Duke has had a fantastic season so far, but only rarely have opponents put the team out of its comfort zone. While the Blue Devils faltered under the weight of accumulating missteps in their second meeting with Clemson Saturday, they firmly outplayed the Tigers Sunday to take the three-game series with a 7-1 win.
“Thankfully haven't had a lot of games like that this season,” said head coach Marissa Young about the team’s strategy moving on from Saturday’s 10-2 loss. “It was really learning from that inning that sort of snowballed on us.”
No. 8 Duke’s first win against then-No. 19 Clemson (19-8, 1-5 in the ACC) Friday came in familiar fashion for the Blue Devils (23-4, 8-1) with dominant pitching and a pair of home runs.
Pitcher Peyton St. George was once again a force in the circle, facing less than four batters per inning on average and collecting eight strikeouts in her complete game with the help of some A+ framing from sophomore catcher Kelly Torres behind the plate.
Graduate student Rachel Crabtree’s three-run homer to left in the bottom of the fifth shut the door on the 6-2 win.
This type of performance has been typical for Duke all season. The pitching staff had allowed more than four runs in only two games prior to this series, and no pitcher on the staff has an ERA above 3.0.
The Blue Devils are also no stranger to the long ball. Collectively, they are averaging 1.81 home runs per game, fifth in the country, and lead the ACC with 49 total.
The next day was another story.
“[Saturday] was pretty uncharacteristic of us,” said head coach Marissa Young of the 10-2, run-rule defeat.
Senior pitcher Shelby Walters, usually making up a 1-2 punch with St. George, has been sidelined with injury since mid-February. In her place, sophomores Jala Wright, Claire Davidson and Lillie Walker have done a fine job, especially Wright, who holds a 1.00 WHIP in 42 innings pitched.
But multiple illegal pitch calls made against Wright in the game’s first few innings immediately put the pressure on.
“It's tough when it doesn't get called often or consistently,” said Young of the calls. “She's resilient and worked through it as much as she could, and then worked on it again [Sunday]. I think she'll be fine moving forward, but it was a stumbling block for her during that game.”
Neither Wright nor Davidson and Walker who relieved her could regain control of the game, as Wright exited after hitting two batters in the fourth inning. Clemson went on to score eight runs in the inning, aided by two throwing errors by second baseman Gisele Tapia.
Home runs would not be a Blue Devil Hail Mary, either. Even though Crabtree hit her second of the weekend in the bottom of the fourth, it was a solo shot. Senior Kristina Foreman took the plate next, but she knocked the ball just shy of the outfield fence, and no more Duke runners crossed home that inning.
On Sunday, it did not matter if Duke knocked a longball or not, as it batted around the order for five runs in the second off of speed and discipline.
Torres led off, taking first by beating out a throw from Clemson’s shortstop, and Foreman followed, getting on after a similar play.
Right fielder Caroline Jacobsen then loaded the bases by drawing a walk after going down 1-2, and pinch hitter Francesca Frelick was hit by a pitch to score the Blue Devils their first run.
After bringing the count full, center fielder Kamryn Jackson cleared the bases with a rocket double to right-center, and she was eventually brought around by a Jackson single.
Pinch hitter Sarah Goddard’s two-run home run in the bottom of the sixth just sweetened the deal of an 11-strikeout St. George clinic that Clemson had no chance of coming back in, as Duke was also locked in defensively.
Now more than halfway through the season, the Blue Devils have no more ranked opponents on their schedule, as they notably have no regular-seasons matchups with ACC powerhouses No. 2 Florida State and No. 6 Virginia Tech. All four of Duke’s losses on the season have come against ranked opponents.
Duke also bested a Clemson team whose star, Valerie Cagle, had a lackluster weekend, as the .305/.387/.598 hitter went just 1-for-7 with a single during Saturday’s blowout.
None of this is to say that the Blue Devils’ remaining opponents are pushovers, or that their bounce-back win Sunday is any less impressive, but it will be intriguing to see how the team works to keep improving on its trek toward the postseason.
“We needed to refocus and get back to playing Duke softball, which is going in and really committing to the plan and making plays,” said Young of the team’s philosophy Sunday.
Duke can’t always depend on a home run sailing over the fence, an opponent underperforming or an umpire’s scrutiny of a windup motion, but it is obvious that the team has what it takes to plan, play against tough opposition and get stronger, even after things go wrong.
Duke hits the road next weekend for a series against Notre Dame.
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