The beginning of the season can be a rollercoaster. Especially in a sport like baseball — where so much depends on pitching and timely hitting — blowouts, slow starts and messy finishes are often a part of getting things going. In its opening series against St. Joseph’s, Duke had a season’s worth of highs and lows, scoring 16 runs in its opener before taking six innings to get a hit and ultimately losing a heartbreaker in extra innings Sunday.
The Blue Devils won the weekend series 2-1, scorching the Hawks 16-0 in the first game before splitting a pair of one-run games. Late-inning heroics helped Duke take game two 2-1, but a ninth-inning, game-tying double by sophomore Devin Obee was not enough to complete the sweep, as St. Joseph’s took game three 5-4 in the 10th inning.
“With a lot of new faces, and we're throwing a lot of young guys too, to have the feeling of going out winning the first one [and] getting that first win under your belt, and then having to go out and play a real grinder game to win the series. I think all of it helps us grow as a club,” head coach Chris Pollard said.
After taking the first two games, the Blue Devils found themselves trailing for the first time all weekend when St. Joseph’s took a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning Sunday. After failing to get a hit off Hawks starter David Owsik through five innings, momentum swung in Duke’s favor when sophomore Alex Mooney hammered a drive off the left-field wall for a double in the bottom of the sixth inning. Moments later, a balk put the Blue Devils (2-1) on the board, and junior Luke Storm followed that up with a 398-foot no-doubter to right center field, bringing the score to 4-3.
The score remained unchanged until the bottom of the ninth, when the Blue Devils found themselves down to their last strike. Obee came through with a pinch-hit double on an 0-2 count; the hit, a weak pop-fly to right center, hung in the air just long enough for it to fall out of reach of a diving Luca Trigiani and give MJ Metz time to score all the way from first base.
The Hawks (1-2) answered in the top of the 10th with an infield single from Carter Jagiela and a soft liner by Conlan Wall to right field to put runners on the corners with one out. Ryan Cesarini grounded the ball up the middle to Mooney, who looked to be in perfect position for the inning-ending double play. However, a hard slide from Wall into second was just enough to delay the throw, and Jagiela scored what proved to be the game-winning run.
“Really tough luck for [pitcher] Charlie Beilenson there in the 10th,” Pollard said. “I mean, the ball tips off his glove, that's a soft-contact swing, the flare single and then the bang-bang play on the double-play ball. They rule that it wasn’t interference, [the play at] second base could have gone either way, in my opinion. But I like our fight. I liked the way we battled back."
The Blue Devils also came alive late in the game Saturday. After scoring in the first inning and giving up a run in the seventh, the game was tied 1-1 heading into the eighth. A leadoff single by junior Jay Beshears, who hit .417 on the weekend, a botched pickoff attempt and a wild pitch put the Blue Devils 90 feet away from reclaiming the lead. Damon Lux came through with a sacrifice fly that traveled to the warning track in center field, putting Duke three outs away from its first series win of the year. Freshman James Tallon came in for the save, and the Arlington, Va., native struck out the side in his first appearance as a Blue Devil.
Duke had several freshman arms make their debuts this weekend, including Owen Proksch, Gabriel Nard, Andrew Healey and Aidan Weaver alongside Tallon. The five freshmen combined for 9.1 innings pitched with 12 strikeouts and only one run allowed.
On the offensive side, the Blue Devils opened red-hot but fizzled out as the weekend continued. In its 16-run victory Friday, the Duke lineup tallied 14 hits and five walks, with Metz and junior Alex Stone both going deep. However, the Blue Devils totaled just 11 hits in the next two games and left 14 runners on base. This dichotomy can partially be explained by the strength of St. Joseph’s pitching in the second two games, as well as early season adjustments Pollard said still need to be made.
“I was proud of [the series],” Pollard said. “We had so many new guys take the mound for us, and [I was] really proud of the way we pitched and competed over most of the weekend. I thought our defense was good. And I think we've got some things that we clearly need to focus on in terms of our approach offensively, but we'll get there.”
“[St. Joseph’s is] a veteran, mature team,” Pollard added. “After Friday night, we expected them to come out and play us really tough and they did. Credit to them.”
Looking ahead, Duke has some time to settle in before entering conference play, with a Wednesday game against Liberty and a weekend series against Baylor before beginning its ACC schedule March 10 against preseason No. 6 Wake Forest.
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