Schedule changes and rain delays would not fluster Duke on its way to sweeping Pittsburgh and finishing the regular season with the second-best record in the ACC.
Not only did the tenth-ranked Blue Devils show off the overpowering pitching and lineup-wide offensive contributions that have been their trademarks all year, but they showed maturity and poise on defense, which put them firmly ahead of the Panthers in their 9-1 victory Thursday and their 3-2 and 6-1 wins during Friday’s doubleheader.
“We have a rock they painted outside of our dugout their freshman year that said 40 on it,” head coach Marissa Young said of the team’s graduating seniors and graduate students, who were celebrated before the last game of the series. “For them to get their 40th win on our home field and the last Senior Day game is just really special and a product of all of their hard work and commitment to this program.”
Graduate student pitcher Peyton St. George started Thursday's game for Duke (40-7, 19-3 in the ACC) and shut down the Pittsburgh lineup, notching eight strikeouts across six innings of play.
The Panthers’ only break came in the top of the fourth. On the first pitch of the inning, Pittsburgh’s leadoff hitter Yvonne Whaley lined a shot right above St. George’s head, which the pitcher flagged down. After St. George took a moment to regroup, Pittsburgh right fielder Bailey Drapola took the next pitch on a ride over the center field fence for the visiting team's only hit and only run of the game.
The Duke fielders behind St. George were big contributors to this, particularly middle infielders and team veterans Jameson Kavel and Kristina Foreman as well as outfielders Kyla Morris and Deja Davis. Those four players combined for sixteen putouts and eight assists on the series, handling bouncing infield grounders and skied foul flies without issue.
While Pittsburgh’s defense also put up a valiant effort in the face of Duke’s bats, its lack of range was a sore spot that Duke capitalized on.
Kavel led off the bottom half of the first with a single that snuck past diving Panther first baseman Sarah Seamans. Kavel proceeded to swipe her 12th base of the year before first baseman Rachel Crabtree knocked another one to Seamans, who bobbled the ball and failed to retire a runner. Crabtree also stole second, and both runners easily took home following a Foreman bunt squeeze and a wild pitch.
To seal the game up in the sixth inning, pitch hitter Sarah Goddard nabbed another infield single when Pittsburgh second baseman Ana Hernandez failed to handle a grounder knocked her way. Designated player Gisele Tapia then bashed a solid line to the center field wall, advanced to third while the relay throw home arrived behind Goddard and finished her trip around the bases when third baseman Kayla Lane did not cleanly handle the throw from catcher Rachael Fuerst.
Duke had to deal with some defensive miscues of its own in the second game of the series, with three errors being charged to freshman third baseman Ana Gold. One such error was a throw that pulled Crabtree off of first base and allowed Pittsburgh’s Whaley to reach safely and eventually round the bases as one of two Panther runs.
However, Duke starting pitcher Claire Davidson allowed no more runs in her five-plus innings of work and no other Duke players committed an error, leading Pittsburgh (14-27, 2-20) to collect only one extra-base hit and strand eleven runners on the base path.
Despite two separate hour-long rain delays, Duke's pitching continued dealing and its bats continued mashing in the third and final game.
Sophomore pitcher Jala Wright threw six innings of one-run ball and combined with St. George and sophomore Lillie Walker to close out the season and bring the team’s ERA down to 1.74, which leads the ACC. Gold rebounded in the field, logging four error-free assists. She was also one of seven Duke batters with a hit on the day, closing out the season as one of the key contributors to the team’s ACC-leading 86 home runs and 331 RBI.
“I think for us is just continuing consistency that we've had all year,” said Young of the team’s preparation for the postseason. “When we're at our best, we pitch well, we hit well and we play good defense. That's the key for us as a coaching staff: to make sure they're prepared for our upcoming opponent and our team can go out there and execute and play with confidence.”
The Blue Devils begin postseason play at the ACC tournament Thursday in Pittsburgh as the No. 2 seed.
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