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Despite role changes, Duke baseball rallies for opening series win against Virginia Military Institute

Marcus Johnson started Duke's game on Friday and gave up four earned runs.
Marcus Johnson started Duke's game on Friday and gave up four earned runs.

For the first time in 740 days, Duke took the field with fans lining the stadium. And while the weekend may not have had a storybook opening, the Blue Devils closed the weekend on a high note.

Duke rebounded from an opening-day loss to take a 2-1 series win over VMI, outscoring the Keydets 22-18. Luke Fox and Billy Seidl held the VMI bats to just one run on four hits on Saturday, while the Blue Devil offense did just enough to win the rubber match 8-7. Across the weekend, third baseman Graham Pauley, designated hitter Chad Knight, and left fielder Chris Davis combined to hit .355/.535/.484 with 10 runs, with first baseman Chris Crabtree going 2-for-3 with a walk, double, home run, and three RBIs on Sunday.

With Duke missing multiple players for most of the weekend, including preseason All-American right fielder RJ Schreck (out with undisclosed day-to-day injury) and strikeout artist John Natoli, the weekend was as much a showcase for the Blue Devil depth as it was an adjustment period for their new starters.

“The biggest difference this year relative to last year: Last year, we jumped into conference play on the second weekend of the season; this year, we've got nearly three weeks to kind of figure out our depth before we start ACC play,” said head coach Chris Pollard. “Candidly, there's still a lot of figuring out to do, in putting guys in the best positions to be successful. But I thought we took a good step in that direction this weekend.”

The first veteran entering a new role to play was Marcus Johnson. The preseason All-American made his first start Friday, having been a fireman last year and finishing with a 2.61 ERA over his last 51.2 innings. It did not go well. The leadoff Keydet homered, and Johnson got pulled in the fifth after the VMI lead grew to 5-1. A Keydet five-spot in the seventh on relievers Josh Allen and Colten Smith sealed the loss.

VMI again opened the scoring on Saturday too. After getting a man on and stealing second, left fielder Will Knight strung a ball to left-center just past a ranging Davis. A Pauley leadoff double helped put runners at the corners in the bottom half before a Lux sac fly tied it up.

Duke took control of Saturday in the fourth inning, the bottom of the lineup putting two on—including freshman catcher Andrew Yu’s first-career hit—before Pauley loaded the bases on a single. Shortstop Alex Mooney followed with the go-ahead RBI, a chopper down the third-base line for the freshman's first-career hit. Crabtree then struck out on three pitches, but Chad Knight kept it moving with a single to left, Lux following with a sac fly.

Pauley might be facing the biggest change for any Blue Devil this season, having hit his way to the bench last season before breaking out in the Sun Belt summer league. And in his first weekend atop the lineup, he continued that breakout.

On the mound, sophomore Luke Fox started a bit rocky, working his pitch count up. After notching 12.2 strikeouts-per-nine innings last year, he had trouble with two-strike counts early, registering only three punchouts and needing an average of 2.6 pitches extra pitches in at-bats he got to two strikes in those first three innings.

But Fox found his form as he progressed, needing fewer pitches each inning, ultimately closing on a seven-pitch fifth. Across his last two frames, he got four batters to two-strike counts, needing only 1.6 extra pitches in those at-bats. Billy Seidl recorded the four-inning save, having some trouble locating but still recording a very good 39.6% called-strikes-plus-whiffs (CSW).

Seidl’s entering his first full year after recovering from Tommy John surgery that wiped out his freshman campaign. He might be starting or in high-leverage long relief, but he’s suddenly a key piece to the pitching staff.

In the eighth, a pair of walks—including designated hitter Chad Knight’s third of the day, a career-high—a Keydet error, and a 106-mph detonation off the bat of centerfielder Damon Lux broke the game open. Three hundred and sixty-seven feet later, Duke led 9-1.

Lux, the team’s everyday centerfielder, is in his fourth year in the program. He’s already more than doubled his career hits and RBIs.

VMI scored first again in the rubber match, bringing in a double in the second inning. Duke starter Cooper Stinson settled in a bit after that, making it through to the fifth inning with a reasonable pitch count despite having had to work early. He never managed to record a 1-2-3 inning, though, and allowed the first three batters to reach via hit-by-pitch (Stinson recorded three on the day), home run and single. And that was the end of his outing.

Stinson at least left with the lead, thanks to Blue Devils bats that kept up Saturday’s pace. A nearly 10-degree drop in temperature meant they needed a little longer to warm up, but warm up they did, plating six before Stinson’s exit. Crabtree crushed a 435-footer to dead center for the first lead. The other four runs came the old-fashioned way, on four walks, a stolen base, two two-out singles, and a couple of errors forced with runners on.

Ryan Higgins relieved Stinson, becoming the third freshman to make his Blue Devil debut this weekend. With a runner on first and no outs, Higgins allowed the situation to get interesting, but came back for a strikeout and pop-up to end the threat. He made light work of the sixth, benefiting from Mooney’s first web gem to record a nine-pitch frame.

Left-hander Jonathan Santucci came on to relieve Higgins in the seventh, freshman debutant following freshman debutant. And to say his opening was rough would be an understatement. He got ahead of his first batter, but then threw eight-straight balls to put runners at the corners without no outs. He threw gas harder than most veterans, but had trouble locating or generating whiffs; a hanging fastball driven through the right side ended Santucci’s day.

Closer Jimmy Loper stranded Santucci’s two runners, easily retiring the next three batters. He got the first two outs of the eighth with little trouble, but a couple walks and bases-loaded two-run single cut the lead to 8-7. Duke escaped the jam thanks only to a review, turning a hit batsman into a strikeout.

The Blue Devils stranded runners at corners with no outs in the bottom of the eighth, but Loper retired the ninth 1-2-3—although that third batter came about 15 feet shy of tying the game.

“It's so awesome to see a full team come together and being able to rely on so many different guys,” said Crabtree. “I think that's going to be a theme for this year: That there's a lot of contribution from a lot of different players. And it's awesome to see as a leader. It's awesome to see everybody doing what they can and contributing in special ways that they know they can.”

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