Entering the super regional, Duke was riding the high of destroying Georgia with its high-powered offense. In Los Angeles, the Blue Devils met their ultimate match.
The 12th-seeded Blue Devils’ NCAA tournament run ended Saturday at the hands of No. 5-seed UCLA. Falling 8-2 after losing 3-2 the night prior, Duke's fifth year as a program came to an abrupt halt thanks to UCLA’s ability to handle the Blue Devils’ top-notch hitting and uncharacteristic struggles from Duke’s pitching staff.
“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,“ Young said postgame.
The Blue Devils, who hosted the regional round in Durham for the first time in program history, had their region paired with that of UCLA as the 5-against-12 chunk of the tournament bracket. While Georgia gave them some trouble and forced a winner-take-all championship game back home a week ago, the biggest danger to Young’s team lay ahead of them the whole time.
“UCLA was the next opponent that we had to figure out how to win a couple games in the series against to get to the next step,” Young said about preparing to take on the Bruins. One of the hottest teams and highest seeds remaining—second only to No. 1-seed Oklahoma—was not just another opponent for Duke.
Despite being the natural underdog to the No. 5 seed and the most dominant program in the sport’s history, Duke definitely had the tools to pull off the upset. Especially after No. 2-seed and ACC tournament champion Florida State lost in its regional, seeding became trivial for predicting the outcomes of the super regionals.
The Blue Devils own the fourth-best scoring offense and fifth-best batting clip in the nation. But their opponents in the super regional round lay claim to the second-best ERA mark by a pitching staff. That alone made for a spectacle at Easton Stadium over the weekend as eyes across the nation tuned in to see if Young’s squad could push toward Oklahoma City or whether 2019’s national champion team would return for the seventh-straight season.
The battles with Duke hitters at the plate delivered—a Caroline Jacobsen home run in the bottom of the fourth tied up game two and showed the country that the Blue Devils were coming back from their late-inning loss in game one with a vengeance. But like game one, two early scores transformed into a pitching performance for the ages.
Star pitcher Megan Faraimo, who entered Saturday’s game for the final three frames, locked up Duke hitters with seven strikeouts. She tossed 10 dominant innings with 17 strikeouts across the two games. It was the other side of the ball that was the dagger to the Blue Devils' Women's College World Series hopes.
UCLA and Duke also own the 12th-best offense and 16th-best pitching staff, respectively. Those narrow margins in favor of the Bruins earned them both the No. 5 seed and the series sweep.
The Duke staff previously allowed a practically unassailable 2.39 runs per game, but graduate student Peyton St. George and sophomore Jala Wright fell short in the circle when it mattered most. The pair, which finished the year with 2.07 and 2.09 ERAs, respectively, surrendered a collective six runs in the final three innings of their season.
“Another gutsy performance from [St. George], giving everything she has for this team and this program,” Young said despite having her star pitcher’s Duke career come to a close with a loss. “And gave us a chance to fight all the way through.”
With top hitters Jameson Kavel and Kristina Foreman going a combined 1-for-11 across both games, the pitchers were desperately needed to quell the trouble. The five-run seventh inning of Saturday’s game was the opposite of what Young ordered up. What was once another tight game at 3-2 became a parade at the plate for Duke’s foes.
Blue Devil opponents exceeded UCLA’s eight-run mark only two times this season, one of which was against world series-bound Florida back in February.
The two-headed monster of UCLA had exactly the antidote for the poison Duke used to neutralize so many of its opponents this year. In turn, the Oklahoma City-bound Bruins were able to slay the hungry Blue Devils, still eager to make history yet again.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.