Where Georgia Tech let opportunities slip by, Duke delivered.
In a rematch of last year’s ACC tournament quarterfinal, the 10th-seeded Yellow Jackets couldn’t capitalize offensively despite shaky performances from No. 2-seed Duke's pitchers early. The Blue Devil lineup did just the opposite, taking the 7-1 victory behind a four-RBI night from the red-hot Aminah Vega and transfer Kristiana Watson’s pinch-hit homer.
From the first frame, Duke hitting was on it. Deja Davis got things started by doubling off the left-center wall. The Yellow Jackets decided to intentionally walk team home-run leader Ana Gold, but were made to regret it when Vega knocked the first pitch she saw over the fence.
“I think just being more comfortable, relaxing, just believing in myself,” said Vega of what has led to her power-hitting success recently. “Being a freshman, just coming in and thinking that my job is bigger than what it is, so now I'm just really embracing my role, playing as hard as I can and really having all the confidence in the world to go out there and do the thing that I've been doing my whole life.”
Her OPS of 1.153 on the season trails just the 1.161 mark from Gold on the team.
Vega wasn’t the only one who made the Yellow Jackets pay Thursday. In the fifth inning, Vega reached second with her third hit of the night, a towering stand-up double. After a Kamryn Jackson ground out, Kelly Torres rocked a ball to right field that looked playable for right fielder Sara Beth Allen, but she couldn’t corral it. Torres tore around the bases for her first triple of the year, and Vega scored.
Up to the plate stepped pinch hitter Kristiana Watson, a transfer from Arizona State who has seen limited playing time. After a whiff, she teed off on a pitch at the knees, sending her first home run as a Blue Devil over the center-field fence and putting the game firmly in Duke’s pocket.
For Blue Devil pitching, however, the journey wasn’t so smooth. Junior pitcher Jala Wright took the circle for the start. In last year’s quarterfinal against the Yellow Jackets, the Charlotte native earned a win in what was her postseason debut. She has been successful overall this year, but Thursday, she once again faced issues finding the strike zone that have challenged her.
In the second frame, Wright logged nine straight balls, missing below the zone. She seemed to find her groove again after that, putting away the next three Yellow Jacket batters on swinging strikeouts, but it didn’t last. The righty issued her fifth walk by the fourth inning before being subbed out for Sophie Garner-MacKinnon, and the freshman didn’t fare much better. She escaped the fourth after Torres nabbed a pop-up behind home and center fielder D’Auna Jennings collected a fly at the warning track, but was also subbed out after allowing a hard-hit double and two walks.
“I think what we saw today is a product of being off for the last 10 days of no games, and some first-game jitters in the tournament,” said head coach Marissa Young of the pitching hiccups.
Freshman Cassidy Curd and junior Lillie Walker came on in relief, with Curd allowing a pair of hits and long fly, but no damage, before Walker finished off the contest with a 1-2-3 seventh. Curd has been the Blue Devils’ most effective pitcher all year, and has been in the starting rotation opposite Wright all year. It will be key for the Blue Devils (44-9, 19-5 in the ACC) in the postseason for Curd to continue her stellar 1.65 ERA clip despite the southpaw’s total innings eclipsing 100 on the year with this relief appearance.
“I was really glad we were able to get all of our pitchers in today to get them out there, get them feeling what the tournament feels like,” said Young. “I'm confident they'll be back better tomorrow.”
The Blue Devils cashed in when they had the chance, but they also manufactured opportunities through solid defense and some gritty at-bats. Vega turned a double play to close out the third inning and nabbed a fly over her shoulder to seal the game, and Torres was reliable at the backstop despite the three pitching changes. Duke’s gloves didn’t issue an error, three of which Notre Dame allowed in its first-round loss to Georgia Tech (26-27, 7-17).
In the third frame, Georgia Tech pitcher Blake Neleman threw 13 pitches to Gold, who threatened a long ball with each pulled foul. She eventually struck out before Vega worked an eight-pitch at-bat of her own prior to singling. Neleman then hit Claire Davidson and wheeled a bouncing pitch for a passed ball before getting subbed out.
Duke will hope that all the jitters have been shaken as it faces No. 3-seed Clemson, who it did not face during the regular season, Friday at 1:30 p.m.
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