Despite nearly falling victim to a no-hitter and facing elimination, Duke is staying alive another day after prevailing in a marathon duel.
The No. 13-seed Blue Devils had another wild day at Jack Turner Stadium in Athens, Ga., Saturday, with over five hours of gametime. First matching up against the host Georgia, Duke’s bats were kept ice cold as the Bulldogs, backed by the home crowd, pulled out a 1-0 victory thanks to an Ellie Armistead home run. Sent down to the loser’s bracket in the Athens Regional, the Blue Devils needed a win to climb back to the final to meet with Georgia again Sunday. Facing Western Kentucky with the season on the line, Caroline Jacobsen and Kristina Foreman crossed home on an infield error in the 12th to finally break a scoreless tie, leading to an eventual 4-0 Duke win.
“Obviously a heck of a game, we know every game in the postseason is going to be a dogfight, but this one gave us a run for our money for 12 innings,” head coach Marissa Young said regarding the victory against Western Kentucky.
Duke would not have been in the position to win in the 12th, though, without the stellar performance by Shelby Walters.
“There wasn't any point in that game where I was counting us out,” Walters said, after receiving no run support from her offense for the first 11 frames.
The Georgia native delivered a career performance Saturday, seemingly shutting down every attempted rally by the Hilltoppers throughout the afternoon and into the evening.
“She has worked so hard on her mental game this year, and she's been tested a lot and practices and scrimmages, she's always seemed to be that pitcher that's on the mound when things go wrong, whether it's bad calls or plays not happening, and she's really just learned how to stay composed,” Young said of one half of the one-two punch of Walters and senior Peyton St. George, who threw seven innings against Georgia earlier Saturday.
Walters faced her fair share of adversity against the Hilltoppers, as a bases loaded rally in the third stalled, and the Blue Devil defense behind her narrowly avoided falling victim to a walk-off in the bottom of the ninth. The trouble was compounded by three errors by Walters, who pulled her first baseman off the bag with errant throws and unsteady glovework.
But any problem she could get herself in, she could get herself out just as well.
“And if anything, I was, again, just like not trying to make the moment too big, it's just playing catch with Kelly [Torres], it's just another day in the backyard sort of thing,” Walters added.
She carried through with the motto of “your presence determines the present,” which she learned from a book a teammate had shared with the team, and added that she performs best at “low hype levels.”
Walters holds a miniscule ERA of 1.15 and has dominated opponents with the ground ball by keeping pitches low in the zone. That trend continued Saturday, as the junior recorded a whopping 27 ground ball outs compared to only four through the air and five via the strikeout.
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Duke could not mount a charge while Walters continued dealing, until the seventh inning when a Kristina Foreman grounder resulted in a runner’s interference call which swapped two on, one out for one on with two outs. The Blue Devils failed to score in what first appeared to be their best scoring chance until that point.
While Duke’s star pitcher was the headliner from the afternoon, the inevitable offensive push came from an unlikely source. With top hitters Jameson Kavel and Deja Davis a combined 2-for-16 on the day, the Blue Devils' historically potent offense was moving at a snails’ pace and no rallies came to fruition. In the top of the 12th, smelling a breakthrough, the Blue Devils managed to put two runners on base with only one out, something they had not done in nearly 17 innings of gameplay. At the plate came Kyla Morris, a slap hitter without a run driven in this season.
“In the nine hole I'm just trying to get the top of the lineup over, get us back to [Davis],” Morris said.
She put the ball in the ground, by design, but Western Kentucky catcher Kendall Smith airmailed the throw to first into the right field corner, allowing Jacobsen and Foreman to score for Duke’s first runs of the game.
“So many of our kids could have been the game-winning hit, but it just happened to be me in that spot,” Morris said.
While her effort will not go down as an RBI on her statsheet, she still deserves all the credit for initiating the game-ending rally that will give the Blue Devils momentum heading into the short turnaround for Duke’s rematch against the Bulldogs.
In the first game of the afternoon, Georgia pitcher Mary Wilson Avant locked down the Blue Devil bats, holding them to two hits and three walks in the 1-0 shutout, which now has Georgia in prime position to advance to the Super Regional. On the other side, St. George delivered a gem of her own, firing seven innings along with 10 strikeouts in the loss. The lone score came on a one-out moonshot to left field, yet Duke’s all-time wins leader was not phased.
“We pitched well as one pitch made the difference there, and a couple calls didn't go our way. So we feel really confident going into tomorrow, and we're the team that's played doubleheaders all season long, so we're ready for this and we've got the pitching staff to do it,” Young said.
The Blue Devils certainly have their work cut out for them, as they need to sweep a doubleheader against Georgia—beginning at 12 p.m. Sunday—to advance.