Elimination games are starting to look like they aren't a challenge for Duke, which delivered a brutal knockout punch Saturday to keep itself alive another day.
In the first of four possible elimination games for the second-seeded Blue Devils, they demolished No. 4-seed Wright State 14-6 to stay in the NCAA tournament at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in the Knoxville Regional. Less than 24 hours after getting walked-off by host Tennessee, the Raiders allowed an offensive onslaught that included a season-high six home runs, three off the bat of junior outfielder RJ Schreck. Despite a rocky start from freshman pitcher Luke Fox, the explosion from the plate was too much for the Raiders to overcome.
“I'm very proud of our club,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “Today our offense stepped up in a really big way, gave us some breathing room against a really good offensive team.”
The name of the game for Duke was Schreck. The Los Angeles native came out of the gate swinging for the fences, as the first pitch he saw was rocketed over the right field wall for Duke’s first scores of the game. In the third, following a Joey Loperfido walk, stolen base and Ethan Murray infield popup, Schreck took a hanging breaking pitch to the exact same spot that seemed miles away.
Murray added that “probably 15 minutes before the game RJ comes up to me, he goes, ‘that was the best batting practice I've ever had, like, every single ball I hit I think was 100 [miles per hour]-plus,’ and we saw the results, so obviously something was clicking there.”
Schreck wasn’t the only one to go yard after a walk, stolen base and infield pop out in the third, as senior Chris Crabtree muscled another offspeed pitch that found too much plate deep into the Tennessee sky. The 6-3 deficit by the end of the third was enough for Wright State to turn to its bullpen for a long day of trying to claw back.
The putaway inning for the Blue Devils was the fifth—after three runs had crossed with one out, Wright State brought in Bradley Deboutte, a sidearm southpaw whose release point induced a Loperfido strikeout. Murray clearly had better vision than his teammate as he nailed a 2-2 pitch over the left field fence, bringing up Schreck again. Almost unsurprisingly to Schreck and the Duke dugout, he returned a Deboutte offspeed pitch to the same spot over the right field wall for the slugger's third homer of the day. Holding up three fingers while rounding the bases, Schreck tallied his season-high-tying fifth RBI and tied the program record for home runs in a game.
“It's the best game I've ever played,” Schreck said with a grin.
His 4-for-6 line earned him his first career four-hit game, but it almost disappears on the statsheet next to five other Blue Devils who notched multi-hit games.
“I thought our offense is in a really good place,” Pollard said. “We swung the bat really well over the last five innings of that ballgame yesterday, and we're able to carry that into the day, there is no question that we carried momentum from the last five innings yesterday into today.”
Freshman pitcher Luke Fox made it through four innings on 94 pitches and after recording the final out of the fourth inning, he would likely have been done regardless of the score—he labored through the first two innings, giving up two walks and a double that had Duke’s coaching staff signaling for Jimmy Loper to get warm. With the score being 2-2 in the elimination game, Pollard was taking no risks.
“It's a win or go home scenario. So we were ready to go to Loper as early in the game as we needed to,” Pollard said.
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He finished the afternoon giving up six hits, three earned runs and six strikeouts, including one against Horizon League Player of the Year Quincy Hamilton. Over an hour after initially getting up to throw, Loper entered the game and delivered three innings of one-run ball to tide the Blue Devils over to the late innings, when sophomore Marcus Johnson came in to close it out.
The margin of victory also would have looked a bit different if not for Schreck’s glove—as if what he had contributed from the dish just wasn’t enough. Among nine putouts, including multiple plays that had the left fielder in a full sprint to the gap to track down a fly ball or deep into foul territory to snag another, Schreck showed off his leaping ability when he robbed MLB Draft prospect Tyler Black of a sixth-inning grand slam that would have narrowed the gap from 13-4 to 13-8.
“Off the bat, to be honest, I thought it was gonna be a routine flyball that I was gonna have a chance at,” Schreck said. “And the way the wind was blowing out to left during some parts of this game, it just kept going…I was able to time up my jump perfectly and bring back a grand slam and help our pitcher out.”
He also recorded the final out of the bottom of the ninth on a similar fly ball that had Schreck waiting to leap to grab the would-be extra base hit.
“He really honestly counted for five home runs,” Pollard said of his junior slugger, who now is batting 5-for-10 with five runs scored during the regional. “Because he hit three and he stole two, I don't know that I've ever seen a game play out that way, but as good as he was offensively he was equally as good defensively.”
Duke will face the loser of Saturday evening’s Tennessee–Liberty matchup Sunday at 2 p.m., with the winner of that game advancing to the regional final at 6. The Blue Devils will have junior Cooper Stinson on the bump to start the day, with their season once again on the line.