching four strikeouts along the way. The first runner he allowed in scoring position came with two outs in the third inning, with Miami second baseman Anthony Vilar flying a double to left field just past a diving RJ Schreck. Carey hit the next two batters, but got third baseman Yohandy Morales to chase a slider away to end the threat.
Carey allowed a leadoff double to start the fourth, on a fly ball from first baseman Alex Toral hit not especially hard to right field, that bounced off the park’s awkward wall and away from Matt. Unfazed, Carey continued attacking the lineup, recording a quick strikeout, foul-out and groundout to end the threat.
Miami’s Smith was all too happy to match Carey, allowing only a walk through the first 3.2 innings and falling behind only one batter. The first Blue Devil in scoring position was Matt, who singled to right with two outs in the fourth, then stole second. But Smith easily induced a pop-out to third from Rothenberg to get out of trouble.
Duke should’ve been able to put that same pressure on in the fifth inning, when Blue Devil first baseman Chris Crabtree smoked a fastball high and deep to right-centerfield. But by some grace of God, the ball bounced off the top of the tall wall. Crabtree should’ve still been on second with a double, but he started celebrating the would-be homer out of the box, and only started running when he made the turn around first, leaving him with a single. Second baseman Graham Pauley immediately grounded into a double play, and a Nichols strikeout closed what was Smith’s final inning.
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Miami got its third double off Carey to lead off the sixth, a soft liner from right fielder Christian Del Castillo through the five-hole generated by the shift. Morales came up to bat next, and Carey couldn’t get away with three straight sliders against him, as the third caught too much plate and the third baseman laced a hard-hit double over center fielder Joey Loperfido’s head. A Toral groundout to Pauley put Morales on third, and a sharp grounder to short off of designated hitter Raymond Gil’s bat looked like it’d catch Morales trying to go home. But Duke shortstop Ethan Murray’s throw was a couple inches too wide up the first-base line, and Rothenberg couldn’t corral the ball.
Carey got shortstop Dominic Pitelli to strikeout and Rothenberg backpicked Gil to end the inning, but the Hurricanes had taken a 2-0 lead in Carey’s final inning.
Duke didn’t have much of an immediate response in the bottom of the sixth, and Miami went down relatively easily against fireman reliever Marcus Johnson in the top of the seventh. But Duke came out swinging in the home seventh, with Schreck crushing a ball off the right field wall so hard he had to settle for a single, and Matt then lining an inside-out double to right field.
The ever-patient Rothenberg followed, and took ball one inside, before pouncing on a high fastball and hitting a sharp liner up the middle. The ball rushed into center field as Schreck and Matt both came home to tie the game at two runs each.
“I was just talking with our Associate AD: when the draft was shortened last year, and Mike Rothenberg didn't go in the draft, it was a really difficult time for him,” Pollard said. “And he really wrestled with whether or not to sign as a free agent and start his professional career. He had a lot of people telling him he should. To his credit, and to his mom and dad's credit, they really value this Duke experience—not just the Duke education, but the entire experience he's had here. And I told him, standing here in the hallway just a minute ago, I said 'That moment is great validation for why you came back.' And I couldn't be more excited for him.”
Duke was already a good bet to make the NCAA tournament coming into the ACC tournament, and this win all but guarantees a berth. The Blue Devils do have something exciting in the meanwhile, an ACC semifinals game Saturday, against the winner of the Notre Dame-Virginia game that takes place Friday.