Despite the absence of head coach Chris Pollard from the first two games of Duke’s weekend series at Georgia Tech due to health and safety protocols, it was clear his rallying cry was not forgotten: Stay in the fight.
The Blue Devils fell 12-11 in a nail-biting series opener Friday in which the Yellow Jackets overcame a five-run deficit to walk it off in the tenth inning. Duke went on to secure an 8-4 win Saturday before clawing its way to a 15-14 victory Sunday, even as Georgia Tech almost surmounted a seven-run gap.
“I told them, I've been a part of a lot of great moments in Duke baseball history over the last ten years, but I don't know that I've ever been any more proud of a team than I was [Saturday] with the way we responded,” Pollard shared about the team’s performance in his absence. “I thought it was a terrific job by Josh Jordan, our associate head coach. I was really proud of our staff and the job they did.”
Georgia Tech’s offense is smoking hot, averaging 9.6 runs per game, the highest mark in the ACC. The Yellow Jackets (25-16, 10-11 in the ACC) certainly exhibited their prowess this weekend, but Duke (18-22, 8-13) hit back just as hard. Paced by junior third baseman Graham Pauley, senior left fielder RJ Schreck and freshman shortstop Alex Mooney, the Blue Devils collected 43 hits, including 10 home runs.
The Blue Devil bombardment started straight away, as leadoff hitter Mooney sent the first pitch of Friday’s game over the fence in right field.
After that, Pauley was hit by a pitch, Schreck singled and they took off for a double steal. Yellow Jacket catcher Kevin Parada overshot second, allowing Pauley to score. Schreck finished his trip around the diamond easily when designated hitter Chad Knight launched a home run to center field, putting the Blue Devils ahead 4-0 in the first inning.
Despite more crafty at bats, like a textbook bunt squeeze by graduate student second baseman Wil Hoyle, and some A+ offense from center fielder Devin Obee, Duke could never quite pull away. After a trio of singles in the bottom of the seventh, Yellow Jacket third baseman Drew Compton knocked a grand slam and rounded the bases to make it a one-run game. Moments later, Georgia Tech scored center fielder Colin Hall on a sacrifice fly to tie things up at 11-11.
Neither team could score again until the 10th, when Yellow Jacket first baseman Andrew Jenkins socked a double on an 0-2 count and sprinted home on another RBI from Compton.
“We're having far too many times where we have the advantage of the count and we have the ability to force the opponent to swing at a pitch that's outside of the zone and we're making mistakes in the zone, and that's costing us,” said Pollard of what he wants to work on with his pitching staff.
Sunday’s game looked like it was about to play out exactly like Friday’s.
The Blue Devils exploded offensively in the first two frames, with Pauley going yard for the third time in the weekend and a pair of doubles from Knight and first baseman Luke Storm to add another run. Mooney and Pauley collected walks before they too rounded the bases after a Schreck four-bagger.
Duke entered the fourth with a 7-0 lead, but again, Georgia Tech would not be left behind, as the heart of its lineup knocked three long balls in the fourth inning to put the Yellow Jackets back within striking distance, trailing 7-3.
Tensions were high going into the ninth inning. The Yellow Jackets trailed by just one and head coach Danny Hall had been thrown out of the game in the scoreless eighth after a spirited conversation with the home plate umpire.
The Blue Devil bats came through again, as Hoyle launched his second home run of the game to score Obee before Pauley collected his fifth hit of the weekend, a double to bring home Mooney. Those three runs were just enough to hold off the Yellow Jackets, who put up three runs of their own in the bottom half of the ninth.
“I think a lot of that is just maturity,” said Pollard of the team’s recent offensive success. “We're very young and very inexperienced…. Even the guys that are upperclassmen in our lineup, except for RJ Shrek and Will Hoyle, this is their first year of being everyday players. I think it's just taken guys time to get the experience to where now they're producing better.”
Saturday’s matchup was a more measured performance from both sides, as each offense was held scoreless through the fifth inning. Freshman southpaw Jonathan Santucci logged four scoreless frames for the Blue Devils while John Medich exited in the sixth for the Yellow Jackets.
Schreck not only batted in Duke's first two runs, combining with a three-run Pauley blast to put the game out of reach, but also denied his opponents a run by extending his glove over the left-field wall after a running leap to rob a Georgia Tech home run.
Duke now has a week off before facing High Point in a Sunday double-header and Campbell May 3.
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