Duke had its 12-game win streak snapped Friday.
No. 2-seed Duke lost 11-6 to No. 3-seed Liberty at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., giving up the most runs since its May 8 game at Louisville and the most earned runs allowed since April 12 at North Carolina. The Flames led 5-1 after the third inning, and put the final nail in the coffin in a six-run fourth, the most runs the Blue Devils allowed in a single inning since the aforementioned loss to the Cardinals. All this after Duke beat Liberty twice by a combined eight runs in a home-and-home during the regular season.
“[Liberty]’s really good,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “The game itself was really kind of a tale of two halves. I thought they dominated the first four innings, I thought we won the last five innings. And the difference was: they had two swings there with two outs, where we had a chance to get off the field with no further damage, and they ran two balls out of the yard. And ultimately, that was the difference in the ball game.”
The biggest culprit was starting pitcher Jack Carey’s secondary offerings. With a plus cutter and mid-90’s fastball with distinguishable movement, he relies on a slider that sits around 80 MPH and a mid-80’s changeup to keep hitters’ timing off.
But against Liberty, Carey’s slider and changeup missed few bats. Of the career-high five extra-base hits he gave up, three came off his slider, and one off his changeup. His slider just wasn’t tumbling and was staying on the hitters’ swing plane, and he wasn’t locating either of those pitches as well as he had been over the past couple months. He recorded just three strikeouts, tied for fourth-fewest of his 15 starts this season, with a poor called-strikes-plus-whiffs rate of 28.8%.
On the other side, Liberty’s National Pitcher of the Year finalist Trevor Delaite tossed 7.2 innings of four-run ball against Duke. The Blue Devils clearly came out trying to take advantage of whatever early chances they could get, swinging on the first pitch in 17 of the 33 Duke plate appearances (PAs) that weren’t a first-pitch hit-by-pitch (HBP) and 55.3% of its non-HBP PAs lasting three or fewer pitches.
“We'll get back to the hotel, we'll eat, we'll focus on recovery, and wake up and tomorrow is a new day,” Pollard said. “The key is not to get too caught up in ‘well, what's gonna happen on Sunday, what's gonna happen potentially on Monday?’ We just gotta go out and play tomorrow, and we got to go out and be in the moment tomorrow, do a great job being where our feet are. And when that game is over with, we'll get ready to go for Sunday.”
Carey got off to an uncharacteristically rough start, allowing multiple first-inning runs for just the second time since February 21 and multiple first-inning extra-base hits for the first time all season, giving Liberty a 2-0 lead after the first inning.
Carey worked through a scoreless second, but allowed another double to lead off the third. He followed with a wild pitch, but induced a strikeout and an infield grounder to nab the runner coming home. Carey then walked Trey McDyre, and missed his spot to Brady Gulakowski, who sent a three-run home run to left field.
That was just the third homer Carey allowed all season, but he shortly thereafter allowed another to open the fourth—his first multi-homer game in his 18 career starts. He then allowed a single, a steal, and an RBI single to centerfield.
Carey was then pulled, the first time he failed to get out of the fourth inning since March 28, when he allowed four runs to Georgia Tech; he exited Friday having allowed seven, a career-high, still on the hook for the runner on first.
Matt Dockman entered, allowed a single, got a fly-out, then gave up an RBI single and another three-run homer to Gulakowski. After Cam Locklear singled, Dockman was pulled for Richard Brereton, who finally ending the six-run frame by inducing a foul-out.
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Duke's offense started by hitting just one ball past the infield through its first 11 batters. Fortunately for them, that was a Peter Matt home run, snapping a 1-for-8 skid with seven strikeouts.
Duke put one total run on the scoreboard in the fourth, fifth and sixth. Matt stroked a two-out single in the fourth, and catcher Michael Rothenberg wore the next pitch off his ankle, but first baseman Chris Crabtree flew out to end the inning. In the fifth, designated hitter Rudy Maxwell, making his first start since April 6, knocked a two-out single and Joey Loperfido followed with a swinging drag bunt, although shortstop Ethan Murray was unable to capitalize and popped up to end that threat.
RJ Schreck led off the sixth with a single, and Matt followed with a double to get him his first three-hit game since May 7. Rothenberg scored Schreck with a groundout, and Crabtree took a HBP before Erikson Nichols grounded out to close that rally. A couple of HBPs and singles finally scored a couple runs in the eighth, but it wasn’t enough for the Blue Devils.
Meanwhile, Brereton, Josh Allen and Aaron Beasley combined to keep Liberty scoreless after the fourth, the latter making his first appearance since May 18.
Loperfido led off the ninth with a single, and after two quick outs, Matt hit his second home run. Rothenberg dropped a single and got to second on an error, but Crabtree struck out to end things.
The Blue Devils play again tomorrow at noon against No. 4-seed Wright State, and will now have to win four straight games to advance to the Super Regionals.
“I mean, the reality is: down the stretch, to make the ACC tournament, to make the NCAA tournament, we've been practically in elimination games anyway,” Pollard said. “So it isn't a whole lot different for us.”