2021 was a breakout year for Duke, as “Team Four” was the ACC champion, made the program's first NCAA tournament and missed the NCAA Super Regionals by just one run. That team likely wouldn’t have missed that stage, however, if it had scored more than two runs across its first 25 innings at the NCAA tournament.
After the Blue Devils tagged Virginia for 24 runs this weekend, just the second team this year to score more than 10 in a series against the Cavaliers, it’s safe to say Duke’s offense is no impediment.
The ninth-ranked Blue Devils swept Virginia this past weekend, outscoring the Cavaliers 24-9 and trailing for only two innings. After a Friday rainout, Duke took both ends of the Saturday doubleheader behind Peyton St. George’s save and win, and used a seven-run inning to waltz to a Sunday victory. Center fielder Kamryn Jackson, shortstop Jameson Kavel and second baseman Kristina Foreman combined to hit .538/.636/1.000, with Jackson adding two stolen bases and St. George and Jala Wright combining to post a 1.56 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 18 innings.
“It's made life a lot easier knowing that our offense is gonna put up so many runs,” said head coach Marissa Young. “And it's a lot of fun when we're able to work people in and out of the lineup to give everybody opportunities, and know that we're not sacrificing anything. It just really speaks to the maturity and growth of our upperclassmen and how they developed in the program.”
Last year, the Blue Devils (32-5, 14-2 in the ACC) scored 5.3 runs per game, good for third in the ACC; this year, Duke paces the conference. The Blue Devils sit first in the ACC in batting average, first in on-base percentage, first in slugging (by nearly 100 points), first in home runs per game and have grounded into only one double play all season. That translates to Duke ranking nationally: fifth in runs per game, seventh in batting average, sixth in on-base percentage, fourth in slugging and eighth in home runs per game. It’s fair to say this is rarified air.
“Hitting is contagious with our team, and we have a lot of confidence in our lineup, one through nine,” said Jackson. “And we know if we don't get the job done, then we pass the bat back, and our teammates behind us will do the job.”
The offensive explosion has come throughout the lineup, as nearly every single qualified Duke hitter is having a career year. Of its 10 qualified hitters, eight have already set or are on pace to set a career-high in home runs, while senior outfielder Kyla Morris has set a career-high in doubles. Five returning Blue Devils are at career-highs in average, on-base and slugging; superutility infielder Gisele Tapia is at career-highs in on-base and slugging, and first basesman Rachel Crabtree and right fielder Caroline Jacobsen only eclipsed their current lines during the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
The success at the plate even extends to the bench, where three of Duke’s top-four substitute bats have an OPS above .920; the national average is around .740. Backup catcher Francesca Frelick went a perfect 3-for-3 against Virginia (22-19, 8-7) at the plate Sunday with two doubles—in the same inning.
“It really comes down [to the bench players being] super bought in to embracing their role, and committed to working at those situations so they're prepared for them when they come up,” said Young. “I think we're just really a good, team-first group of young ladies. And as a staff, we really try to continue to highlight and acknowledge the work that the role players are putting in and how they continue to improve, even though they may not be everyday players.”
The only qualified Blue Devil not having a career year is designated hitter Deja Davis, who started this season off slowly after receiving All-American honors last year, suffering a wrist injury early and hitting below the Mendoza Line just a month ago. Since then, she’s batted .367/.457/.567 while playing through that injury.
“It's really tough: you look up and down our lineup, and there's no breaks or drop-offs,” said Young. “And pitchers have to pitch tough to every batter, and I think that can wear down a pitcher, knowing that if they make a mistake to anybody in our lineup, something big was going to happen… Obviously, [Davis] is a key contributor, and has a lot to offer at the plate. So having her back, on top of her game, obviously helps us tremendously.”
Scoring droughts were the 2021 Blue Devils’ Achilles heel. They started 14-1 in ACC play, then dropped nine of their next 10 while plating just 1.5 runs a game and hitting around the Mendoza Line for series at a time. In the NCAA tournament, Duke could only muster two runs in its opening win, was forced into an extra game because of a 1-0 loss to Georgia, and needed 12 innings to score against Western Kentucky.
This year, the Blue Devils scored just three total runs in their pair of conference losses. But those are the only times they've put up fewer than three runs in an ACC game this year, something they accomplished eight times in 2021. And with No. 5 Virginia Tech taking two of three games against No. 2 Florida State this past weekend, Duke simply needs to avoid dropping multiple games to two of the bottom three teams in the conference, and it’ll be the No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament.
First, the Blue Devils have a midweek doubleheader in Harrisonburg, Va., against a 2021 College World Series team in James Madison that is currently sitting with a record below .500.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.