On the brink of elimination from postseason contention and feeling the heat, the Blue Devils pulled through to avoid a sweep at the hands of their rivals from Raleigh.
Duke took the series finale 7-4 against N.C. State Sunday at Jack Coombs Field to keep its delicate footing in the ACC tournament picture with just one week to go in the regular season. After falling behind early, the Blue Devils rode a dominant bullpen and the hot bat of Luke Storm to end the three-game set on a high note. Duke fell in the first two games 5-3 and 13-5, demanding a resilient team effort to win it on Senior Day.
“We were resilient today. We were tough. We had to grind early. We fell behind early,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “We were tough enough to have a response and, and then from a pitching standpoint, the job by Luke Fox and the job by Jimmy Loper over the second half of the ballgame, gave life to our offense.”
The Blue Devils (21-29, 10-17 in the ACC) entered the weekend with the 13th-best conference record while needing to secure a top-12 standing to qualify for the conference tournament in Charlotte.
“We're backs up against a wall. We're basically playing elimination games right now,” Pollard added. “And we got to have that type of fight and we got to have that type of bend but don't break kind of approach.”
With the stands behind home plate nearly full—with a majority representing the visiting Wolfpack (32-17, 14-12)—the game finished with a much different tone from what the trajectory looked to be early on. The start belonged to recent graduate Cooper Stinson, but his brief outing was rocky and called for another day of counting on arms out of the bullpen.
“We've kind of been unconventional here late because we go into more of an opener approach,” Pollard said about his pitching tactics.
Duke turned a 4-1 deficit in the fourth inning into a 4-4 tie with a pair of hits followed by a trio of walks and a sacrifice fly off the bat of sophomore Luke Storm. Storm’s game-tying fly was already enough to rile up the Blue Devil fans in attendance, but the rising star first baseman and right fielder earned more praise for his dazzling weekend later in the afternoon.
The Easton, Pa., native has batted .545 (12-for-22) with 11 RBI and five doubles in the last six conference games—with no hit bigger than his sixth-inning two-bagger off the top of the left-center-field wall to score Duke’s fifth and sixth runs of the afternoon.
“He’s just got to be in contention for ACC Player of the Week with the type of weekend it was—it was really, really good and I feel like he gets better every single ballgame,” Pollard said of his young slugger and his game-winning hit.
The game wouldn’t have been in reach without the steady work of southpaw Luke Fox to calm the N.C. State lineup from the fourth to the sixth inning. Fox, who all but lost his starting role after early-season struggles, pitched 2.2 hitless innings featuring three strikeouts to earn the win and extend his stretch without allowing an earned run to eight innings. His "stuff," in the words of Pollard, allowed him to carve through the Wolfpack batters that, until Fox took the mound, were each onerous outs.
“[Pitchers who get moved to the bullpen] give in to that and go into their shell, and [Fox] has done just the opposite. It's actually made him better. He's actually gone out of his way to embrace it and be really good at it,” Pollard said.
Following up a four-walk inning by sophomore pitcher Adam Boucher, Fox—and some offensive production—were much-needed to put an end to the chaotic start to the game on both sides, in which errors, wild pitches and an abundance of walks led to runs crossing without balls hitting the outfield grass.
Senior Jimmy Loper closed the game with his own three scoreless innings, including a sequence in which two borderline strike calls—the called third strike on a low and inside fastball—went his way to frustrate the visiting fans and avoid loading the bases in the Wolfpack’s final threat. Loper's prevailing tosses earned many a fist pump from his catcher Alex Stone and much applause from the home fans looking to see one last home weekend victory.
In games one and two of the weekend series, the Blue Devils' pitching was battered while the offense couldn’t create much with the exception of the aforementioned Storm and few others. They flipped the script for game three as the opposition only collected six hits with the hosts emerging victorious.
Duke next turns to Davidson before traveling to Blacksburg, Va., for its final regular-season series against No. 5 Virginia Tech as the Blue Devils aim to fight their way into the ACC tournament.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.