Bases loaded, no outs. That was the situation facing Duke freshman Cassidy Curd as she made just the third appearance of her collegiate career. For the second time in three days, she was inheriting two runners in relief of Jala Wright against a top-20 opponent.
“It was hard,” Curd said. “My heart was racing, my heart was pounding. I was really nervous.”
On Thursday morning, she allowed a tie game against No. 17 Washington to become a two-run deficit. But Saturday night, Curd was ready. She struck out the first two batters she faced, whiffing Cardinal batters on high fastballs and leaving them flailing at curves down and away, before inducing a pop-up to strand three runners.
Curd came back in the seventh and worked a strikeout and two lazy fly-outs around a single to earn her first career save.
“Just to know that [head coach Marissa] Young trusts me enough to put me in a situation like that is so reassuring,” said Curd. “Knowing that she believes in me and hearing my team in the dugout and all my sisters that I’m with every single day—hearing them behind me and knowing that they believed in me, and I was there for them—that’s really all I needed. I really just wanted to show up for them.”
The 15th-ranked Blue Devils took down No. 20 Stanford 4-2 Saturday night, capping off their opening weekend at the Mark Campbell Invitational with their first ranked win. Duke (3-2) lost to the Huskies by just one run in its season-opener Thursday before dropping the nightcap 4-0 to powerhouse No. 1 Oklahoma. The Blue Devils got their first win of the season Friday afternoon in a five-inning, 11-2 run-rule win against San Jose State, before needing eight innings to beat Liberty 8-5 after they squandered an early 4-0 lead.
Curd earned two wins across those three games, totaling five innings with a 0.00 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and six strikeouts. In those three matchups, utility player Deja Davis hit .600/.636/.900 with seven runs, third baseman Ana Gold slashed .375/.500/.625 plus a stolen base and center fielder D’Auna Jennings went 5-for-9 at the plate with a double.
“After those first two games, it really lit a fire under us,” said Curd. “We know how good we are. … We’re like, ‘Hey, we’re here with Oklahoma. We’re here with Washington. And we know we can compete and we know we can do it.’ We had a team meeting after those first two games … We kind of felt like we were overdoing it a little bit, kind of trying to do too much. So we were like ‘let’s just go back to the basics. Let’s have fun. Let’s do our thing.’
“Yesterday, we came out great; two wins, we really played loose, had fun, kind of brought it back to that typical ‘travel ball fun’ where you’re out here, you’re tired, but when you’re here with your girls, we have so many people to lean on, and everybody’s so good at lifting you up.”
Duke staff ace Jala Wright started in the circle against the Cardinal, coming off a relief appearance against Liberty in which she earned the win behind five innings of one-run ball with nine strikeouts. But her time against Stanford didn’t start as smoothly: The first two Cardinal batters reached against her and moved into scoring position on a groundout before a wild pitch allowed one to cross home plate.
Wright looked to have worked her way out of the jam with only one run when she induced a routine ground ball to short with two outs. But the throw to first from Davis pulled Gisele Tapia wide of the bag, and another runner came home to put Stanford up 2-0. The next Cardinal batter put the ball in play as well, and again it found Davis as a soft liner deflected off of her body into left field for another error, putting runners at second and third.
Wright induced a groundout to strand both runners, but for a Duke team needing to replace an All-American (Jameson Kavel) at the most important defensive position, it was certainly notable. Davis’ play on Thursday was sound, but her back-to-back Saturday errors underscored a crucial fact for the Blue Devils: They have a lot of heralded youngsters to replace the excellent talent they have lost, but there are a couple of key positions where they cannot afford to miss. One of those is shortstop.
The Blue Devils’ first option at the six in this tournament was Jada Baker, last year’s No. 3 recruit. The slick fielder, who started against the Huskies and Spartans and went 2-for-5 at the plate with a stolen base, was the designated player against the Flames. Duke’s next option was Davis, who started there against the Sooners and the Cardinal. Those were her first starts at shortstop since she was pulled in the middle of a game two years ago after posting an .843 fielding percentage and committing two errors in a three-inning span.
“[Davis] was feeling good,” said Young, “and we felt like she'd give us the best option there with her bat and being able to keep her in the lineup defensively, while allowing somebody else to be the DP.”
If Young can’t trust Baker to hit in big games, and if freshman Aminah Vega is better suited for the keystone than for short, Duke’s defense may be in for a long season.
On the other hand, the veteran Blue Devils looked as good as ever. Davis’ OPS sits over 1.100, Gold’s is .862 and catcher Kelly Torres is at .812. Two-way player Claire Davidson’s on-base percentage is currently .417, while right fielder Sarah Goddard already has a pair of hard-hit doubles. If Tapia and left fielder Kamryn Jackson can hit similarly to how they have performed throughout their collegiate careers, Duke will have a much longer runway to find out what its best starting nine looks like.
The early contributions from some of the top freshmen suggest that starting nine could exceed many expectations. Jennings, the No. 16 freshman in this year’s recruiting class, has been excellent both hitting and fielding. Vega, the No. 2 freshman in the class, has lived up to her defensive billing and has a pair of stolen bases already. Curd, the No. 25 freshman, was the star of the Stanford win with a fastball-curveball pairing that holds big potential.
The Blue Devils travel to Clearwater, Fla., Thursday for another five-game tournament. In the ESPN Clearwater Invitational, they will face No. 8 Alabama, South Florida, No. 7 Arkansas, No. 16 UCF and No. 21 Michigan.
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