Despite the historic breakthroughs of “Team Four,” most of Duke’s 2021 season has come without major in-game dramatics.
The third-seeded Blue Devils upset No. 2-seed Florida State in the ACC tournament semifinals Friday, winning 4-3 and notching the program’s first-ever victory over the Seminoles in its seventh try.
“It was super exciting. I couldn't be more proud of this team, being able to finally overcome playing Florida State,” head coach Marissa Young said. “But having to do it in a come-behind fashion really just shows how incredible this team is.”
In the top of the seventh, the Blue Devils had their backs against the wall, trailing 3-2. But a late push was in the works, as Caroline Jacobsen—starting her fourth consecutive game after sitting for six straight as a result of a month-long slump—got the barrel of the bat on a down-and-in curveball for a line-drive single to shallow centerfield. Centerfielder Kyla Morris followed, with Sarah Goddard, who broke her thumb against Clemson in March but is now healthy enough to run the bases, pinch-running for Jacobsen. Almost exclusively a sacrifice-bunter, Morris came up to move Goddard to second.
Morris, who owns just a 5.8% career walk rate, took ball one way outside. And then she took ball two way upstairs, and then ball three a good deal outside as well. On 3-0, a count that is an automatic take for many teams, she whiffed on a sacrifice bunt attempt. On 3-1, she whiffed on another bunt, building a 3-2 count. And on the sixth pitch of the at-bat, All-ACC pitcher Kathryn Sandercock threw the same pitch as the fifth but a little more outside. This time, Morris took for ball four.
“Obviously, nerves are high on both ends,” said Young. “[Morris] didn't get the bunt down in her at-bat, but she was able to still have discipline at the plate to draw that walk like that, the way she did. Really, when that happened, I knew that they were going to get the job done.”
With speedy runners on first and second with no outs, Duke’s run expectancy would be nearly 1.4 runs if this were major-league baseball. Up stepped Sydney Bolan, pinch-hitting for All-ACC right fielder Deja Davis, who minorly re-tweaked the bad knee that has plagued her since last season. Bolan took ball one low, then fouled off a fastball up and in and a changeup low and in. Ready for a pitch inside, the New York native jumped on a two-seamer from Sandercock that ran inside and lined it hard up the middle—only to be caught by a fully-outstretched Josie Muffley, Florida State’s defensive wiz of a shortstop.
Next up stepped third baseman Gisele Tapia. On a 2-1 count, Tapia connected on a curveball that stayed too high in the zone, lining it into left centerfield to tie the game.
“I think [I] really just trust[ed] my team,” Tapia said. “I didn't put too much pressure on myself, mainly because I knew if I didn't do it, the number-three hole [hitter], Kamryn, was gonna do it. So kind of just trust the process, just trying to not do too much.”
Left fielder Kamryn Jackson then came up with runners on the corners, and on the fourth pitch of the at-bat, she checked her swing and hit the ball 170 feet to left field. The sacrifice fly brought Morris home, and senior pitcher Peyton St. George fired a perfect bottom frame to seal the win.
While Duke’s seventh-inning rally was scored cleanly, the rest of its runs were anything but. Tapia notched the game’s first hit on a one-out low liner to right, which Florida State right fielder Kalei Harding took her eyes off of as it bounced, giving Tapia an extra-base on the error. After Jackson struck out, shortstop Jameson Kavel popped up to second baseman Devyn Flaherty, who completely misaligned her glove. The ball scraped the side of her glove as Tapia scampered home on what could have been ruled an error. Kavel then stole second, advanced to third on a wild pitch and was sent home by catcher Kelly Torres on an infield single.
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Florida State got its first run on a solo shot to straightaway center from star third baseman Sydney Sherrill, but took its first and only lead of the game in the fifth on an uncharacteristic groundball error by Kavel. The Seminoles had tied things up at 2-2 thanks to a single, a sacrifice bunt, an infield swinging drag bunt and a Sherrill single to right on a hanging high changeup from St. George. Then, Harding hit a sharp grounder to short, which ran under Kavel’s glove and right through her legs for Florida State's third run.
That was not the usually reliable senior's only mistake of the afternoon. The Seminoles nearly tied it up back in the third, when Kavel made a poor throwing decision and threw the ball into right field in the process for an error. But during the next ball in play, Florida State's Dani Morgan got caught running on contact between third and home, causing a double play as Morgan and Kaley Mudge eventually converged as baserunners at third.
The real key to the Blue Devils’ win, however, was their performance with runners in scoring position (RISP). They hit 0.132 with RISP when they dropped eight of nine regular season games to Clemson, Virginia Tech and Florida State, the top three teams in the ACC besides Duke. That was an unsustainably low number, even more so since Duke’s hitters have been immensely better across the board since. Duke going 3-for-7 with runners in scoring position today should back that up.
The Blue Devils next take the field Saturday at 12 p.m. against No. 1-seed Clemson, a club that Duke split the season series with back in March.
“Well we're definitely going to celebrate the win tonight. It's a big win in our record book, for us in our program history,” Young said. “We're going to get some ice cream and then have to start planning ahead… We're the last team that's beat [Clemson] twice. So we're excited to get an early match against them.”