In the first top-10 ACC matchup of the 2023 season, Duke and Florida State did not disappoint, going back and forth until the end.
The eighth-ranked Blue Devils dropped their lone ranked home series of the year to No. 7 Florida State, getting outscored 12-6 over the course of the weekend. Duke lost Friday 4-1, won Saturday 2-1 and dropped the rubber match 7-3, struggling offensively throughout and committing five errors between the two losses. The team’s few consistent bright spots included freshman pitcher Cassidy Curd, who threw 9.1 innings of 1.50 ERA ball with nine strikeouts, and third baseman Ana Gold, who hit .375/.444/.375 across the three games.
Heavy rain Sunday caused two delays, before first pitch and during the top of the second inning, totaling two hours and 53 minutes. The moisture didn’t help Blue Devil starter Sophie Garner-MacKinnon, who recorded just one out while hitting two batters, giving up a hard-hit double, and committing a fielding error that loaded the bases. Junior Jala Wright relieved her and walked in a run to put Florida State up 3-0 before getting out of the inning.
Wright allowed another run in the second, before the rain got so bad she could barely handle the ball, then allowed two more runs in the third before Curd locked things down. The offense came alive in the home fourth inning, its first five batters reaching base safely. But three straight potential tying runs made outs to end the inning. The Blue Devils (26-7, 8-4 in the ACC) went down 1-2-3 in the fifth, and with Florida State’s drop-dead time being 5:30 p.m., Duke didn’t get to bat again.
On Saturday, Curd took the circle against the most formidable opponent of her short career and almost completely shut it down. The freshman struck out five and allowed just one hit, a blooper, over the first five innings. Only the weather could hurt Curd, when in the sixth inning Florida State left fielder Kaley Mudge flied a ball to left-center; with the wind blowing strongly out to left, Mudge’s ball lifted all the way to the bottom of the scoreboard for her second home run of the season.
Not that Duke was in any position to complain about the weather. In the fourth inning, second baseman Aminah Vega stepped up to the plate, hitless in her first four at-bats of the series. She swung at the first pitch she saw, going with it to the opposite field, where the wind helped it clear the wall. That gave the Blue Devils a 2-0 lead.
“I didn’t know if it was gonna be foul or fair, but I did feel it right off the bat that it was gonna be out of the park,” said Vega.
Curd allowed a couple of scorchers to the Seminoles (26-7, 5-1) to start the seventh inning, and the latter of which would have at least been a game-tying double off the wall if not for a leaping catch from D’Auna Jennings. Lillie Walker immediately came on in relief and undramatically retired the final two Florida State batters to record her first career save.
“[We] know what we're capable of,” head coach Marissa Young said after the Saturday win, “and [I] told the team that I didn't think they competed very well [on Friday]. [On Saturday], the goal was to just show up big and play clean on defense, which we were able to do.”
“Playing clean on defense” has been a struggle for the Blue Devils all season; “Team Six” is running the worst fielding percentage in the program’s short history, sitting at .950. (For reference, an excellent mark would be Team Five’s .974, and an unconscionably bad one would be the .930 that Team Four had when Shelby Walters was pitching.)
Eight players have committed multiple errors, including: Gold, who was one of the ACC’s best defensive third basemen in her 2022 freshman season; Jada Baker and Vega, the team’s everyday middle infielders; Gisele Tapia and Francesca Frelick, both starters at relatively new positions; and Wright, the team leader in innings pitched by a wide margin.
Where past Duke teams were inducing fewer and weaker grounders, Team Six’s rotation pitching to more contact means its infielders are averaging over three more chances per game than their Team Five counterparts.
Team Six is actually allowing a significantly lower BABIP than Team Five, suggesting these Blue Devils are turning more balls in play into outs; the issue is that they are turning more routine plays into errors. In Friday’s loss, half of Florida State’s runs were unearned, with two errors charged to Baker for failing to convert routine grounders to short and one error charged to Wright for fumbling a 15-foot toss to first. Duke allowed just a .166 BABIP, the lone earned runs coming when catcher Michaela Edenfield launched one of the longest home runs in recent Duke Softball Stadium history.
“We've got four kids at new positions this year. They're young, they're trying to hurry and play fast, just not seeing the ball in,” said Young. “I think the more experience they get, the more reps they get, they're going to figure out how to play the pace of a college game, but with composure.”
Duke doesn’t have long to figure it out: It travels to Blacksburg, Va., next weekend to take on No. 15 Virginia Tech, its final ranked matchup of the regular season.
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