With its latest act, Duke did everything it could to raise the anxiety levels but finished off each of its outings with an emphatic mic drop.
The Blue Devils concluded their three-game sweep of No. 13 Louisville with an assertive come-from-behind 4-3 win Sunday afternoon at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. With back-to-back walk-offs in the Friday and Saturday night games in the rearview, a sluggish start gave way to an energized Sunday close as Duke continues its surge to the top of the ACC. The back-to-back ranked series wins are the Blue Devils’ first since 2016.
“They've formed such a strong bond that they just have a tremendous will to win,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “And it's been a fun thing to watch.”
Friday brought a superhuman team-wide effort: A shaky start for Jason White led to the Blue Devils staring down a 7-0 deficit, from which they recovered to make it 7-6 in the fifth courtesy of Damon Lux, Cole Hebble and Alex Stone’s trio of two-run homers. Duke (27-12, 12-8 in the ACC) came face-to-face with a 9-6 deficit heading into the ninth after so-called insurance runs padded the Cardinals’ lead in the seventh and eighth.
Unfazed after rallying earlier in the evening, an error and a pair of walks set up leadoff batter Alex Mooney with the bases loaded. Tate Kuehner’s first-pitch middle-middle fastball in a flash soared into the batter’s eye. Mooney trotted around the bases with his arms out to the side like a showman presenting his next trick and the Blue Devils said goodnight with a cinematic 10-9 victory.
Chapter two of the weekend matchup brought more theatrics Saturday, as a weather delay gave way to a nearly 30-minute power outage in the middle innings. The 5-2 Duke lead waned upon the revival of the stadium lights, with star freshman closer James Tallon surrendering a two-run home run to Ryan McCoy to send a tie game to the last half-inning.
Louisville pitcher Greg Farone put runners on first and second before getting his second out — including the fifth walk issued to Mooney on the day, just 24 hours after his iconic down-by-three walk-off grand slam. Stone slapped a single through the right side to score Hebble from second to cap off the second walk-off in as many days.
The series finale pitted Duke’s Ryan Higgins against Louisville ace Carson Liggett on a picturesque afternoon in downtown Durham. Liggett, winner of seven straight decisions and owner of a minuscule 1.66 ERA entering Sunday, looked composed as ever, even after MJ Metz belted a long ball to the terrace in left-center field to start the scoring.
Metz’s homer, his eighth of the season, was Duke’s 70th as a team, tying last season’s mark for second-most home runs in a single season in the Pollard era.
Higgins, on the other hand, stepped onto the mound Sunday afternoon with a perfect 0.00 ERA and 2.3 hits per nine innings over his last five appearances, although not once had he seen the entirety of a second time through the order. This time around, the New Canaan, Conn., native faced 18 batters and threw a career-high 68 pitches Sunday before handing off pitching duties to freshman southpaw Owen Proksch with two runs across.
“It can be tough kind of coming off that emotional high, but I think our guys did really well,” Stone said. “You had an awesome start by Ryan Higgins today. So that kind of paved the way for us.”
Five Blue Devil pitchers combined to finish off the fifth and work through the end of the eighth. The Cardinals (26-13, 8-10) once again plated the elusive insurance run to extend a 2-1 lead when pinch runner Tyeler Hawkins stole second and advanced to third on the second Stone throwing error of the afternoon before scoring on a wild pitch, all while Logan Beard waved his teammate around from the comfort of the batter’s box.
“I know my team's gonna have my back and I'm trying to pick them up,” Stone said.
Despite being down 3-1, it seemed as if everyone in the crowd Sunday knew, from experience, that something was brewing.
Duke quickly put the pressure on in the bottom of the eighth with back-to-back walks and a run-scoring single from Mooney, who finished the weekend 5-for-10 with six RBI and five walks. From the bullpen came Farone to face Jay Beshears with two-on, none-out: his first pitch plunked Beshears and loaded the bases for Stone. Though approaching the plate without a hit and two throwing errors to his name, his first-pitch single off the same pitcher he walked off Saturday night set Duke up for a sweep and had the exultant home side nearly bursting over the dugout wall.
“That's about the best 1-for-4 you could ever imagine — hit two absolute rockets right at the left fielder today, he's in a good place and really swinging it well,” Pollard said of Stone, who extended his hit streak to 13 games with his game-winning knock.
The Andover, N.J., native is batting .327 with 17 RBI since kicking off his run April 1.
“So many guys have stepped up to be willing to provide that energy,” Pollard said. “So many guys have been gracious about their roles. And when you have guys [for whom] it's about the greater good and it's about team success over their personal success, you can do some special things, and that's what this group is doing right now.”
With his ninth save of the season, Tallon closed the book by overpowering star catcher Jack Payton and freshman third baseman Brandon Anderson to put the punctuation mark at the close of the wild yet determined weekend for the Blue Devils.
“These guys’ pitching staff is awesome. We're just kind of at a loss for words right now. But we're tough,” Stone added.
The Blue Devils hardly get the chance to catch their collective breaths before Tuesday and Wednesday matchups against No. 10 Campbell and High Point, respectively.
But the Blue Devils take with them into the final three weeks of the regular season a five-game win streak and the best conference record in the Coastal Division.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.