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'Wasn't pretty': Duke baseball takes one game in hectic weekend series against Baylor

Despite the series loss, Marcus Johnson bounced back after a challenging first start, with 5.1 innings of two-run ball.
Despite the series loss, Marcus Johnson bounced back after a challenging first start, with 5.1 innings of two-run ball.

Duke escaped its three-game weekend series at Baylor with a tight loss Friday and a split double-header Sunday that was, to put it lightly, a mess.

The series opener at Baylor Ballpark in Waco, Texas was a mostly clean game from both teams, with successful outings for multiple Duke pitchers, including junior starter Marcus Johnson. Despite that, the bats just didn’t get hot at the right times for the Blue Devils, who fell 4-2. 

The double-header that followed was made up of two ugly performances for both competitors, who collected a combined 27 walks, five hit by pitches and 37 runners stranded on base in a total of six hours and thirty eight minutes of playing time. 

All of this led to a 12-3 Blue Devil loss in the first game, with runs given up by five Duke pitchers, and a 4-2 win in the second contest. The two-run win was supported by third baseman Graham Pauley’s long ball and winning pitching from right-hander Jimmy Loper, who pitched the last three innings. 

“I thought they were resilient and gritty. I told our guys after the second game that they did a really good job of staying in the fight,” said head coach Chris Pollard about the win to close out the series. “It wasn't pretty. We've got a lot of things we need to continue to improve upon, but I liked our ability to stay competitive in that second game, even despite the fact that we didn't do some things well.”

Regardless of the lower final scores, the aforementioned mess was just as present in the second game Sunday as the first. 

Duke (4-3) starter Billy Seidl entered the bottom of the first with a 1-0 lead, but he was in trouble, fast. His pitches were tailing high, causing him to issue two walks and two hit by pitches before collecting a second out, walking in a run for the Bears (3-4). 

However, Seidl stayed in it, quickly dismissing the next two batters on swinging strikeouts to stop the damage. 

Duke took control of the game in the eighth. Leading off the inning with the game tied at 2-2, Pauley launched a home run over the right center fence to give the Blue Devils the lead for the first time since the opening inning. 

Two singles, one each from center fielder Damon Lux and catcher Chad Knight, plus walks from right fielder Trevor Johnson and left fielder Jake Topolski, brought in another run to bring the score to 4-2. 

Going into his second inning of pitching, Loper took the mound for the bottom of the eighth, squashing any comeback attempt from Baylor with three backwards Ks in four batters. His curveball was dancing in and out of the zone on command, generating called strikes and whiffs. 

“I thought it was really encouraging to see, that's probably the most swing-and-miss I've seen on his curveball,” said Pollard of Loper’s pitching Sunday. “I thought he showed a lot of competitive fire.”

The prior half of the double header swerved into true blowout territory in the bottom of the sixth, with Baylor leading 2-1. Duke’s starter, the lefty Luke Fox, had an impressive showing up to that point, allowing only two runs, but was done for the day after issuing two walks to open up the half inning. 

In came right-hander Ryan Higgins to relieve him. The freshman received a tough call on a curve ball for ball four to load the bases for the Bears, and the half inning quickly got out of hand from there. 

The Blue Devils issued three more walks, a hit by pitch and three singles, allowing a total of seven runs in the inning. That was a deficit from which Duke could not recover, despite loading the bases with only one out in the eighth. 

Friday’s loss saw Johnson on the mound, making the second start of his college career. The junior team captain and preseason All-American is coming off of a fantastic season where he played a key role in the Blue Devils’ ACC Championship, but also where he mostly played the role of closer. 

In his first college start in Duke’s season opener, he gave up five runs in a little over four innings of work—four of them earned—and only collected three strikeouts. 

In Friday’s contest, though, he seemed totally removed from that performance, as Johnson allowed only two runs in just over five innings, and worked a whopping nine Ks. 

“Marcus is the best prepared pitcher on our staff,” said Pollard of his performance. “I knew that he would take last week as a learning opportunity and build on it, and he went out on Friday and pitched exceptionally well.”

Despite only two additional runs given up by left hander Josh Allen and two hits from Knight, the Blue Devil bats just could not close the gap Friday, leaving seven runners stranded and allowing Baylor pitcher Tyler Thomas to go for six scoreless innings. 

Duke looks to come back in familiar form Tuesday in Durham Bulls Athletic Park with a game against East Carolina at 4 pm.

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