The Blue Devils hit a speed bump and cruised down the other side Sunday as Duke advances to the super regionals for the first time.
After falling to Georgia 5-3 in the first game of the afternoon, the winner-take-all game featured a roller coaster of tension and elation, with the Blue Devils defeating the hungry Bulldogs 13-5 in a six-inning run-rule win. Sophomore pitcher Jala Wright bounced back from a rough outing in the first game of the day to shut down Georgia while the Duke bats exploded after suffering from repeated empty trips.
“I'm really excited for what we've accomplished today as a program, as a team,” head coach Marissa Young said. “[I’m] really proud of our players in the way that they've fought through adversity today.”
The adversity was highlighted by Duke’s fighting from behind nearly all day long, star pitcher Peyton St. George being unable to get consistent outs and runners getting stranded in scoring position.
“They have all year responded from one loss to the next game and they don't allow things to snowball,” Young added.
The latter game, with winds picking up and the temperature dropping as some showers blew through Durham, began with an offensive explosion from the visiting Georgia team that knocked Duke out of last year’s regional. After shutting down her opponents to the tune of 14 straight scoreless innings, St. George was missing pitches left and right, leaving too many over the zone and sending her team into a 5-1 hole by the third. Highlighted by a ball crushed off the bat of Lacey Fincher for a three-run home run, the end of the road looked to be near for Duke.
“We knew the game was on the line and this wasn't going to be our last game. The book was already written and we just had to figure out how to see it through,” senior infielder Kristina Foreman said.
A two-out offensive firestorm for Duke in the bottom of the third knotted the game up at five apiece as four hits, an error and a two-run double by sophomore Kelly Torres made it a new ballgame. Georgia pitcher Madison Kerpics—who ultimately threw a whopping 330 pitches in a two-day span—was finally running out of steam after seeming invincible in Sunday’s matinee.
On the other side, Duke’s starter was struggling—St. George allowed a total of 10 hits through just three innings with two walks and no strikeouts. It was Wright’s time.
“We never were going to take anything off. Just gonna give us our best,” Wright said about her thoughts between games. “We all took a moment, took a deep breath and said, ‘We're gonna get this next game.’”
The transfer from Michigan State and Charlotte native tossed three perfect innings after taking the loss in the earlier game. Back-to-back strikeouts and a fierce pump of the fist to end the fourth drew a raucous ovation, and, for the first time all afternoon, had Duke in the driver’s seat.
The offensive onslaught of the third inning was outdone only by the bombardment of the fifth frame. Eleven Blue Devils came up to bat and that same number was on the scoreboard for Duke when the inning was all said and done. A single by sophomore Julia Boyet, making her 15th plate appearance of the season, was followed by a bases-loaded walk to give Duke the lead and then some.
“We were just seeing a ball and hitting a ball. Just building off of one another,” Foreman said after going 2-for-2 with five RBI in the second game.
Foreman swatted a bases-clearing double to left-center field later in that inning to make it a 10-5 ballgame. A sixth-inning double off the bat of graduate student Jameson Kavel walked it off for the Blue Devils, who mobbed in a dogpile in the middle of the infield.
“Calling plays to get the ball rolling is what I feel like my job is and that's the beauty of our team,” Young said.
After blowing multiple opportunities to score in the loss, the championship game was highlighted by Duke’s ability to produce runs at will, illustrated by its eight runs scored with two outs.
As good as Young’s “Team Five” looked under the lights, the opposite was true in the sweltering heat of the early afternoon. Wright’s pitches weren’t finding her spots and Georgia was collecting strings of hits while Duke seldom converted with runners on. Four consecutive scoring innings for the Bulldogs proved to be enough to fend off several Blue Devil comeback attempts.
With the regional title locked up, the Blue Devils again ascend to historic heights as they reach their first-ever super regional, where they will face UCLA in Los Angeles next weekend.
“What I wanted for the program from day one is to be playing at the Women's College World Series,” Young said, having qualified to Oklahoma City twice during her time as the star pitcher at Michigan from 2000-2003.
Before Oklahoma City, Duke still has to win two of three against the fifth-seeded Bruins, who have the most dominant history in the sport.
“It’s amazing. This is what we wanted,” Wright said. “This is the best feeling ever… this is what we worked on all season and we're not done yet.”
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.