The dark clouds and ominous rain hinted at a tragic ending for the Blue Devils, but no one could have imagined the extent to which Duke would suffer.
In a game that was seemingly over before it even began, the Blue Devils fell to Liberty 15-4 in Knoxville, Tenn., Sunday, ending their 2021 season.
There is no pitcher Duke fans would rather see on the bump in an elimination game than Cooper Stinson, the Friday night ace whose last appearance was a six-inning, scoreless gem in the ACC Championship Game. But it was obvious early in the first inning that Sunday would be the complete opposite.
“[Stinson] has had a great career. He just pitched arguably one of the biggest games in the history of the program just this time last week,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “I want him to take away that memory and focus on that memory, and not what happened today.”
Stinson’s day lasted 36 pitches. The zone was tight and he was immediately struggling to locate his pitches. Liberty jumped on Stinson from the get go to the tune of two hits, four walks and three runs, and the Georgia native only recorded two outs before getting pulled. His first-inning replacement, Josh Allen, inherited a maximum-capacity basepath and immediately surrendered a grand slam to Jaylen Guy. In fact, it took three pitchers and 55 total pitches for Duke to escape the first inning, but only after allowing eight runs.
In contrast, it took Liberty pitcher Mason Meyer eight pitches to finish off Duke in the top of the first, and the lefty stayed dominant all game. He threw a complete game in 118 pitches, allowing four earned runs on 13 hits and four strikeouts.
The Blue Devils came into this game not only looking to survive, but also seeking revenge after the Flames blew them out 11-6 in the inaugural match of the Knoxville Regional Friday. But Sunday was more of the same.
“We were beaten in the shift, I don’t know, 5, 6, 7 times today and that’s baseball. Credit them for putting balls in play with two strikes and moving the ball and credit them for putting the ball in play with two outs…” Pollard said. “Those guys played great and they deserve to be playing tonight.”
Joey Loperfido was the diamond in the very-rough for the Blue Devils. He singled on the very first pitch of the game and didn’t slow down, launching a two-run shot in the third inning of his final game sporting a Duke uniform. He continued his hot hitting with another single to put a runner in scoring position in the fifth.
“I definitely think we have [changed the program]. I was 15 when I committed to this place… that’s young and to sit in an office on campus and have coach tell me everything we were gonna do and then get so damn close, but win an ACC Championship in the process my last year,” Loperfido said. “It’s special and I think my class, especially, was a big part of that and I think that’s something we’re gonna be really proud of forever, for the rest of our lives.”
Loperfido’s efforts, although valiant, were not enough to overcome the monstrous hitting of the Flames. They came out swinging for the fences and were able to notch three home runs on 14 hits against Blue Devil pitching.
Every time Duke started to claw into the lead, Liberty found a way to stretch it back out again. First baseman Logan Mathieu demolished a fifth-inning solo-homer to bring the Flames' lead back out to eight, as Duke right fielder Peter Matt didn’t even attempt to chase it down.
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Perhaps the most impressive part of Liberty’s performance was their stellar fielding. Head coach Scott Jackson’s infield extinguished baserunner after baserunner with their quick turns on double-plays. The Flames racked up an absurd five double-plays and left Duke’s offense demoralized. The Blue Devils nearly paced the Flames in hits, but the double-plays consistently cleared the traffic on the bases.
“There’s no quit in this group and gosh, if we don’t hit into [five] double-plays—that’s hard to do.... If we don’t do that, we probably put up a number of runs and we get ourselves back in the game despite the bottom of the first,” Pollard said.
One of the only exciting takeaways from Duke’s final game of the season was Henry Williams’ much-awaited return to the mound. Williams entered the game in relief in the sixth inning, pitching two shutout frames and only allowing one hit. The Darien, Conn., native had been out of the rotation since April 9 with soreness, so his appearance was a welcome sight for the Blue Devils.
Liberty tacked on five in the eighth inning and by game’s end, the Flames had trounced the Blue Devils by 11 runs, bringing their regional total against Duke to 26-10—a total reversal from the two regular season matchups, which the Blue Devils won 5-4 and 7-0, respectively.
“Obviously things didn’t work out this weekend the way we wanted but to at least fight back and to go make a run and win something, it means the world. So I’m proud of myself...” Loperfido said. “If I could go back and do it all over again the same, I would.”
Overall, this season was far from disappointing for the Blue Devils. They pulled a complete 180 in the middle of the year and went on an incredible 12-game winning streak that they rode to the program’s first ACC tournament title. Once again, though, Duke will finish the year in heartbreaking fashion in the NCAA tournament.
“Our kids wouldn’t quit on themselves, they wouldn’t quit on each other, they wouldn’t [on] this program. They’re too committed for that,” Pollard said. “And I’m incredibly proud of what we did to be in this position. I’m grateful to our players.”