Last season, when the Blue Devils played North Carolina, they split the first two games of the series before falling in the rubber match. As the saying goes, history repeats itself. Just over a year later, this time in a road series at Chapel Hill, Duke showed resilience in its Friday victory but ultimately dropped the final game and the series Saturday.
Behind two home runs and a 10-strikeout day for its pitching staff, No. 19 North Carolina defeated Duke 5-3. The Blue Devils — who have hit .288 as a team this season — mustered just six hits, but the Tar Heels’ lineup was able to cash in at the right times to push themselves over the top. While this weekend included Duke’s third top-25 win, a thriller Friday night in which sophomore Alex Mooney hit a go-ahead three-run home run in the top of the eighth, it has yet to win a series against a ranked opponent.
“Very even, back-and-forth series the whole way,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “They've got a great club and I thought we matched them toe to toe … We just couldn't get enough going offensively over the back half of the game.”
The Tar Heels’ lineup, five of whom came into Saturday hitting above .300, wasted no time in attacking starting pitcher Alex Gow. Preseason first-team All-American Vance Honeycutt led off the bottom of the first with a screamer to left field that he turned into a double after freshman Tyler Albright did not show enough urgency tracking it down. Three batters later, junior catcher Tomas Frick drove the ball to the bottom of the wall in center field for his nation-leading 13th double that brought Honeycutt home for the game’s first run.
However, the Blue Devils’ brought some early extra-base hits of their own. After two quiet innings, Albright led off the bottom of the third with a double hammered down the left field line. Mooney and freshman Andrew Fischer then hit back-to-back doubles to right to tilt the scales back in favor of the Blue Devils at 2-1. Albright and Fischer have become regulars in the lineup as the season has gone on, with the latter getting more comfortable hitting behind Mooney in the No. 2 spot.
“We're getting better as a club. [If] you look at us compared to where we are a month ago, this is a [much] better club,” Pollard said of the team’s improvement over the season. “That's the key, is just [trying] to get 1% better every day.”
Gow settled in, even recording three outs on three pitches in the third inning, before Johnny Castagnozzi got a hold of one and took it 421 feet to left center in the bottom of the fourth. The Kenyon transfer’s day ended in the fifth after junior Mac Horvath also drove a ball to deep left center, this time with two runners on, to put North Carolina ahead 5-2.
The only dent Duke could make in the lead came in the top of the sixth inning on some small ball. Junior Jay Beshears led off with a double down the left field line, and a sacrifice fly from junior Alex Stone moved him to third. Then, junior Luke Storm put the ball in play through a slow dribbler back to the pitcher, which served effectively as a bunt and gave Beshears plenty of time to score.
From there, the Tar Heels brought in left-hander Will Sandy, whose changeup and unorthodox delivery kept the Blue Devils’ hitters out of their rhythm. Sandy collected five strikeouts in the final three innings while only allowing one hit, earning the save and stifling any and all Duke comeback attempts.
The Blue Devils struck out 10 times Saturday, seven of which were looking. Pollard had words with the home plate umpire in the first inning after an inside pitch was called for strike three on Mooney, but hitters continued to take the same pitch over the course of the game and received the same call.
For a team that has grown used to coming back into games late — Friday’s win, Sunday's win against Clemson and an extra-inning loss to St. Joseph's in February are just a few examples — the Blue Devils could not harness that same energy at the end of Saturday’s game. A large reason for this was their struggle to put the ball in play, which gave the defense and opposing pitcher an abundance of confidence.
Starting Friday, Duke will play its first series on campus at Jack Coombs Field against Pittsburgh. However, the team first has a midweek matchup Tuesday against Liberty, which got the best of the Blue Devils 8-6 Feb. 22.
“We've got a long stretch where we're back at home and [can] get fresh, and I think that combined with the way we're playing [will mean] things will take care of themselves,” Pollard said.
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Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity first-year and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.