(B)RUINED: Duke softball eliminated from super regionals with loss to UCLA

Despite a steady performance from Peyton St. George, Duke's season came to an end Saturday against UCLA.
Despite a steady performance from Peyton St. George, Duke's season came to an end Saturday against UCLA.

Duke's ascension to ACC and national contention has been continuous and steady. But in the biggest game in their five-year history, the Blue Devils’ crushing loss was punctuated only by sharp swings from UCLA to Duke and back again.

The 12th-seeded Blue Devils closed their season Saturday in Los Angeles with an 8-2 loss to No. 5-seed UCLA, getting swept in their first-ever super regional. After losing a winner-take-all game to Georgia in the 2021 regionals, Duke closed the 2022 NCAA Durham Regional with a win in another do-or-die matchup with the Bulldogs to face UCLA.

Following a Duke loss in game one Friday, graduate pitcher Peyton St. George took the mound for the Blue Devils and struck out five over six innings of three-run ball. Designated player Deja Davis, first baseman Rachel Crabtree and center fielder Kamryn Jackson combined to reach safely in six of their nine plate appearances, while right fielder Caroline Jacobsen added a two-run home run.

“Every year, you want to get a little bit farther than years past,” said Duke head coach Marissa Young. “And losing in regionals last year, this year [we were] just really hungry to come back and make it to the super regionals. And we want to be at the [Women's College] World Series. So this is just one step closer to that. And now that a new crop of young women understand what it takes to compete at this level, [they] are going to come back hungry for that again next year.”

The sixth inning was shaping up to be all Duke. It entered the home half down 3-2, but Davis led off with a full-count walk. Crabtree tried to sacrifice-bunt Davis to second, but popped the ball up low and in front of the plate, where UCLA catcher Delanie Wisz and third baseman Thessa Malau'ulu dove into each other, allowing the ball to drop for a single.

After two strikeouts, Jacobsen stepped up to the plate. Jacobsen, who had hit a game-tying two-run home run in her previous at-bat, and had hit 12 game-tying, game-winning or walk-off home runs since her 2020 breakout—more than 40% of her long balls across that span.

Jacobsen spat on two balls inside. Then, suddenly, Wisz threw down to second base, where Crabtree was in between first and second, attempting a steal but nowhere near reaching safely. Davis was still on third; the double steal sign was likely not read properly. Crabtree was all by herself, ending Duke’s last best chance.

“[Did I breathe] a sigh of relief? Yeah, definitely,” said UCLA head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez. “[Wisz] can throw, she can play catch, and that's what that play called for, is our ability to play catch. It was a called play… That was a rally-killer right there.”

Blue Devil pitcher Jala Wright came on in relief for the seventh and allowed two-straight soft-hit infield singles. Bruin shortstop Briana Perez then laid down a sacrifice bunt, one that should’ve been an easy out. But Duke catcher Francesca Frelick allowed Crabtree to field a ball that the latter had no chance of throwing to first in time. With the bases loaded, Wisz hit a two-run double to stretch UCLA's lead to 5-2.

UCLA center fielder Maya Brady followed that with a dribbler down the first-base line. Perez was running from third on contact, but Crabtree stared at home for a second before throwing to Frelick. By that point, Perez had scored, Brady was safe at first and the Bruins were more than halfway into a five-run frame.

The Blue Devils first got on the board in the fourth. Crabtree led off with a line drive to left field for their first hit, and Foreman's sacrifice bunt moved the runner to second. Jacobsen followed, having missed a home run in her first appearance by no more than a foot. She took a called strike on a changeup down and in from Bruin starting pitcher Holly Azevedo, then fouled off a drop ball in the same spot. Jacobsen fouled off two more, including a changeup down and away, but she wasn’t going to swing over another low pitch. Azevedo sent a drop ball down and away, and the sound off of Jacobsen’s bat left no doubt: a two-run home run, tying the game at 2-2.

UCLA struck back in the fifth, with a single, steal and two-out double off the top of the center-field wall from Wisz. That gave the Bruins a 3-2 lead.

The Blue Devils opened with excellent pitching, as St. George retired the side on 12 pitches. She blinked in the second inning, allowing a two-strike leadoff single, steal, walk and a wild pitch to put runners at the corners with no outs. She managed to sit down the next three batters, but not before UCLA opened the scoring with a sacrifice fly.

The Bruins’ bats sparked again in the fourth with Brady going the opposite way for a one-out solo home run. After another groundout, UCLA put two in scoring position with a bloop single and a sharp grounder that just barely stayed fair of third base. St. George, never one to lose a high-leverage moment, induced a soft groundout to strand the runners. The score stood at 2-0 midway through the do-or-die affair.

At the plate, Duke couldn’t match Friday’s hot start. By the end of the second inning, four of the first seven Blue Devil hitters had fallen into two-strike counts, with three striking out. Duke, an excellent fastball-hitting team, struggled heavily with Azevedo’s changeup and slider.

The loss marks the final games in blue and white for St. George, Jacobsen, Crabtree, Foreman, first-team All-ACC shortstop Jameson Kavel and starting left fielder Kyla Morris. Shelby Walters, last year’s ERA leader who has been out since February with a foot injury, is also leaving Duke. That makes eight career All-ACC selections saying goodbye to Durham.

“I'm really proud of my kids, I felt like they could play with anyone in the country, and we're just a couple of plays away or a couple hits away from getting over that hump,” said Young. “And so I think that this is going to continue to build confidence in the players returning, and hopefully continue to help us on the recruiting trail, for people to see that Duke softball can compete at this level.”


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