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Duke baseball's ACC tournament dreams fall short in extra-innings thriller against N.C. State

Sophomore Fran Oschell III pitches during Duke's ACC tournament defeat to N.C. State.
Sophomore Fran Oschell III pitches during Duke's ACC tournament defeat to N.C. State.

Sometimes the best stories don’t have a fairytale ending. 

Coming into the ACC tournament, Duke had two priorities: beat N.C. State and beat Miami, allowing for the Blue Devils to reach the semifinals. No. 5-seed Duke failed to complete the former, falling to the ninth-seeded Wolfpack 8-7 Tuesday night in an 11-inning thriller. 

The tumultuous game, which lasted roughly four hours not counting a delay to the start time, saw 13 pitchers throw in total and a combined tally of 22 hits in an opening-round game for the ages. Just when it seemed the Blue Devils were going to do the unthinkable and come back from the jaws of defeat, their hopes were crushed as N.C. State designated hitter Cannon Peebles’ RBI single was the final blow for Duke’s title dreams in Durham.

“A tremendous baseball game, great atmosphere, two really good teams. N.C. State came out and kind of punched us in the mouth early, [I was] really impressed by their offense,” head coach Chris Pollard said. “And we got on our heels a little bit through those first three innings, we gave them some free bases with walks and some errors in that. That led to those innings getting away from us a little bit.”

The nightcap at Durham Bulls Athletic Park reached a fever pitch in the bottom of the ninth, as Duke’s bubbling momentum over the latter half of the game finally allowed the Blue Devils to answer their early six-run deficit. After a one-out single by Alex Stone, MJ Metz produced the highlight of the game for Pollard’s team, crushing a home run into the right field bleachers to tie the game at seven apiece, Duke’s first runs of the game that came without two outs. An error that allowed Tyler Albright to reach followed by a Cole Hebble single gave the Duke faithful some hope that the Blue Devils would walk it off in regulation, but the Wolfpack pitching staff answered the bell, forcing a Damon Lux flyout to secure extra baseball. 

The middle innings of the game were undoubtedly dominated by the Blue Devils, with Duke blanking N.C. State for seven straight innings while putting up six runs of its own. A large part of this success was the play of the middle relievers Pollard turned to, as Jason White, Charlie Beilenson and Fran Oschell III were dominant, putting up 7.2 scoreless innings combined. 

“Tremendous job by Jason white and Charlie Beilinson and Fran Oschell [III] to settle the game down for us and to allow our offense to get going to get back in it,” Pollard said.

Freshman Aidan Weaver took the mound to begin the game for the Blue Devils. Unfortunately for Pollard, this strategy did not age well, as the right-hander was chased out of the game after the first three batters tagged him for a walk, a home run and a single, giving the Wolfpack an early 2-0 lead. Adam Boucher came in relief of Weaver, working his way out of a jam by inducing a double-play to stop the bleeding.

Duke answered back in the bottom half of the first frame, as a throwing error on a Jay Beshears grounder followed by an Alex Stone double that just got past the outstretched glove of the right fielder cut the N.C. State lead down to one. 

The Wolfpack artillery continued its onslaught in the second inning, adding two more runs. Another lead off a walk led to an RBI for the away team, as Kalae Harrison doubled to chase Boucher out of the game. Pollard elected to trot out Owen Proskch as the next arm in the game, and he proceeded to give up a single before getting out of the inning, leaving N.C. State with a 4-1 lead after its first two plate appearances.

The third inning was largely the same story as the previous two, as the Wolfpack offense continued to just impose their will on the Blue Devil pitching staff, tacking on three more runs with a flurry of walks and timely hitting. White was the next pitcher to come out of the bullpen for Duke, and he allowed one run on a fielder's choice before escaping the inning.

Despite their struggles on the mound, the Blue Devils refused to go away, tacking on two runs in the bottom of the fourth. After a Beshears single to lead off the inning, Stone was walked, setting up Albright with an opportunity to hit with two runners in scoring position. The freshman came through big, ripping a single to left field to make it a 7-3 ball game. However, a replay review stifled the Duke rally, as a hit-by-pitch call was overturned in favor of N.C. State, cutting the inning short. 

The sixth inning also saw the Blue Devils put some pressure on the Wolfpack, as three hits strung together, capped off by an Albright RBI single cut the deficit down to three with as many innings left to play. 

Duke’s comeback bid seemed to come to a head in the bottom of the seventh inning, as the meat of the order threatened the N.C. State pitching staff, only to come up just short of tying the game up. An Alex Mooney single was coupled with an error on Beshears’ grounder, bringing up red-hot Stone. With two outs, the catcher came through, knocking in a run with a blooper to left center to make it 7-5. However, just when it seemed like Duke was due to break the game open, Metz was robbed of a big hit as he destroyed that ball that the right fielder barely got to in order to stop the rally. 

The eighth inning had the makings of another fruitful one, as Giovanni DiGiacomo led off with a line drive that came straight back to the mound, bouncing off the pitcher’s foot for a single. However, the bad luck struck the Blue Devil offense again, as Albright lined a ball directly into the shift, taking away a single. Devin Obee was brought in as a pinch hitter for Luke Storm, and almost delivered the tying blow, missing a home run by just a few feet left of the foul pole. After Mooney’s intentional walk, it was all up to Andrew Fischer to deliver. Much to the dismay of the Blue Devil fans, Fischer was rung up on a strike call in a 3-2 count with the bases loaded, taking the air out of the Duke dugout. 

Duke will take the field again Friday for its second game of pool play, a rematch with No. 4-seed Miami at 3 p.m. This will be its last game of the week in Durham, as the loss to the Wolfpack eliminates the possibility of the semifinals for the Blue Devils.

“I thought we did a really good job of getting back to our competitive identity for the second half of the game today,” Pollard said “Carry that into Friday, and let that really get us where we want to be going into the NCAA tournament a week from Friday.”

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