Anxious hitters, rattled pitchers, tough late-inning decisions—all occasional problems that hurt the Blue Devils throughout the season, but never with major consequence. That changed Sunday.
No. 13-seed Duke lost 10-9 to Georgia in the Athens regional final Sunday, capping off the program’s first NCAA appearance. The Blue Devils had dropped their first game to the Bulldogs Saturday, needing a Shelby Walters masterpiece against Western Kentucky to be able to play today. While second baseman Kristina Foreman, third baseman Gisele Tapia and right fielder Caroline Jacobsen all showed out in the elimination game, the usually dominant starting pitching duo of Peyton St. George and Shelby Walters put up an ERA of 11.66, which proved too much for the team’s hot bats to overcome.
“It was great to see them come alive today and compete. And while the outcome isn't what we wanted, I don't walk away with any regrets. There's no 'woulda, shoulda coulda's,'” head coach Marissa Young said. “I felt like my team gave everything they had, left it all out on the field. We just came up short today. But, couldn't ask anything more from them.”
The game started inauspiciously, with St. George missing her spots in a long first inning in which she allowed one run and three runners in scoring position. She settled down in the second, though, registering a perfect inning with two swinging strikeouts and landing first-pitch strikes to all three batters she faced.
The bats didn’t start too encouragingly either, with lots of soft contact throughout the lineup. And Duke’s first baserunner, shortstop Jameson Kavel, got called out for leaving first base early. The hitters seemed to be forcing too much at the plate, missing hittable pitches and swinging at pitches that were never strikes.
They got a break in the third inning, when a Kelly Torres bloop dropped into shallow centerfield and an error by Georgia third baseman Savana Sikes put Sarah Goddard (Torres' pinch-runner) at third and Kyla Morris at second. After a Davis pop-up, Gisele Tapia hit a sharp low liner up the middle that glanced off the pitcher to tie the game at one-all. With Caroline Jacobsen at bat, Tapia stole second on a ball in the dirt, allowing another two runs to cross when Jacobsen dropped a single into shallow right. The Blue Devils went into the bottom of the third leading 3-1.
That’s when it turned out St. George’s second inning was just a mirage. She hit Sikes for a second questionable hit-by-pitch to start the third and allowed a four-pitch walk to second baseman Sydney Kuma. After inducing a foul-out on the next batter, she wanted to run a two-seamer in on the hands to Bulldog designated hitter Sara Mosley, but Mosley got all of it for a three-run homer to give Georgia another one-run lead.
That was the end of St. George’s opening stint and in came Walters, fresh off a 12-inning complete-game shutout, to finish the third inning.
The fourth inning started with Kristina Foreman making sharp contact for just the second well-hit ball by the Blue Devils, and got on with a single. Then Kuma misplayed the throw from Sikes on a Torres grounder, putting two on with none out. Kamryn Jackson swung just under her 1-0 pitch and narrowly missed a home run for a fly out. Then Morris followed, and blooped a single a foot behind the shortstop, and Duke sent Foreman from second all the way home, where she dove past the tag and scored safely.
Davis caught the defense napping with a first-pitch drop bunt to load the bases, and Tapia didn’t squander the next at-bat, clearing the bases with a double that was inches short of a grand slam. Duke led 7-4.
The Bulldogs were able to scratch across a few runs in the bottom half of that frame thanks to an RBI single and a wild pitch, but Foreman gave the Blue Devils some breathing room in the fifth, crushing a two-run home run to left field.
Disaster struck Duke in the home fifth, though, when a Walters fastball, which was supposed to be down-and-away, ended middle-middle, and was deposited over the left-center fence by Sydney Chambley.
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That was the end of Walters’ day. St. George re-entered, and fell behind 3-1 to her first batter but was able to record two clean outs. She allowed a very soft single next, but then allowed two hard-hit singles and a wild pitch that led to two runs, the second one made easier by Morris hesitating to throw home.
The Blue Devils went down easily in the top of the sixth, and St. George returned to the mound for the home sixth, promptly surrendering three hard-hit singles to allow Georgia its first lead since early in the fourth inning.
Jacobsen led off the seventh inning with a walk and was pinch-run for by Jazmine Moreno, and Kavel followed with a successful sac bunt. Bolan came up next, and hit a fastball well into the outfield, but the Georgia centerfielder tracked the ball down. Foreman, who was already 2-for-3 with a two-run shot, came up with two outs and a runner on second in the one-run deficit. She swung at the first pitch she saw, a changeup way below the zone, and flew out to shallow centerfield to finish the game.
Just like that, all of Duke’s leads, all the bloop singles it hit, all the lead changes it forced, were ultimately futile.
“You gotta learn to 'play here to win here.' And like I said, there's nothing like the postseason, as much as you try to prepare for it, it is a different stage,” Young said. “And the nerves and your mindset changes a little bit, and it's just important to get them in a frame of mind that they gotta keep doing what they've been doing all season.”
The good news is that the problems that downed the Blue Devils are easily correctable. For one, nearly everyone on the team was forcing their play in some way; many hitters looked too eager to jump on early pitches without reading location or speed, and St. George got rattled by baserunners getting on and missed her spots afterwards. Postseason and high-level competition should allow this inexperienced team to iron that out.
“We talk so much about the mental game and how you can play the game between your ears, and it's tough to explain that until you live it. And this postseason does something different to you,” Young said. “And now that we've been here and experienced it, I know that we're going to come out better as ‘Team Five’ because of it, and our kids learned a lot. But most of all, they just compete their butts off, and there's no quit in them.”
What was an incredible season, a breakthrough for a young program, will be something celebrated in spite of the heartbreak of this loss. But it’s going to sting for the time being.