Duke had been rolling as the ACC tournament got underway, and it took a valiant yet composed effort to bring the Blue Devils their first-ever postseason victory.
As the No. 3 seed coming into the tournament, Duke matched up against No. 6-seed Louisville at Ulmer Stadium in Louisville, Ky., in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament. Though the Blue Devils were playing on the opponent’s turf, they did a masterful job of setting the tone for the evening, beginning with a Kristina Foreman home run in the bottom of the first inning and culminating with a cool and collected relief effort from senior ace Peyton St. George to seal the deal 4-3.
“It's a great hump for us to overcome and obviously it being a tight game coming down to the last few outs, really just shows what this team is capable of,” head coach Marissa Young said of securing the program's first ACC tournament win.
When the Blue Devils faced Louisville earlier in the season, they took the series three games to one, and got to see plenty of Cardinal star pitcher and Thursday starter Taylor Roby, who did a fair job at keeping Blue Devil runners off the basepaths Thursday night.
“[Roby]'s tough. She's good,” Young added. “The fact that we've seen her a couple of times before—we've had success against her before—I think definitely gave our hitters confidence up at the plate.”
The game started off fast, with Foreman continuing a personal slugfest to score the first three runs of the night—her fifth home run in as many games ricocheted off and over the top of the fence just feet to the right of the left field foul pole. The three-run cushion seemed like it could be enough, but with a rocky start from junior Shelby Walters, Young and Duke were forced to make a change to keep the Blue Devils alive in the hunt for the conference championship.
Walters, who finished the regular season with a 1.20 ERA and a 16-3 record, gave up two walks, four singles and three runs before St. George came in for her in the second frame. Without time to warm up, St. George was faced with a bases-loaded, one-out hole, and promptly escaped the jam with a fly out and the first of three punchouts. St. George’s effort in relief of her co-ace all but shutdown Louisville’s heating bats, as she posted another 5.2 innings of scoreless, two-hit ball.
“You know I've said it all year we've got a great one-one punch. I've got two aces in the circle and I know that if one's not on I can count on the other to come in and pick her up and get the job done and they've continued to do that for each other all year long. And I'm confident that [Walters] will come back ready to go tomorrow,” Young said of her pitching staff.
As St. George was mowing down the Louisville lineup, Duke just needed that fourth run to give it the lead for good—after drawing a walk in the fourth inning, Foreman dashed home on a Rachel Crabtree double that nestled against the center field wall. The Blue Devils only needed two hits to get the four runs across, and nearly pushed across a fifth in the fifth inning if not for a rundown to catch junior Deja Davis between third and home after smacking the team’s third hit—a triple—to the gap.
“You know we're in the postseason facing great pitching, and so we don't expect to slug the ball, it's just about having timely hitting and for us to have a good eye,” Young said, given her team finished off a win and effectively ended Louisville’s season without recording a single.
Duke will need to be sharp in the batter’s box in the semifinals, however, as the Blue Devils square off again with No. 2-seed Florida State, which was victorious in a three-game sweep in April. Duke was in a nasty team slump at the time, so Young believes the Seminoles are about to face a different team than what they saw a month ago.
“We're in a different place than we were when we went down [to Tallahassee, Fla.,] and, even not at our best, we were in a position to compete with them, so I know our team is confident and excited again to go up against [Florida State].”
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The semifinal matchup between Thursday's winners is slated for Friday at 3:30 pm.